“The ship didn’t even have a name. It had no human crew because the factory craft which constructed it had been evacuated long ago. It had no life-support or accommodation units for the same reason. It had no class number or fleet designation because it was a mongrel made from bits and pieces of different types of warcraft; and it didn’t have a name because the factory craft had no time left for such niceties.”
– Opening of Consider Phlebas
Consider Phlebas is a science fiction novel following an alien named Horza who’s been caught up in a war between the Idirans, a species of religious crusaders, and the Culture, a group of various humanoid species whose artificially intelligent machines have become so advanced that they’re arguably the ones running the show. Horza is a Changer, which means he can alter his body at will, copying a person he wishes to impersonate or giving himself unique physical weaponry like acidic sweat glands. Although he’s humanoid and although the asteroid his species calls home has been conquered by the Idirans, he believes the Culture to be an existential threat to biological life itself. Therefore adopting a sort of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality, he’s thrown in with the Idirans, acting as an undercover agent for them until a unique opportunity presents itself. One of the Culture’s most intelligent machines, intended to be the Mind of a spaceship, is stranded alone on a planet controlled by a powerful being who only lets Changers enter. Horza agrees to retrieve it in the interest of reuniting with a love interest who lives on this planet and in exchange for the possible reward of being able to leave the war with her, but an unexpected battle throws him off the Idiran ship and into space. Left alone, will he be able to complete his mission, or will he be killed before he even reaches his destination?
I think this book might best be described as a cross between an action-packed adventure through space and a war novel. There are fast-paced sections that keep you turning pages just to see the outcome of a fight or battle, portions of world-building that introduce diverse new species or incredible technology or offer a glimpse into a particular culture. There’s also a growing uncertainty over which side, if either, deserves to win this war, a dawning realization of how destructive it all is. And how impersonal the destruction. Characters die for no good reason. Entire living environments are obliterated for the sake of “principles”. Even those who fight the battles seem to be viewed as disposable game pieces by the leadership on either side, easily forgotten, neglected, or left to die. In fact, in the very opening scene, Horza is saved from a gruesome execution only because the Idirans need him. And they only need him because the mission comes with such unusually specific requirements. He’s saved not so much by his allies as by probability.
That, I think, reflects the tone of this book very well. It’s certainly not a cheerful read, but I didn’t find it as heavy as a book like The Things They Carried either. Having an additional layer of fictionalization makes the conflict a bit less real, while also providing the classic sci-fi opportunity of using a hypothetical world to explore questions of ethics and philosophy. I found that it didn’t delve quite deep enough for my taste, but that may have to do with the fact that I’ve already spent about as much time as I care to considering the nature and implications of war. I’ve been fortunate in my life to live in safety and not have any form of miliary service required of me. I don’t have the same personal connection that others might have.
As for the artificial intelligence, there’s not much time spent on concerns about what happens to human (or humanoid) life after its abilities surpass ours. Horza expresses a few ideas about this, but overall it’s not as much as I would have liked given the current state of the world. Of course, this book was written in the 1980’s, so there’s only so much one can expect. The AI here is very human-like, each machine having its own emotions and personality and developing attachments to those around it. The main difference seems to be in the level of intelligence, at least on average. Perhaps later books in the series will explore this concept more.
I do plan to read at least the next one, and I actually read this one thinking it might be a necessary prerequisite. Having reached the end, I’m no longer so sure of that. If they turn out to be just two books in the same connected universe or something along those lines, I’ll do a review of that second one and let you know my thoughts on how helpful it was to have read this one first.
Otherwise, I would recommend this book to those who would enjoy a dark-ish space opera. You won’t find a fight between “good guys” and “bad guys”, but neither will you find gratuitous violence and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. There was one part I found fairly gruesome, but the rest strikes a good balance in my estimation. Be prepared for some long chapters and some worldbuilding that really requires your attention, but if you can handle that you’ll have a good solid read.