Saturday, April 3, 2010

Culture reread I: Consider Phlebas

So, I have copies of all of Iain M. Banks Culture series on my shelf, but have yet to read any of these more than the original, in scattered form over the past three years. I've decided to remedy this and reread them all back to back, in order of publication. Partly to pick up connections between the works I might not otherwise notice, partly to immerse myself in the universe a bit, partly to compare quality. In this last element in particular I want to see if my general reaction to Banks as a writer in decline holds up. Have I just gotten burned out from the same general things done consistently? Is the latter work--in particular Matter--better than it struck me on the first pass? In contrast, was I too enthusiastic for the earlier series the first time, and all together it's really not as great as I thought it was? Plus, how does the Culture itself as a civilization emerge, what little details and ambiguities?

To begin with Consider Phlebas.

-The general consensus I've seen from Culture readers is that it's a weaker work, often listed as the least favorite of the series. I've long felt this was overly critical, that the novel did a unique story well, and that it can fully stand up as one of the better in the series. After rereading it, I'd say I was wrong. It's not a bad book by any means, and has enough overall creativity and energy to validate the whole Culture reread project, but it's clumsy in some definite ways. It stands pretty clearly as a first SF novel.
-There's the awkward prose, for one thing. Not at all the graceful writing Banks showed in his later works (and then lost again with Excession and Matter) some fairly clumsy descriptions. Plus weakly integration info-dumping for the background. Presumably I'm a lot more critical of it now that I know the technology, the politics and much of the background info on the universe, but there are still passages that stand out as particularly clumsy.
-An even more pressing weakness is Horza, this reading he doesn't come across as nearly enough of a well-rounded character to hang the story on. There are interesting elements and details that he articulates, but much of the time he's overly flat, and lacks the kind of appealing minor details that would make him intriguing, if still not sympathetic.

-A significant part of the fun with Horza is that he's a case of Wrong Genre Savy. In a lot of space opera universes, his paranoia over unchecked all consuming AI would be entirely correct, and he'd be the ruthless antihero with the right idea on where true danger lay. Here, he's entirely wrong-headed in everything he does. He reminds me a lot of the New Republic from Stross' Singularity Sky--another force that would fit well in old-school space opera, but are obsolete, unethical and ineffective in the framework of Banks' future. Still, as I suggested above the problem is that Horza is too stock in this, he's a stand-in for groups in-universe and meta that fear the Culture, but there's little personal indication of why he became convinced of that, or how his life plays out beyond this obsession (and some rather generic background on romance and exile). Compared to Gurgeh or Zalkawe he's just not that interesting to spend a lot of time with, and for a novel this episodic the weak characterization is a major problem. Additionally, it doesn't help that in this work the fact that the Culture isn't in the wrong comes about too directly. The wider series provides good demonstration of how Minds can be intellectually transcendent to humans without being a threat to them, and how the Culture's sort of altruistic imperialism can actually function effectively. In Consider Phlebas, we're given assurances that stastically it all balances out, that the Culture is actually beneficial. Minds remain quite remote, the baby Mind that sets off the plot remains literally and in plot terms motionless, and the look at its consciousness highlight it's own intellectual capacity and current limitation more than giving an effective counter-demonstration of the Culture's benignity.

-At the same time, this reading some of the ironies of the work struck me as a little thin. Yes, there's a useful point that Horza's hatred of the Culture ignores how similar he is to them--fluid, no fixed identity, embracing ruthless means to fight against the long-term danger--but at the end this is made fairly obvious, and doesn't in the end add up to anything too profound. Yes, Horza has a lot in common with the enemy he fights, and resembles them a lot more then his allies. So? It's a stock characteristic of many war stories, and since the Changer situation is so atypical in-universe it doesn't seem like there's a deep thematic resonance from this particular situation.

-More could have been done with the Idirans, this read I was struck by how comparatively little they're used. The soldiers at the very end make for effective adversaries, but for the most part their history and politics are used as an angle to contrast with the Culture's nature. What we get of their background, biology and ideology is pretty flat, and they're completely off-screen for the majority of the work. As a plot force they seem to be constantly in response to the Culture, and unlike latter groups like Azad, the Chelgrians and even the Affront, they don't feel like a well-developed part of the setting in their own right.

-Also pretty flat was most of the crew of the Clear Air Turbulance, apart from Yalson and Kraiklyn they were basically just redshirts on a path to oblivion, an assmebly of vaguely cyberpunk not very competent mercenaries. The one guy whose whole shtick was carrying a nuke was probably the weakest in this regard, but the failure to establish distinguishing personalities made sections of the novel drag. This reminds me of, but compares unfavorably to, incidents in any given Richard Morgan novel, where an array of violent mercenaries generally less effective than the protagonist do feel a lot more distinguishable and alive.

-On a brighter note, the escape of the Clear Air Turbulence from the Orbital was one of the funnest things in the series. Just how crazy the movement gets, and that no one except Horza has any idea what's going on. Hardly a deep moment or significant insight, but pretty engaging.
-In contrast, the raid on the Temple of Light and the incident where Horza gets separated dragged. Somehow I never felt in the moment for them, which just made me sit back and notice things like how little they served the plot, both setting up basically pointless interludes.
-On that, the chapter with the Eaters was in fact quite pointless. The incident is the epitome of the whole creativity for creativity's sake in this novel. The whole interlude with the cannibals was grotesque, riveting in its fashion, but it could have been excised without damaging the novel and making a tighter narrative. Horza himself reflects that the encounter teaches him nothing, demonstrating only how perverse religion could get, which he already knew. It doesn't change him and doesn't really add anything to the wider setting.

