A drop, in an ocean, on an orbital, in space
Original review here
“You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It’s very, very hard for a lone person to do that. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don’t know.” – Iain Banks
Yeah, I cribbed that quote from Wikipedia, what are you gonna do about it? And besides, if it’s a misquote, if it’s plagiarised, even if it’s completely fabricated, the point stands. Even then, what would this review have been like, if I hadn’t cribbed a quote, the original source of which leads me to a 404 page? We just don’t know.
Reading Consider Phlebas was my first engagement with Iain Banks’ Culture novels. I figured, after starting with The Wasp Factory, his first “literary” novel, I would read his first “science fiction” novel as well. I admired, in The Wasp Factory, Banks’ ability to encompass a big theme within a small story, and wanted to see what effect a galaxy spanning canvas would have on his ability to talk about an awful lot more than he seems to be talking about. A good effect, it seems, and it begins with a nod to Eliot. The Waste Land is one of my favourite poems, and one I know very well, so I was immediately drawn in by the reference to it in both the title and the epigraph. It is, as you’ve probably guessed, very prescient, and prescient in that both The Waste Land (for personal as well as cultural reasons) and Consider Phlebas make me think of one word in particular. Futile.
I mean, this is an adventure story, right? Not a cyclical epic ostensibly about fertility rites and how modern life is rubbish. It’s the future, a post-scarcity future (for the Culture, anyway), a post-scarcity future in which the Culture is waging a war (something it finds utterly distasteful, at least to do openly) against another (small c) culture to whom war is it’s meat and potatoes, to be natural selection writ large and cherished. So yes, it’s an adventure story. There is excitement and subterfuge and plenty of close escapes. There’s even a love interest. Why, then, does it make me think of futility, in much the same way Eliot can, and does?
Well, I won’t spoil it, but this is the effect allowed Banks by having such a large scale to work with. He encompasses a big theme (and plenty of smaller ones) with a big story. Being a big story, it can lose focus, can drag, but that’s more a matter of size than a matter of lack of good writing. It goes in this direction. It goes in that one. Many of these directions take time to bear fruit, and you really, really want to know what is going to happen next to the “protagonist”, Horza. I use protagonist in quote marks because the nature of this novel almost disavows the idea of a protagonist. Horza is the prime mover in his part of the conflict, his specific quest, yes, but the conflict is an ideological one, too, as well as a galaxies-spanning war. Horza fights for the Idirans because he dislikes the Culture, but he doesn’t work with (for) the Idirans for any reason other than that. And besides, he comes around to thinking certain aspects of the Culture to be not too bad, to be compatible with his own world-view. The enemy of his enemy also turns out to not, really, be his friend. In an ideological grey area like this, how can Horza, when the history is written (and when it is, it’s this novel, despite the epilogue), be the protagonist of any story other than his own? He has his own problems with the Culture but he has his own problems with the Idirans, too. He doesn’t fight for a flag, but why should he, with himself to fight for, his own ideas, his own feelings, his own people. In that case, what does one man’s agenda matter, in a conflict as big (and even then, ultimately, tiny, on a universal scale) as the Culture-Idiran war?
It turns out, that none of it means a fucking thing. A proper, rollicking adventure, with a protagonist that you want to root for but at the same time will probably have some disagreements with, and it doesn’t mean a bloody thing. You see some cause and effect in action, but ultimately the signal to noise leans heavily towards noise. That these individual stories are, viewed from a certain perspective, meaningless, is something built in to the novel, and something that is quite obviously begged of the reader to consider, when the numbers are tallied up in the epilogue. Billions dead, and it was a drop in the ocean. The universe does not care. Hemingway made this point slightly more elegantly with the ending of A Farewell to Arms, but you’ll forgive Banks when you realise that he was obviously very fascinated with the world he built, and wanted to share more of it.
That, and the ending sequence preceding it is a masterpiece of both telling an event from multiple perspectives and in sustained suspense. Something bad will happen. You know something bad will happen. Paragraph by paragraph, Banks builds this catastrophe up as it is set in motion, switching rapidly from viewpoint to viewpoint as they all slowly, then surely, then very rapidly come to realise that something is deeply amiss. As an ending set piece I cannot rate it highly enough either for technical brilliance or sheer entertainment value. Yes, some of the novel drags, but when Banks sets about being brilliant, he bloody well is.
As exciting as a set piece it is, as significant as it is for the characters involved (and without revealing anything, it means very, very much), it of course means, ultimately, fuck all.
That is why this novel makes me think of futility.