Consider Phlebas

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Consider Phlebas is a space opera novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, first published in 1987.


Plot introduction

The novel revolves around the Idiran-Culture War, and Banks plays on that theme by presenting various microcosms of that conflict. Perhaps surprisingly, especially since this is the first (published) Culture novel, its protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is actually an enemy of the Culture.

Plot summary

Consider Phlebas is Banks's first published science fiction novel set in the Culture, and takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. Look to Windward (2000), whose title comes from the previous line of the same poem, can be considered a loose follow-up.

The Culture and the Idiran Empire are at war in a galaxy-spanning conflict. Horza, a mercenary capable of altering his appearance at will (a Changer), is assigned the task of retrieving a dispossessed Culture Mind by his Idiran handlers. The Mind, while fleeing attacking Idirans who consider its existence an abomination, has taken refuge on Schar's World, a Planet of the Dead. Planets of the Dead are nominally forbidden to both the Culture and the Idirans, being under the control of god-like incorporeal beings called "Dra'Azon". Horza, however, was one of a group of Changers allowed to be on the planet as stewards and witnesses to its devastation. He may be the only person in the Galaxy, and certainly the only one known to the Idirans, who would be allowed to return. On the way to Schar's World he encounters, and joins, a band of mercenaries and pirates, led by Kraiklyn, on their ship, the Clear Air Turbulence. All the while he is doggedly pursued by a Culture Special Circumstances agent, Perosteck Balveda. The Culture also realizes that Horza is the key to getting to Schar's World and retrieving the Mind. Their plan is to place an agent with him and hope that the agent can get to the Mind first and somehow leave with it.

The plot takes many digressions on the way to the denouement. As the book opens, Horza is about to die an extremely unpleasant death after killing and impersonating a member of the gerontocracy on a world not yet part of the Culture. Here he meets Balveda for the first time. He is rescued by the Idirans and given his mission to find the Culture Mind on board an Idiran ship, which is quickly destroyed by a Culture ship. Drifting in an escape suit, he is picked up by the Clear Air Turbulence, where he has to fight and kill one of the crew (while still in the form of a very old man) in order to prevent them dumping him back into space.

Resolving to take over the ship by replacing the Captain, Kraiklyn, he participates in some disastrous pirate raids which reduce the crew to a fraction of its original size. The last raid takes place on the Orbital Vavatch, which is soon to be destroyed to prevent the Idirans taking it over. He crashlands in a shuttle craft and is made the prisoner of a bizarre cult consisting of an obese homicidal cannibal leader and his followers, who subsist on food that has been cooked to remove almost all nutritive value. Killing the leader with his poisoned fingernails, Horza eventually makes his way to the main city on Vavatch to find Kraiklyn. Here he witnesses a game of "Damage", which Kraiklyn has come to play in the hopes of winning enough to make up the losses from his foolhardy expeditions with the crew. Damage is a card game enhanced with psychological and emotional pressure by direct mind-to-mind contact, where the "tokens" of play are actual living beings who are killed when a player loses a round. The game is illegal and only played in places where the normal order is breaking down, as in the case of Vavatch, which is being evacuated.

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