Review: Consider Phlebas

Series: Culture: #1

The Culture: a “a utopian, post-scarcity space society of humanoid aliens, and advanced superintelligent artificial intelligences living in artificial habitats spread across the Milky Way galaxy” (Culture series)

Besides, it left the humans in the Culture free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sports, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems, and climbing high mountains without the aid of a safety harness.

You’d think (or at least I did) from that description that we’d have everything starting in a state of wonder and harmony… and only then watch things go to hell (because otherwise, where’s the story?).

So imagine my surprise where (in Consider Phlebas), we start in the middle of a war between the Culture and another group (the Idirans) told from the point of a view of a shape shifting secret agent (more or less) who ends up with a crew of mercenaries (no, they’re a ‘Free Company’), goes through a few disastrous missions with them, almost gets eaten by a disgusting gigantic blob of a religious cult leader, breaks into a card game where the stakes are real human lives, and finally comes back to a graveyard system and then just about everyone dies.

Experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.

I … don’t even know what to say.

It’s an absolute tremendous ride of a book, with far more worldbuilding and history crammed into this one book than you see in many author’s entire careers. Most of it really does need more room to breathe, but that’s why you have the rest of the Culture books.

I actually really like all of the characters, especially the point of view (Horza, the ‘Changer’ (shapeshifter)) and the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence (the mercenary ship). Oh they’re quite the bunch. None of them are really what you’d consider ‘human’ any more, even the ones that came from human stock at some point–which is sort of the point. With thousands of years of intermingling with aliens and genetically tuning ourselves to reach for the stars, people can be anything. They’re just so real and visceral. And really weird. 😄

Plotwise, it’s such an ugly cluster of a situation, but that’s also entirely the point. It’s all about war and the bad decisions everyone makes when no one really knows what’s going on or can come to an agreement about what’s ‘right’.

Special Circumstances had always been the Contact section’s moral espionage weapon, the very cutting edge of the Culture’s interfering diplomatic policy, the elite of the elite, in a society which abhorred elitism. Even before the war, its standing and its image within the Culture had been ambiguous. It was glamorous but dangerous, possessed of an aura of roguish sexiness - there was no other word for it - which implied predation, seduction and even violation…No other part of the Culture more exactly represented what the society as a whole really stood for, or was more militant in the application of he Culture’s fundamental beliefs. Yet no other part embodied less of the society’s day-to-day character.

Man. There’s a reason the Culture is highly regarded. It’s dense and hard to track at moments, but still (in my opinion) well worth the read.

I know what I’ll be listening to for the next little while (sci-fi is always fun; I only learned how in the world some of these things were spelled in writing this review). Onward!