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Literature / Consider Phlebas

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Consider Phlebas is the first Iain M. Banks novel set in The Culture. It concerns the war between the Culture and the Idiran civilisation, an event whose repercussions affect all of the future novels in the series. Interestingly, the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a "Changer", who sides with the Idirans and sees pretty much all of the Culture's signature aspects in a highly negative light.

Consider Phlebas provides examples of the following tropes:

  • A Million Is a Statistic: The appendix notes that approximately 851.4 billion sentient beings were killed in the war which lasted over 48 years, to say nothing of the various orbitals, planets, and stars that were annihilated. The appendix further notes that this was basically a minor scrap, considering the scale of the galaxy in volume and inhabitants.
  • All for Nothing: Every damn escapade that Horza gets his team involved in ends in disaster. Yet, he still won't quit while he's behind.
  • Always a Bigger Fish: The Dra'Azon are a race of almost unfathomably powerful Energy Beings that care little for the physical galaxy besides preserving Ghost Planets as monuments to futility and destruction, including Schar's World. Neither the Culture or the Idirans want to risk pissing them off.
  • Anti-Hero / Anti-Villain: Horza is the former in respect to the novel, but could be seen as the latter to the extent that the Culture itself is the protagonist of the series.
  • Athens and Sparta: A galactic-scale version with the Culture versus the Idirans. The former are a pleasure-seeking post-Singularity Utopia who love sleek shiny technology and are ruled by their machines, while the latter are a Proud Warrior Race of Scary Dogmatic Aliens who utilise Boring, but Practical technology and are convinced A.I. Is a Crapshoot. Given that the Culture are determined to 'enlighten' the less developed civilisations in the galaxy and bring them round to their way of thinking, while the Idirans are more concerned about converting everybody to their religion, war between the two was pretty much inevitable.
  • Ban on A.I.: the Idirans are against AI for religious reasons and use limiting devices to ensure their computers don't become sentient.
  • Batman Gambit: Xoxarle breaks one of Balveda's arms, and leaves her hanging on for dear life to a gantry with the aim of forcing the incredibly pissed-off Horza to choose between avenging his pregnant girlfriend and saving her... He chooses the latter. This allows Xoxarle to ambush the Changer, inflicting the injuries which ultimately kill him.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Lamm claims that his space suit contains a small nuke that he intends to detonate rather than be killed or captured, with the added implication that he'd also do it if someone pissed him off enough. When the Megaship job goes south, Lamm and several other crewmembers are left behind, and in a fit of rage he proves that he wasn't kidding.
  • Brick Joke: The Megaships. The Free Company that Horza joins attempts to steal weapons from one of the kilometers-long ships while visiting the Vavatch orbital, and much of the action depends on the size of the ship and how it leads to disaster for the mission. Later, when Horza attempts to escape a GSV sent to evacuate Vavatch, he passes by another Megaship that had been moved from the orbital; against the "general bay" it was stored in, even the ship looks like a "small city sitting on a great slab of metal."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Fal N'geestra is an adventurous young Thrill Seeker who enjoys climbing mountains without safety equipment — and also happens to be a Referer, one of an infinitesimally small number of the Culture's citizens who hold some form of precognitive ability allowing them to occasionally outsmart the Minds. This can almost literally be compared to outwitting God, making her an extreme case of Smarter Than They Look.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Balveda spits out a tooth during the final battle, apparently from an injury. It isn't. That tooth is actually a "memoryform" containing a powerful laser gun that she uses to finally kill Xoxarle.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: At the start of the book, Horza has been outed as a shapeshifter by Balveda while infiltrating a low-tech planet, and they arrange for him a truly disgusting execution: a great feast is held, while Horza is chained up in a chamber which slowly, slowly fills with urine, filth and food waste until he drowns. Luckily, the Idirans show up to bust him out.
    • Balveda promises Horza she'll try and cross her legs, and skip the mains.
  • Cuckoo Nest: While searching the Elaborate Underground Base on Schar's World for the lost Mind, Horza dreams that he's being awakened from a Virtual Training Simulation. The technician tending to him, Horza's Idiran friend and spymaster Xoralundra, gets some of the details of his backstory wrong; when Horza tells him so, Xoralundra reaches out as if to put him back under, and Horza wakes up.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Despite having its memory of everything that happened on Schar's World erased, the lost Mind that drove the entire story chose to name itself after Horza. Years after the war, the Mind encounters a descendant of Balveda, who asks to hear the story behind its name.
  • Death World: An unseen example is the Idiran homeworld, which has caused them to evolve into badass warriors.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: At the opening of the novel, Horza has been exposed impersonating a politician for the Idirans; once he's picked up by Space Pirates, he makes plans early on to replace the Captain, and eventually does.
