Turning The Wheel: Principle At War In Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebas

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

“Consider Phlebas…”  The phrase focuses attention and sets expectations.  As the novel progresses, we are primed to consider.

And yet, it seems to be little more than a big, yawping space opera, set during a war, with a lot of zipping about, fighting, explosions, deaths, intrigue.  All of that, to be sure.  What is there to consider?

Iain M. Banks loaded the dice before the first page by taking his title from an enigmatic stanza of a famously complex modern masterpiece.  He has claimed in interview that he “just liked the sound of it” and had to use it as a title in something.  An easy, dismissive answer to a question that begs for something more.

Consider Phlebas opens with an escape.  In the midst of combat, a self-aware ship fashions a new Mind, a self-contained assemblage of massive intellectual potential, and shoots it out to make a getaway before it can be captured.  The Mind is too young, unprepared, empty of experience, but it knows this, making it a remarkable construct.  It executes a dangerous, almost hopeless maneuver that puts it—temporarily—out of reach, buried within the catacombs of a dead world that once was home to a civilization not terribly different than our own that failed to survive past its nuclear age.  The planet is now a shrine, maintained by an enigmatic alien race which is as shapeless as water.  The Mind finds sanctuary, but it has also trapped itself.

The next scene introduces Phlebas—in this case, a Changer named Horza—who is about to drown in a dungeon as punishment for espionage.  He is chained to a wall while waste water is dumped into the chamber, gradually filling the space.  He will die, ignominiously, wretchedly, tastelessly.

And indeed, he once was handsome and young, but in his present physical state he is an old man, having Changed himself for the purposes of his mission.  Caught, he will not even die as himself, at least not physically.

The problem, though, as he keeps being forced to confront after his last-minute rescue by the hands of his alien masters, is who exactly he is.  He is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer, member of a species of human having the ability to imitate others by physically—and to a fair extent emotionally and intellectually—altering to become Someone Else.

Horza has allied himself with the Idirans in a war against The Culture.  Here we find paradox.  The Culture is an empire in that it covers vast stretches of (interstellar) territory and claims many races as members.  It is tolerant in the extreme, vital, but in many ways essentially human.  While there are many variations of human, there is a recognized standard, of which the Changers claim consanguinity.  The Idirans on the other hand are definitely Not Human.  Tripoidal, somewhat reptilian, they are also religious zealots.  They seem congenitally incapable of recognizing the validity of different viewpoints on the question of Truth and have been engaging crusades of absorption (or annihilation) for some time before running into The Culture and finding themselves in a serious fight.

The Idirans consider all other races inferior—including their allies.

Yet Horza fights for them.  Or, as he puts it, he is fighting on their side against The Culture, which he sees as the true enemy of humanity.

Because The Culture also includes machine intelligences as equal partners.  For Horza, this is the line crossed that has set him in opposition.  He cannot see machines as being in any way equal to biological life.  They can only ever be either subservient—or masters.

So Horza indulges the classic choice—the enemy of my enemy, etc—without seeing the irony of his own position other than in the most superficial ways.  He knows he could never accept the Idirans as master, he utterly rejects their religious purity, and yet if they beat The Culture they will continue conquering less capable polities, absorbing or eliminating apostates, until one day they will force the Changers to choose.  Horza does an ethical dance with himself to permit his alliance for the immediate goal of stopping The Culture, which is also growing and absorbing new territory.

Though in a completely different way.

But more than that, The Culture itself is in a profound ethical quandary about the war.  The Culture hasn’t fought a war in so long that it has to reinvent its capacity to do so.  The decision to go to war against the Idirans has been highly unpopular with most of its citizens, and even those prosecuting it have serious doubts about their right to do so.  The Culture has to consider the possibility that this will change it into something it does not wish to be in order to win.  As well, there’s no clear idea what “winning” means.  This is not how The Culture does business.

the Idirans seem to be the only ones in the mix with a clear, confident idea of what they are and why they’re doing this.  But as it is revealed, they had to change in order to become imperialists.  The evangelical urge was once a new thing, turning from an inward-facing, contemplative people, to crusaders.

Oh, you who turn the wheel and look to windward…

Horza is rescued only to find himself set adrift in a spacesuit during an assault by a Culture ship on his rescue ship.  He faces drowning in vacuum.  His rescue by a privateer is the most improbable of events, but as it turns out not quite as unlikely as it might seem.  Ships like the Clear Air Turbulence shadow the forces in these huge engagements, looking for opportunities for salvage or cover for smuggling.   Hence, Horza finds himself on board a freelance, unaligned ship with a crew of misfits looking for the next big score.  They are just competent enough to almost succeed at something.  They’re very good at getting into situations for which they end up being unprepared.

