Book 1) Consider Phlebas – Much like Malazan the Book of the Fallen‘s hotly debated first book, Consider Phlebas is thought to be a rough first book. Forums and Reddit posts have been dedicated to whether Consider Phlebas is a good fit for The Culture, sharply dividing the reader-base. I feel that Phlebas deserves a read and that the series would be lesser without it. However, it might be a better fit for later to read later in the series. Phlebas is more an example of life totally outside the Culture, where raw determination, self-reliance, and consistent adherence to laws of physics will help you survive, but just barely. The Universe is a cold, uncaring place filled with life trying to cling to the rocks by any means necessary, but in many ways, it’s not your life. You are destined to be bought, sold, consumed, used, or completely destroyed by the arbitrary systems you happen to have been born into. A cold, uncaring, hostile galaxy where one’s only chance to live is to survive on the edge of their seat. It’s nasty, brutish, and short, and Banks shows this through a story solely devoted to one man’s war against the Culture. It’s an argument for the Culture by showing you the alternative, and hoping you agree that it represents a less desirable and more grim way of life.
Consider Phlebas follows Horza, a shapeshifter of sorts who has escaped the hands of Special Circumstances (a black-ops style wing of Culture Minds and their selected human agents who are tasked with the protection and expansion of the Culture civilization) several times. He and his crew are hired by the Idiran Empire, religious and militaristic folk who have a mind to crush the upstart Culture. Horza is tasked with recovering a lost Mind in the hopes it would help the Idirans in their war effort. It’s a ludicrous task, but Horza has a grudge against the Culture and has adopted the Idiran’s holy war as his own. The book follows these tiny fish in the giant ocean of war between the Culture and Idiran empires by giving you a tour de force of their ideals and what happens to those who stand against them.
Where Phlebas differs from most of The Culture is in its non-stop action and lack of breathing room for introspection. Horza and his crew are on a quest that zips from disaster to disaster in its search for the Mind. It doesn’t let up, and while I found it enjoyable, others have found it tedious and unrepresentative of the larger series. However, I find its genius lies in this contrast to the rest of the pantheon. While the other books follow characters who push themselves out of boredom or desire, Horza is competent, flexible, and determined because he has to be. He’s a victim of circumstance and will do everything he can to make sure someone pays for his pain. It’s beautiful in its flaws and it sets up a lot of conversation for later entries like Look to Windward.
Book 2) The Player of Games – The Player of Games simply is one of my favorite books. It would be so easy to describe the book as “the ultimate book of chess games and masterminds” or “Ender’s Game on steroids,” but both comparisons oversimplify the wonder, charm, and thoughtful themes that this book contains.
The Player of Games follows Jernau Morat Gurgeh. In a post-scarcity utopia of the Culture, Gurgeh passes his time mastering every game he can get his hands on. However, when an upstart new player wounds his pride and he resorts to cheating to keep his reputation in check, he is blackmailed into becoming an ambassador to a hostile civilization who live their entire life through games of skill. The cruel and incredibly wealthy Empire of Azad plays a fabulous game – a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Gurgeh is sent to their homeworld to compete. He is told to simply win enough to prove his worth and diffuse friction between the Azad and the Culture, but Gurgeh quickly realizes that if he can win it all he will become the emperor of a galaxy-spanning people and be recognized as the greatest player of games.
Gurgeh’s mastery of games is what defines him in a civilization where every need and want is catered to. To him, games are more than a pastime, they are his literal identity. But, Gurgeh is not actually the only character playing games in this story. One of the major ideas that the book works with is this: when framed in certain ways, almost every aspect of life can be seen as a game. Even something as big and high stakes as the domination and control of the universe. The Minds of the Culture are playing their own games in this book. As they expand the Culture and explore the universe, the Minds often turn up less advanced and usually more brutal alien societies. While extremely pacifist, the Culture makes it a priority to intervene with any civilization they flag as having the potential to be dangerous to the spread of The Culture that also brutally represses its own people. They do this by playing a sort of 4D sociology chess and making subtle manipulations and pressures to the civilization’s development – a game played a million moves in advance at a time.
Reading that might make the Culture sound pretty terrible – and that’s part of the point. One of the major ideas of the series is that Banks wants you to question everything always. He never presents any one side as morally correct. He lays out all the facts, makes his arguments for all sides, and asks the reader: what do you think? Is it right that the Culture essentially euthanizes potential rival civilizations? Would it change your mind if they were terrible? How do you weigh the sins of civilization, and at what point does their identity become forfeit?
