A piece initially written for my NCTJ portfolio, but it fits in nicely here (seeing as I promised it in the last post…!)
Captain Kirk seems pretty content.
Brawling with Klingons, fighting evil computers, and romancing alien women seems fun, but curious viewers will notice that he never seems to ask why? In a unbounded universe with limitless technology; with poverty and want eliminated, why would there be anything to fight over? Why would anyone get out of bed?
Scottish author Iain M Banks’ answer is the Culture, a series of ten novels portraying an utopian spacefaring civilization – the titular Culture – where hedonism is the driving force. Banks is an anomaly, equally acclaimed for his literary fiction (The Wasp Factory, Whit) as he is in SF. This year’s The Hydrogen Sonata marks 25 years of the Culture: here’s a guide to a few of his novels.
A book named after a line from a T.S. Eliot poem isn’t going to be the usual science fiction. Consider Phlebas is dark and dirty, a gloomy exploration of a galaxy at war and what difference, if any, a single well-intentioned person can make.
The main character is Horza, a member of the Changer species: human-like but with the genetic ability to slowly alter their appearance at will. Horza is a spy for the Idiran Empire, warrior fanatics fighting a religious war against the galaxy-spanning Culture civilization, and he’s a cynic through and through. “Don’t you have a religion?” one character asks him. “My survival,” he replies.
Horza hates everything about the Culture’s philosophy: he feels that the hedonistic attitude, laissez-faire approach to morality and reliance on technology is a heretical anathema to a simple life, lived modestly, warts-and-all. Ordinary people living in the Culture, he thinks, are “soft and pampered and indulged”.
Despite not focusing on the utopian Culture, Consider Phlebas introduces many of the tropes that would define them over the next nine novels. Readers new to the series might be waiting for the moment when earthlings make an appearance, but this book is profoundly alien. In fact it comes as a surprise when the appendix reveals that the entire story takes place in our 14th century.
Leaving human protagonists out of your story is a risky strategy that can alienate readers, but somehow Banks makes it work. Essentially it comes down to the fact that though his characters may have an extra finger, or genetically modified bodies, or be covered in a fine fur, they have human emotions and human responses that stop the story from being a groundless foray into utterly alien, and consequently unidentifiable, characters.
Banks himself has said that the book’s main question is how far one person can really change the world. If Consider Phlebas has a statement to make, it is this: if our entire planet can be overlooked in a story spanning a galaxy, what does that say about an individual’s choices, hopes and dreams?
Playing board games is one answer, apparently, and the main character, Gurgeh, is one of the best: in fact his chosen name means ‘the player of games’. (Later, another character remarks that given his attitude to life, ‘gambler’ would have been a better choice.)
Gurgeh is so successful, in fact, that he craves a real challenge for once. The Culture’s Minds, the sentient supercomputers that govern society, choose Gurgeh for a mission he is uniquely qualified for: a game where the stakes are life and death. The Culture has recently met the Empire of Azad and in stark contrast to the pacifist, egalitarian Culture, the Empire is violent, hierarchical, and based entirely around a stupendously complex board game: Azad. Rank in Azad determines rank in the empire – the best player is crowned Emperor. Gurgeh is chosen as a Culture ambassador and entered in the grand tournament held every six years.
Gurgeh, like many protagonists of Culture novels, is a misfit in his home society, and initially the empire’s dog-eat-dog culture intrigues and impresses him. But Flere-Imsaho, his robotic companion, takes him to see the worst depravations of the empire, in a subversive attempt to turn him against the civilization’s leaders. It works, and Gurgeh commits himself to humiliating the Azad Empire by rising higher and higher in the tournament.
The final act transforms the novel into an exploration of what happens when a militarily powerful, democratic society like the Culture encounters a dictatorial, oppressive adversary. Military intervention is entirely counter to the Culture’s ethics, but Gurgeh can’t believe that the Culture would stand by and let the empire torture and kill its own citizens. Comparisons to present day conflicts are obvious.
Banks’ third Culture novel sees plot take a back seat to characterisation, and the result is one of his most acclaimed novels. Use of Weapons’ narrative streams run in two directions, told in alternating chapters. The first, with Culture agent Diziet Sma tracking down Zakalwe for one last mission, is a standard thriller plot with few surprises until the end.
But it really serves only as a framework for the second plot, running in reverse chronological order. Zakalwe comes from a non-Culture planet where he led an unsuccessful civil war against his adopted brother Elethiomel. Escaping his home planet, he becomes a mercenary hired by the Culture to do their dirty work, an agent planted in proxy wars to influence the outcome. But through many missions, he is haunted by memories of a stricken battleship, his brother’s semi-incestuous relationship with his sister Darckense, and above all, a certain chair. He’s also disillusioned when his Culture handlers tell him to lose a war he had nearly won, for the sake of politics. Fast approaching a mental breakdown, he resents being used as a weapon by the Culture.
Both the reverse and forward plots progress steadily towards the ultimate questions of who Zakalwe is, why he is so afraid of chairs, and what the title of the book really means. As a mercenary agent, Zakalwe is an expert in the use of weapons, able to kill with anything from a sharp rock to a laser rifle. But towards the end, it becomes apparent that emotional manipulation is a far more devastating weapon to maim and kill than any gun – and the true meaning of ‘use of weapons’ becomes known.