  • Determinator:
    • The Idiran strike force sent onto Schar's World crashes thousands of miles away in an icebound wasteland, and set forth to complete their mission despite a lack of food or equipment; only two Idirans and a few of their servants survive, but they proceed with the mission regardless.
    • Quayanorl suffers mortal wounds and is left behind. Gruesomely injured, blind, and dying, he still manages to drag himself to perform one last action against his enemies, which averts the impending happy ending and turns it into a kill 'em all.
    • Horza himself, even though he could just walk away from the mission, as he freely acknowledges.
  • Driven to Suicide: In the "Dramatis Personae" epilogue. Despite successfully saving the lost Mind from the Idirans, after the war ended the Culture agent Balveda asks to be placed into suspended animation until the Culture could "statistically prove" that more people would have been killed by the Idirans than actually died in the war. She is awakened only around 430 years later once the terms are met — and kills herself only a few months later.
  • Epigraph: The book has two:
    Idolatry is worse than carnage.
    The Qur'an, 2:190,
    Gentile or Jew
    O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
    Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: Horza, Yalson and the rest of the Clear Air Turbulence crew, and the Idirans all die in the finale, and the drone Unaha-Closp is babbling nonsense and nonfunctional from damage. Perosteck Balveda makes it out alive, only to have herself put into suspended animation and then commit suicide as soon as she is revived. The only aversion is that Unaha-Closp is repaired later and lives to retire peacefully (and arguably that Jandraligeli outlives all his crewmates, albeit by abandoning them for a rival crew).
  • Failure Hero: Horza is a Failure Anti-Hero — barring his miraculous escape from The Ends Of Invention, almost everything he sets out to do goes horribly wrong... And it usually isn't even his fault, either.
  • Fantastic Racism: Horza hates and despises sentient machines (to be sure, he doesn't believe they're really sentient). Most Idirans despise non-Idirans (see Superior Species), and they have a religious justification for it.
    Xoralundra: Whoever heard of a mortal creature with an immortal soul?
  • Fat Bastard: The Prophet of the Eaters. Yuck.
  • Gang Initiation Fight: Horza is forced into this when picked up by the Space Pirates, but it turns out that it was something of a ploy on the part of the pirate captain, who wanted to get rid of the guy Horza was fighting.
  • Ghost Planet: Schar's World, the planet where the lost Mind is hiding, is a world that once evolved sentient life with an advanced civilization until said life wiped itself out in the culmination of something like our Cold War.
  • Had to Be Sharp: The Idirans are a Proud Warrior Race who serve as proof that to thrive on a monster-infested and highly radioactive planet, you'd better become the scariest monster of all. The resulting species are three-meter-tall three-legged behemoths, biologically immortal, protected by a thick shell of keratinous armour on reaching maturity, and several times stronger and smarter than the average humanoid — for all intents and purposes, the perfect warriors.
  • Hero Antagonist: Balveda, a secret agent for the Culture, which even Horza is forced to admit he hates more for what they represent than their actions.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: During a very nasty side arc when Horza is trapped on a deserted island on the Vavatch Orbital alongside a cannibalistic apocalypse cult. He has to figure out how to talk his way out of being eaten and reach an escape shuttle the Culture left on the island, before a Culture ship is scheduled to destroy the Orbital. Horza has to lose the meat on several fingers before he can escape the cultists. As one otherwise hardened reviewer put it, "I can't believe this is happening".
  • It Wasn't Easy: Balveda's escape from the Hand of God happens offscreen. In the discussion afterwards...
    Horza: [disbelieving] Unarmed, you killed an Idiran in full armour and toting a laser?
    Balveda: [shrugs] Horza, I didn't say it was easy.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Unaha-Closp, despite being being repeatedly insulted by Horza and treated as little more than a robot by everybody bar Balveda, saves (or at least attempts to save) the entire team twice by ramming Xoxarle and warning them all of the oncoming train, then proceeds to save Balveda and Horza again, the latter rescue nearly costing him his life. This selflessness actually pays off, and he manages to survive the near-Total Party Kill, going on to join the Culture and lead a peaceful life after the war. See Throw the Dog a Bone below.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The disgusting cult leader "Prophet" Fwi-Song takes pleasure in eating people who have displeased him alive. This proves his undoing when he decides to snack on one of Horza's fingers — unaware that the Changer has extremely potent venom glands underneath his fingernails.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Phlebas the Phoenician died at sea, and now lies forgotten. The verse asks that the reader remember Phlebas in his youth, and how he spent his life on worldly concerns that all came to nothing with his death.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: The Idiran special forces team led by Xoxarle is so xenophobic, stupid and singleminded that they betray the Free Company, get pretty much everyone killed, and leave Balveda able to rescue the Mind that would otherwise be theirs. To an extent this is also reflected in their overall conduct of the entire war — while they never had a hope of actually winning, they could have got out while they were ahead, or conducted their campaign much more efficiently.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: After their Dwindling Party gets culled even more when trying to contact the Idirans, it's bitterly pointed out that Horza is not different than Kraiklyn when it comes to getting them killed.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Balveda's escape from the Hand of God. Made more awesome by how matter-of-fact she is about it.
