Friday, March 9, 2012

Bigging Themselves Up: The Culture and Consider Phlebas

Memory can be a strange thing. 

As a kid in school, Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels by the Scottish Iain M. Banks, seemed quite a daunting read to me. I found it in the library at school amongst several of Banks’ other books; perhaps the blessed doing of the same unknown but thoughtful soul who stocked our book-depository with the many Sandman novels. I like to think that some well-meaning menial member of staff had sneakily inserted these books among the ranks of the Jaquiline Wilsons in an effort to prove that teenagers are capable of enjoying the more complex entertainments if given the opportunity.
Anyway, I didn’t finish the book then, though I was attracted to its blue-and black cover (I still think it’s a great illustration, even if I’ve only just figured out that it represents the main ship from the novel, the Clear Air Turbulence, approaching an Orbital, one of the enormous ring-shaped structures that the Culture use in lieu of planets, and not a planet that’s having it’s atmosphere sucked away from it like something out of Spaceballs).

Consider Phlebas is the novel that introduced the Culture to the world, and though they don’t seem to be well-remembered now, these books seemed to have been a pretty big deal back in the late 90s. Essentially, the Culture are a human-ish group of races that are so advanced that they essentially seem to no longer have any problems. They can produce all the physical goods they need, including artificial planet-like habitats such as Orbitals, so there is literally nothing left to go to war over. Money is a useless concept. They live in a liberalist paradise where everybody can have whatever they want without needing to put anybody out. They live for as long as they decide to and their bodies are altered to pump their minds full of mood-altering drugs, which they can control just by thinking about it. They can change their sex and their appearance without much hassle, and generally live for the hedonistic pleasures. To their enemies, they are decadent and lazy, without honour or pride, made soft by hundreds of years of leaving the hard decisions to their sentient machines, the Minds.

I have no idea if Banks meant it, but the name ‘the Culture’ always struck me as a wonderful double entendre. On the one hand, it has all the connotations of the word ‘cultured’, meaning that they consider themselves refined and advanced in a way that reflects the view of real-life Western civilisation for several centuries. This view becomes more pronounced when the Culture comes into contact with other, ‘inferior’ races, in which the ‘white man’s burden’ sub-text becomes quite apparent. As has been noted elsewhere, the peaceful, conflict-free nature of the Culture means that most Culture novels tend to feature characters at the fringes of Culture civilisation, such as those who carry out contact missions with ‘barbaric’ races.

On the other hand, as a scientist, the word ‘culture’ makes me think of a bacterial culture in a petri dish, and its considerable negative connotations that reflect on Banks’ fictional civilisation: sterile, enclosed, artificial, small-minded, insular. This certainly reflects the Culture’s attitude towards their place in the universe: they believe that they’ve got it right, and that there is precious little they can learn from any other people. While they are generally portrayed as being benevolent (if ruthless when necessary), their name certainly brings a lot of negative connotations to the table.

Consider Phlebas chronicles a small part of an unimaginably immense war. After centuries of pacifism, the Culture is forced to re-learn how to fight (a task they at first approach with distain, but gradually master, as they do everything they attempt) in order to stave off domination in the galaxy by a civilisation of Klingon-proud-warrior-race-types called the Idirans, who fight in the name of their religion. Thrust into this conflict is Horza, a member of a race called changers, who can alter their appearance to imitate other individuals by virtue of their genetics (unlike Culture people, who can only do so by extensive surgery and drugs). Horza fights for the Idirans because he is disgusted by the Culture’s reliance on machines; he believes that they have no real respect for organic life.

If this all seems a bit heavy, it’s somewhat relieved by the actual plot, which is rather more like a slightly silly space opera, in the old-fashioned sense. Most of it is concerned with Horza joining a rag-tag crew of kooky mercenaries on a rusty old ship and free-booting around the galaxy on various missions, all the while trying to gain control of the ship so he can accomplish his mission. It’s fun and almost Star Wars-ish, except it’s all taking place in one of the most interesting and well-realised sci-fi universes you’ll come across. I would love to see it made into a movie or comic-book, as the Culture already has so much personality that it would be great to see visuals of their distinctive vehicles and habitats. I'm certain that with the right art director, the Orbitals and Megaships could become as iconic as TIE fighters and the Death Star.

Banks likes playing with scale. He uses it frequently to show the sheer technical accomplishments and decadence of the Culture: Horza shuttles the puttering rustbucket Clear Air Turbulence across hundreds of kilometres of artificial oceans above a Culture Orbital, carries out missions on city-sized pleasure cruise ships and manouvers through the enormous bulkheads of a Megaship (this last scene is the one that stuck in my memory from schooldays- I was surprised to find that I must actually have made it quite far into the book to get to it). In fact, the obsession with size almost becomes obscene, with each new Culture vehicle dwarfing the last. Banks almost runs out of words to describe how disgustingly massive everything in this universe is. Stuff is big. Really big.

One scene in particular, with Horza infiltrating an arena on a doomed Orbital where eccentric game-players from around the universe compete in a game of chance, is almost like something out of Douglas Adams played only slightly straight. 

Consider Phlebas (What? It’s from an Elliot poem? How would anybody from the Culture universe know... oh, never mind) is definitely worth a look; it really is time that the Culture universe took its place among the great fantastical worlds of fiction. And even if it never quite reaches the heights of the later book Player of Games (which never ever fails to cause me to go through another period of being obsessed with Risk, oh shame), it should still make you imagination soar. At least when it comes to imagining very, very big things.

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