-It didn't strike me the first time, but a lot of the middle section of the novel is reminiscent of Jack Vance. Not in the character intent or entirely the tone, but a lot of the things Gurgeh does before linking up with Kraiklyn again feel like a Vance protagonist--following an exotic galaxy-ranging game, bumping into various signifiers of decadence, pretending to be security to follow his target, threatening an on-site reporter to move forward, and so forth.
-These chapters also show off some of the strength in weird creativity and making for a rich setting. In strict plot terms the Damage-focused section goes on a lot longer then it needs to, but it's an interesting enough concept that I didn't mind. Shades of Douglas Adams in the whole concept of a game at the end of the world and some of the random details, though with a much grimmer tone.

-This does seem weakened a bit by how conventional the milieu is in some ways, however. The emphasis on humans or basically human-looking things as the norm seems an odd loss of vision on Banks' part--it doesn't fit an attempt at real extrapolation that most of the surrounding life would look so much like us, either naturally or choosing to remold itself in that form. Plus, given the whole point of the Culture is supposed to be porous borders, embracing a wide variety of physical types, the relative conventionality so often on display is puzzling. In particular it's a bit too convenient that the biologically strange three-legged aliens are the remorseless adversary at this point. I'm not necessarily expecting Banks-level physical strangeness with the aliens but this element is a bit of a letdown.
-The short segments set from that SC analyst in the Culture should definitely have been cut from the novel. It's a stretch that the individual would be focusing so single-mindedly on the Horza saga, and especially that she'd be angsting over it so much. The notion of standard humanoids that can regularly match the Minds is mystifying and annoying in the same matter as Asimov's Foudnation's Edge ("The man who is always right") and seems a cheat to underwite the gap between Minds and norms.

-In a minor note I liked Kraiklyn's voice recording, and how awkward and unpolished it is, rather than the sleek overview of info that's customary. it emphasizes certain more natural elements of the characters, for all the grotesqueness.
-The drone Unaha-Closp is easily the most entertaining and effective character. Somewhat cheesy and obvious compared to later drones, but memorably different and coherent. I'd have liked a little more fleshing out on the norms for machine intelligences outside the Culture, but in terms of appeal what we got was about right here.
-On the topic of machine intelligences, what was up with that shuttle that rescued Horza from the Eaters? It certainly didn't seem to be top tier mentally, even compared with drones, explained through old construction. What's puzzling is that it said it had asked to be upgraded and the Culture refused. There are a few slightly troubling indicators of the use of machine hierarchy and restriction across the Culture series, but this one I haven't seen commented on previously. It appears at points that some elements might not have been greatly thought through effectively. Most criticism circulating on the Culture deals with 'but what if the Minds do turn evil after all?' but I think the more viable issue is how AI hierarchies operate. Certainly the Culture is the better alternative in giving real rights--better compared to other civilizations in-universe and compared with most other SF--but there are some ambiguities here I'll be interested in checking across the series. I recall some details about how warcraft Minds are made in Excession in particular, but I'll come to that later.

-Then there's the whole notion of the Sublimed, which for the only book feature as a major driving element of the plot (taking the Excession thing as somewhat different in tone). The whole idea of the Sublimed is probably the biggest weakness of the Cultureverse, a kind of vague mention of Elder Species power through meditation that seems awkwardly borrowed from Star Trek. It doesn't really work in a lot of ways, part of which can be seen in this novel--the Darzon creature/group just act as a powerful, arbitrary and unexplained issue to drive a specific standoff. There are some interesting ways it undermines the setting, but overall it's more problematic than useful.

-The novel ends on a high note, at least. The last fifty pages of the narrative are very good--building tension, then the ruthless tragedy of Horza's end. And of course the appendix to fill out the whole background of the Culture-Idiran war is fabulous. In particular I like the whole description of the Homoda's involvement--being a whole faction like Horza that fears the Culture more than they support the Idirans. It definitely helps flesh out the setting and make it more nuanced, rather than just two rival polities slugging it out. I'm also intrigued by the mention that the Homoda "were far from alone in having this feeling, though unique in acting on it overtly". That suggests a story worth seeing, at some point. Is it also possible that one or more of the other Involved feared the Culture enough to combat it subtly at this time? And could there be any connection between this and the group that sponsored the Chelgrian terrorism in Look to Windward? I'm also intrigued by the mention that some Idirans fled to Andromeda. More directly there's the major fact of this whole appendix being provided to Earth as part of a Contact-approved information packet as of 2110. Clearly the non-interference from State of the Art doesn't last forever.

-So overall a clumsy and seriously flawed narrative, but with some stand out points, an interesting theme and a lot of nice details. As well, a strong re-introduction to the setting, and finishing with a lot of strength. Looking forward to the next volume.

Similar to and better than: Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure
Similar to and worse than: Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed

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