Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

07 Sept 2012

(Novel) Consider Phlebas by: Iain M. Banks

(Reaction) What Purpose Life by: Antonio Conejos

Consider Phlebas asks the reader to consider the most basic of questions: why do we do what we do? This is one of the fundamental why questions, why do we choose to make certain decisions, to live our lives a certain way?

Banks's novel explores this question on a shifting scale, from the very large to the minute, from the viewpoint of entire cultures to the actions of a single individual. Consider Phlebas even suggests that the ends of the scale mirror each other, that the vastness of the galaxy can be seen in a snowflake, that the origin (and destination) of a species rests on the individual.

On the galactic scale there is the titanic clash between the Culture and the Idirans; a conflict which informs the entire plot of the novel. For both sides the answer to why they fight is the same: because they must, because each feels to fight is to validate their way of life.

For the Culture, Indirectly, but definitely and mortally, the Culture was threatened... not with conquest, or loss of life, craft, resource or territory, but with something more important: the loss of its purpose and the clarity of conscience; the destruction of its spirit; the surrender of its soul.

For the Idirans, conquest is fundamental to their outlook on their place in the universe, They believed in order because they had seen so much of its opposite... The Idirans saw themselves as agents in this great reordering. They were the chosen - at first allowed the peace to understand what God desired, and then goaded into action rather than contemplation by the very forces of disorder they gradually understood they had to fight.

Thus both sides fight because they have no choice in the matter; the conflict is a test of their identity as a society and this identity must be asserted, reaffirmed, in war. There is literally no other option for either the Culture or the Idirans. They do what they do because of the necessities of their character.

Fittingly too, the war gives the Culture a reason to live - to prove the correctness of their viewpoint. In contrast, the war gives the Idirans a reason to die - an aggressive species which sees its worth in combat and domination.

On the level of the individual this level of fatalism, the notion that we do what we do because we have no choice but to do thus, can be notably seen in Horza. The Changer is almost fanatical in his opposition to the Culture, so much so that he also takes his struggle as an article of faith. ...the Culture would go on expanding for as long as it was allowed to. It would not stop of its own accord, so it had to be stopped. This was a cause he had long ago decided to devote himself to.

Horza, as a Changer, represents the ultimate malleability of biology, of its potential for adaptation, evolution and change. It is fitting then that his hatred of the Culture stems from their reliance on machines, Minds which are the antithesis of biology. Thus Horza too has no choice in the matter, he does what he does because he is compelled by his nature.

The thematic link between the parallelism of large and small (and the corollary that the small reflects the infinite) is played out in a variety of images elicited from a wide variety of characters. Xoxarle mentions a race defeated by the Idirans who thought that their anatomy reflected the structure of the cosmos, They thought that because they bore a rough physical resemblance to the great lens that is the home to all of us... it therefore belonged to them.

On the opposite end of the conflict, one of Fal 'Ngesstra's treasured memories is of finding a frozen patch of water, little greater in diameter than the distance between her outstretched thumb and little finger... The frothy bubbles had frozen in the cold air and almost freezing water, making what looked like a tiny model of a galaxy; a fairly common spiral galaxy, like this one, like hers.

As such, the assertion that our choices are driven by who we are, and that we have no option in them, is found both at the level of the very large (galaxies and societies) and the very small ( the individual).

Is this uniformity to destiny then all encompassing? No. Consider Phlebas has tantalizing hints that at least on the level of the individual it is possible to overcome one's nature, to make decisions which are outside the norm of our character.

Even Horza, one who is propelled strongly by who he is, can acknowledge the value of actions outside of one's character. While Horza's identity is confused due to some feedback received from Kraiklyn during a Damage game, and his normal nature is suppresed, he can reflect that true change only happens outside of the norm, life a succession of same; evolution dependent on gambling; all progress a function of getting things wrong.

Do we have a say in our fate? Can we overcome the pull of nature and circumstance? Perhaps. Even the most analytical of minds, the Minds and the most intuitive of humans, Fal 'Ngesstra, cannot predict everything.


A disappointing read.

For one, Consider Phlebas is a very disjointed novel. Much of the action seems irrelevant to the plot of actually finding the Mind and when we finally do get to the mind the novel treats its eventual capture as inconsequential, even trivial.

Two, all of the characters are flat. Either they are stereotypes (such as the engineer Wubslin) or so featureless that you don't recall anything about them (Jandraligeli). Horza himself, who has to carry the story, is unlikeable, mostly because he's a zealous nut who doesn't seem to know what he's doing or why he does what he does.

The passage of the novel IMHO goes to Fal 'Ngeestra, contemplating how advanced we all hold ourselves to be, ...the Idirans' contempt for us, all of us humans; and human contempt for Changers. A federated disgust, a galaxy of scorn. Us with our busy, busy little lives, finding no better way to pass our years than in competitive disdain.

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