  • One Last Job: Horza is planning to return to his Old Flame and retire after the mission. This trope works as well as it always does.
  • Properly Paranoid: Once Horza recognises Balveda trying to infiltrate his ship, he orders the crew to strip her of her baggage, armour, clothing and jewellery and toss everything out of the airlock, before subjecting her to as many scans as the ship's limited facilities can manage — he knows all about the Culture's love of Hidden Weapons. He was, of course, completely right — she was carrying a nuclear bomb in her luggage. And he still manages to miss the laser rifle hidden in her tooth.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Idirans hold firm religious beliefs in fighting to the death. For example:
    • Xoxarle, who — after Horza and company capture him following a Ray Gun fight — spews insults at the Changer in a futile attempt to get himself killed and reunite with his fallen comrades, rather than face the shame of being taken prisoner.
    • Quayanorl, Xoxarle's comrade, despite grievous damage done to him during the aforementioned lasergun fight, manages to drag himself up to the train parked in the station, get it running, and wham it into the train sitting in the station Horza and the others are occupying, kicking off the cataclysmic fight that gets everybody but Balveda and Unaha-Closp killed. The Idiran fulfills his wish to die having contributed nobly to his species' cause... Or at least, he thought as much. In fact, his actions manage to completely scupper the Idirans' chances of getting their hands on the Mind, as Horza was going to sell it to them anyway.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The Command System on Schar's world is still in good enough condition eleven thousand years after the native species went extinct for the base's power systems and trains to be in working order. It's mentioned that the atmosphere in the base was desiccated enough to prevent rust. It's also revealed that the Sufficiently Advanced Alien that had been protecting the world had been helping with maintenance; forty years later, after the end of the war, one last ship was allowed to visit and discover that the Command System had been repaired — and all of the remains of the Free Company, the Idirans, and the Changers' base had been left buried in a mass grave near one of the planet's poles.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Ruthlessly deconstructed with regards to Kraiklyn's Free Company. They're a gaggle of dysfunctional third-rate Hired Guns/Space Pirates who cruise around in a clapped-out old spaceship with equally clapped-out equipment looking for trouble... Essentially the setup of your classic RPG adventuring party or sci-fi Walking the Earth show. But instead of granting them a spectacular and improbable victory against all odds, the novel instead suggests what might realistically happen to a small, arrogant, undisciplined and poorly equipped fighting force in a very big galaxy.
  • Rock Beats Laser: Armed with laser weapons, the Space Pirates attack an old temple located in a non-spacefaring civilization, defended only by monks with primitive firearms. See Temple of Doom below. About half the company is wiped out in the resulting chaos.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: Played straight with the Idirans, at least until the appendices reveals this as an inversion. The Culture is willing to fight to the last against a civilization that is no physical threat to them based on ideology alone, while the Idirans went to war thanks to a runaway military-industrial complex, and want to cut the war short with a political settlement. So who are the real dogmatics?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Jandraligeli proves himself to be quite possibly the sanest person on the CAT when he jumps ship on Vavatch to join up with a Free Company which actually has its shit together. He rises through the ranks to captain one of their ships, raking in enough of the company's profits to enjoy a hedonistic retirement, and finally meets his end by going Out with a Bang at a relatively ripe old age.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: (Bora) Horza gives Orab as a false name at one point.
  • Shapeshifting: An interesting, relatively "hard" example: Horza's species was genetically engineered to have a limited (but still useful, for a spy) ability to shape-shift. Horza can take on the appearance of another person, and eventually replace them. This is a complex, lengthy process in which the physical structure of Horza's face and body are gradually altered by his specialized biology. Shapeshifter Baggage and other common shape-shifting tropes are averted.
  • Shapeshifter Identity Crisis: Horza (as a shapeshifter) has a literal invocation of this trope. He doesn't lose control of his shifting, but several of the dream sequences he experiences hint that he may not actually be who he thinks he is.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Horza dies, and so does everyone on his ship, except for the drone and Balveda. Balveda rescues the damaged Mind that Horza was attempting to retrieve. A post-war report at the end of the novel then goes on to say that Balveda later offs herself, and that Horza's species (the Changers) ceased to exist as a species.
  • Shur Fine Guns: One character dies when his projectile weapon has a barrelcrash, meaning the blast waves of the explosive shells he's firing explode a shell while it's still traveling down the barrel.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Kraiklyn, for the most part, comes off as a desperate wannabe badass-mercenary-leader, who, while a reasonably competent fighter, is terrible at planning heists and fails to portray his crew as anything more than the bunch of interstellar thugs they are.