Horza decides to use them—by changing himself gradually into their captain—to accomplish the mission he had been given before being shucked out an airlock: recover the Culture Mind that has hidden itself on that off-limits world.

The bulk of the plot involves this mission and Horza’s manipulations to achieve it.

Into this two players are added that complicate the ethical issues—Balveda, an agent of The Culture’s Special Circumstances department; and Unaha Closp, a maintenance drone, a self-aware machine, both of whom get trapped on board the ship during an escape Horza engineers.  Balveda has been tracking Horza all along and is caught by him as he fully manifests as the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence.  Closp is doing maintenance on the ship and is unable to leave when Horza makes his escape.

Of the two, the drone is the more important complicating factor.  It forces Horza continually to engage it as an equal, something Horza is loathe to do.  It exhibits character, personality, resilience, and competence.  It is, as we get to know it, impossible to see as “just a machine.”  Which, of course, is the whole point.  This is the key to Horza’s entire objection to The Culture.  A self-aware “device” that refuses to be treated as a lesser being.  In what way, its presence asks, am I any different than a biological form?  In fact, it demonstrates an appreciation of choice and life that is categorically denied by Horza’s employers.

Balveda, while of secondary importance in this equation, is nevertheless absolutely necessary.  She represents The Culture’s willingness to deal with any situation that threatens to impair exactly the kind of status Unaha Closp demands.  Her department, Special  Circumstance, is itself the embodiment of an understanding of the impossibility of creating a one-size-fits-all moral program.  There will always be conditions that do not allow for cut-and-paste solutions.  At the same time, The Culture realizes that dealing with questions such as the Idirans present has the potential to distort what The Culture is at its core.  Hence, Special Circumstances, a division of Contact, put out there as a kind of moral buffer.  Or at least a cultural one.  Balveda and her colleagues are the immune system of The Culture.

What Banks built in this universe is a subversive ethical microscope, subsumed into the fabric of what appears to be little more than an epic space opera.

In fact, though, Consider Phlebas, like most of The Culture novels, is subversive of the form itself.  Anti-space operas, because the outcomes are never as clear cut and triumphal as the great space operas of the past.  On the contrary, clarity is only found in an appreciation of the irony at the heart of a Banks Culture novel.  Horza himself subverts his own purposes at almost every turn.  He defends something he does not believe in, fights something that might give him purpose, and like the Phoenician is drowned in a sea of bad options and murky choices.

And who is the hero?  A space opera, by long tradition, requires a hero, one character we can point to and show clear-eyed purpose and to whom some degree of success accrues.  Who is that here?

Unaha Closp.  Of them all, the drone exhibits all the traits of the hero.  The very thing Horza identifies as inimical to everything he believes in is the one that comes through every time, acts consistently on its convictions, and perseveres as well as survives.  Banks seems to be saying that principle is not determined by form.  Biology can lay no exclusionary claim to it—in fact, by example, biology has the hardest time with it.  But the prejudice of the flesh, so to speak, precludes genuine tolerance, and principle is sacrificed when options are reduced to two—the ideal or the beneficiary.

The underlying ethos of The Culture, though, is a denial that choices are ever only reducable to just two.  That if that’s what we believe, then something has been overlooked.

On the off-chance, though, that time or resource refuse an opportunity to find third or fourth choices, it would be useful to have a Special Circumstances to deal with the contradictions and conflicts.

Great Causes often come down to one or both parties making the statement that no one has the right to impose principle or form on someone else.  It can be confusing when terms like freedom get tossed into the mix.  Freedom from what?  To do what?  To be what?  The universe would appear to be too mutable to admit unitary definitions of freedom or rights or even morality.  The Culture, Banks suggests, understands this fundamental fact.  They work to preserve a space in which people can decide for themselves, and intervene when the decision produces evangelical movements.  The question then is, what if the evangelicals are right?  Well, that would be a very special circumstance indeed.

Horza makes his way by engaging mutability as an innate talent and, he must at some point realize, a self-claimed right to be anyone or anything he can imitate.  But he can’t imitate everything.  Perhaps this is the basis of his metric as to what is or is not acceptably his equal.  He can’t become a machine.

And yet, he does.  A tool, a cog, a machine in a larger mechanism.  He forgets ultimately who he was.  Maybe who he is.  He clings to his prejudices as a way of maintaining some sense of identity.  If he cannot say exactly who or what he is anymore, at least he can say what he is not.  One cannot help but see his choices as driven by a desire to find some cause that will give him solid shape.  Unfortunately, while he’s searching, everything around him shifts, and he drowns in a sea of change.