I’ve been dragging my heels about writing up this book ever since I finished reading it nearly a month ago, because I’ve got no idea what to say about it. Consider Phlebas is the story of a Changer called Horza. Changers can alter their physiology to make themselves into a mimic of a person, and so make good spies or military agents. Horza is a minor figure in a vast war between the Indirans and the Culture. The war is about expansion and politics and beliefs, of course, but Horza’s part in it is down to a simple principle. The Indirans are all biological, but the Culture have machine AIs who are not just citizens of the Culture but heavily involved in running the Culture. And Horza feels that is wrong, on a deep fundamental level. He (and in fact his entire world/people) are on the Indiran side, despite the fact that the immortal Indirans regard mortals as not really people. At least they’re all biological, right?
Horza is rescued from near death after a mission goes wrong, and sent to capture a Mind (a Culture AI) which has gone to ground on a Planet of the Dead. A Planet of the Dead is sort of a museum exhibit – a particular civilisation preserve worlds where the sentient species self-destructed, and embargo them. Except that a few guardians are permitted, and for this particular Planet of the Dead those guardians are Changers, and Horza was once amongst their number. So he’s a good choice, but obviously things don’t go smoothly (there’d be no story otherwise). Horza ends up “rescued” by a mercenary ship after a space battle destroys the Indiran ship he was on, and must first ingratiate himself and then wait for his chance to fulfill his mission. As a supporting cast we have the various other mercenaries, and for a primary face of his antagonist we have the Special Circumstances agent Balveda who is trying to get to the Mind first (to rescue it).
And I got to the end of the book and just ended up feeling deflated. In retrospect I suppose it should’ve been obvious it was going to be a tragedy, but I wasn’t expecting it to end with it all feeling quite so pointless. Horza’s mission is important to him, but it’s not really important to the war, or to the Indirans. He just ends up a pawn ground to dust between vast forces he has no chance of affecting. He has chances to turn aside, to make a life for himself somewhere else away from the war – but he sticks to his principles, he does the right thing as he sees it. And the universe doesn’t care, the Indirans don’t care, mostly no-one even knows he existed. And his principles are misguided at best – the Indirans don’t care at all about him or anyone who isn’t an Indiran, Horza’s elevation of biologicalness as the most important thing is just convenient for the Indirans to make him more useful.
I prefer more optimism in my fiction, I think. Or maybe just less nihilism.
A note of comparison to the other books by Banks that I’ve read – identity is again a strong theme. Horza can change his entire appearance & mannerisms to mimic others, I don’t think we once see him in his natural form in the book. People are always interacting with who he’s presenting as, rather than who he is – and he definitely has issues with his identity, including recurring nightmares about forgetting his own name. I’m not sure if I missed something there – was Horza not his real name and I missed clues about that?
Another note is that I thought the Culture was “in our future” but this book makes it clear that’s not Banks’s intention – there are framing vignettes for the story that give Earth dates for the war, and it’s happening elsewhere in the universe during the past 600 years, or so.