To make this discussion more complicated, the Azad are pretty terrible. They are outlandishly sexist, they visit all sorts of horrific depravities on beings they deem lesser, and empathy seems to be something they shed early in their evolutionary progress. In many ways they have clear corollaries to Nazis, which makes the question “do they deserve to be destroyed?” a lot more complicated.
I could go on for days about all the other small, powerful things that The Player Of Games argues for and against, but we don’t have the time or space. Instead, I will leave you with this. As Gurgeh travels down the rabbit hole in this competition, he finds himself more and more assessing the game through the Azad rules and ideas of competition, which is a highly antagonistic, zero-sum game mentality that destroys anyone but the winner. The problem of how to play a game that ruins everything it touches seems insurmountable. But Banks has a brilliance for finding untapped angles to approach a problem and found new observations about competition I have never heard mentioned before. I can’t go into further details without spoilers, but you will want to read Player to see this solution for yourself. This is one of the best books I have ever read and I would scream my recommendation from the mountaintops.
Book 3) Use of Weapons – One of my favorite aspects of the Culture as a whole, is that while it is a post-scarcity society, Banks does not think pain and suffering will disappear. It’s impossible, and while suffering may take different forms, he recognizes that in some ways it still spurs the growth of individuals along with their societies. Conflict still occurs, despite everyone’s material needs being met. It also doesn’t hurt that there are other societies that use suffering as a tool to advance their gains and solidify aspects of their existence.
Enter Use of Weapons, the story of Cheradenine Zakalwe, a man born outside the Culture who was recruited by Special Circumstances for his skillset: – the ability to fight and make split-second decisions in the heat of battle. Zakalwe is a man possessed and driven by the pain of his past. His demons push him to make sure others do not have to experience the pain he has felt. However, he also exhibits an appreciation and fondness for the art of war, something that is rare throughout the rest of the series. Zakalwe uses this to fuel his commitment to the aims of Special Circumstances in several interventions, while in turn, the Culture uses him to avoid dirtying their own hands to achieve their ends.
Weapons, you should know, is also written with an experimental narrative. There are two timelines, one that proceeds forward, and one that moves backward. Denoted by Arabic and Roman numerals, the chapters are easy to identify, however, they’re less than easy to follow. After a few chapters, though, the puzzle pieces will start to fall into place. Personally (Alex speaking), the confusion is worth the effort just to experience the real meat of the story.
In the forward-moving sections of the story, the reader sees Zakalwe really living his true life as an agent of the culture. He’s been contacted by Special Circumstances to help aid in an ongoing coup. While somewhat tired of always doing dirty work, Zakalwe exhibits an energy in getting to do what he is good at, experiencing and inflicting pain. He is in some ways invigorated by the prospect of violence. Banks highlights this through a scene that is very reminiscent of the gun sommelier in John Wick. Zakalwe is going through his assortment of weapons as he is about to make the drop into “enemy territory.” It’s played with a bit of comedy while also being somewhat troubled by his charismatic glee to deal death in incredibly precise ways. It really highlights Banks’ willingness to show the darker nature of the Culture, and not wave away the concept of violence. Sometimes it’s necessary, and maybe it’s best left to those who aren’t afraid to use it.
The second storyline, traveling backward in time, reveals Zakalwe’s background. He himself came out of a civil war on his own planet where he witnessed atrocities great and small. It details how he is molded by the violence that he, his sisters, and his friend were a party to. How in many ways, he was tormented psychologically by the betrayal of a trusted confidant. War produces monsters, sometimes for good, but most of the time, they are produced out of necessity. Through this storyline, Banks vividly paints Zakalwe’s demons and his drive to correct wrongs he was unable to stop in his past.
I find it fascinating that Banks is able to provide a subtle, yet striking portrait of a man willing to do evil, for the greater good. He takes a neutral position on Zakalwe’s methodologies, focusing on his character and drive. Banks provides space for the reader to fully explore the theme of purposeful violence, without throwing his authorial weight in any particular direction. Use of Weapons is easily one of the darker stories, so reader beware. But if you have the stomach for such sadistic examinations, Use of Weapons is worth your time and energy.