  • Snarky Non-Human Sidekick: Unaha-Closp. Throughout his tenure with Horza he becomes the Butt-Monkey of the gang, being ordered about to perform the dirty work (perhaps due to his high practical utility as a sentient drone). Despite his cynical attitude towards Horza's endeavors, near the end he prevents Balveda and Horza from being mauled to death by Xoxarle.
  • Space Pirates: Kraiklyn's Free Company, a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who go along on any act of "easy" mayhem that their boss can think of.
  • Spanner in the Works: Quayanorl. Or more specifically, the fact that Irdians are Made of Iron to such a ridiculous extent that he survives an attempt to Make Sure He's Dead, clinging on to life just long enough to pull a Taking You with Me on Horza's party.
  • Superior Species: Thanks to evolving on a Death World, Idirans are practically immortal and indestructible; also, the Changers' shape-shifting and poison claws are definitely a product of some intricate genetic engineering. In the end they are utterly crushed by the Culture: the Space Hippies might seem to be hopelessly outgunned by the Idirans at the beginning of the novel, but that's only because they have not even started to fight back yet. Being physically superior than pan-humanity as individuals just doesn't go that far in a high-tech galactic war. Especially when they have AIs running the show with brains so large they have to use Hyper Space for data storage. This is actually why Horza sides against the Culture, he doesn't trust the machine minds, and sees them as a threat to the galaxy as a whole. He thinks the Idirans are pretty damn superior, but still just another empire like all the others from history. Idirans are able to fight the Culture on pretty impressive terms in space as well (winning even one battle with the Culture is not to be sneezed at), indicating that they must have incredible natural reflexes and multitasking capabilities.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Horza hates the Culture and, for example, while the later novels draw humor from the humorous/macabre names the Culture gives to ships, he's disgusted by this apparent display of the Culture's cavalier attitude towards something as grim as interstellar warfare.
  • Temple of Doom: The Temple of Light; it's constructed from crystal blocks that turn shots from laser weapons back on the shooter, among other tricky defenses.
    • Of course since it had long ago been grown over with moss none of the pirates knew this until their laser guns started to burn away the moss.
  • There Was a Door: Special Circumstances Lock Down the Clear Air Turbulence inside the GSV, so Horza powers up the engines and proceeds to fly and laser the Clear Air Turbulence through the Starship Luxurious until he finds a way out, killing who knows how many innocent bystanders in the process. He did try to avoid an anti-gravity crosswalk, however.
  • This Cannot Be!: Discussed, by the narration anyway. It's noted that a lesser AI might have this sort of reaction to learning that a human Referer can outsmart it, while the Culture Minds instead find this rather amusing.
  • Tripod Terror: The Idirans are a tripedal species.
  • Villain Protagonist: Horza is vehemently opposed to the Culture, which is of course the "heroes" of the series and which comes across even in this book as a lot more sympathetic than the Scary Dogmatic Aliens that Horza is trying to help fight them. However, aside from a few brief point-of-view chapters from Culture characters, the book is all about Horza's trials and tribulations as he tries to capture a Culture Mind for Idiran study. He ultimately fails and dies, though he does get recognised as a Worthy Opponent by his victorious enemies.
  • This Was His True Form: Balveda has a moment invoking this trope as she takes Horza's corpse with her off the planet at the end, reminiscing that for all their interactions, this is the first time she has seen his real face.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: After spending the whole book being bullied and subjected to Fantastic Racism by Horza, Unaha-Closp survives the "kill-'em-all" final battle, and retires to build "small steam-driven automata as a hobby".
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Thanks to the Fat Bastard I'm a Humanitarian Prophet, Horza loses a finger. In fact, he has to pull the bones, now completely stripped of flesh, off his hand himself. No mention of his missing digit is ever made again. Did he regrow it? (He was changing to a semblance of Kraiklyn at the time) Are his crew just that incurious? Who knows?
  • What Measure Is a Non-Cute? / What Measure Is a Non-Human?
    • The Idirans possibly appeal less to the reader being of terrifying and nonhumanoid appearance. Homomda, who at the time were a shade ahead of even the Culture, had assisted the Idirans in the past at least partly because of their shared tripedal ancestry, and even supported them for a time during the Culture-Idiran War. Once you really get to know the Idirans things don't improve over the first impressions.
    • Unaha-Closp plays a vital role at the end of the novel, contrary to Horza's implicit discrimination against the drone.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The book ends with a brief summary of what happened to the surviving characters.
  • Worthy Opponent: Horza and Special Circumstances agent Perosteck Balveda to each other. Horza reminisces that they've both been in situations where one was about to die and the other didn't help, but when push comes to shove they're not keen on actually killing each other. Ultimately, Horza does save Balveda's life, and she attempts to save his.