Consider Phlebas
Iain M. Banks, 1987

the twenty-first book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Doug Orleans

Holy robots!  I finally finished another book in the visitor recommendation series!  This one turns out to be the beginning of another series, consisting of ten books published over the course of 25 years, about "the Culture".  The Culture is a collection of many humanoid species who have learned to stop worrying and love the sentient machines whose advent has allowed them to live carefree, hedonistic lives.  In this novel, the Culture is at war with the Idirans, a race of giant, warlike, virtually immortal religious zealots, but that's just the backdrop; the primary story is an episodic action/adventure yarn revolving around a member of a neutral humanoid species with chameleonic powers.  There are spaceship chases.  There are laser gunfights.  There's not a lot in the way of theme or characterization.  I gather that later books in the series dig more deeply into the sociology of the Culture, but this one is basically just space opera — and, from what I've read, has been credited with reviving that genre after it'd gone dormant.  Which doesn't make for a ton for me to write about.

I guess there's this.  Our chameleonic protagonist, Horza, has been assigned to track down and eliminate one of the Culture's artificial superminds.  Over the course of Consider Phlebas, he collects a number of prisoners — a secret agent from the Culture, a mechanical drone of roughly human intelligence, and a snarling Idiran — who threaten either his mission or his life or both.  In each case, he can kill the prisoner, but elects not to, because while he's killed before, he can't bring himself to end a life in cold blood.  It's a pretty standard war-story trope: murder prisoners and you're a monster, spare them and you run the risk of the enemy turning the tables on you later… which is what happens in this book, as in the end the Idiran escapes and kills Horza.  Which is not to say that the book is arguing, as Ender's Game does, that any and all potential threats must be eliminated with dispatch, and damn the false positives.  Even after the Idiran has killed all of Horza's allies, including his pregnant mate, Horza makes the same choice all over again: the Idiran leaves the Culture agent dangling from a catwalk, her grip slipping, moments from certain death, and Horza interrupts his vengeful pursuit of the Idiran long enough to rescue the Culture agent, out of "pan-human compassion" — giving the Idiran time to set up his fatal ambush.  Where Ender's Game is defensive about its stance that, yeah, it's a shame that sometimes it means you have to be a monster, but you can't just die, Consider Phlebas is melancholy about its stance that, yeah, it's a shame that sometimes it means you have to die, but you can't just be a monster.

I honestly don't know where exactly I stand on this dilemma regarding the prisoners.  Even beyond the particular question of what you do with a ten-foot-tall prisoner who keeps trying to escape and immediately tries to kill you every time he succeeds, there's the question of what you do with mass murderers and the like who can never safely be returned to society, even if that were your goal.  I've read that the Supreme Court is taking up a bunch of death penalty cases next term, and that a number of pundits think Anthony Kennedy may be the vote to strike it down across the U.S.  But if that happens, all it means is that those on death row will have their sentences commuted to life without parole.  And, uh, how is that not a form of execution?  It seems to me that life imprisonment isn't that much different from the gas chamber.  In either case, you're put into a small box until your body shuts down; it's just that one box is full of poison and it takes a few minutes to die, while the other is full of air and it takes a few decades.  And is the latter really less cruel than the former?  Fifty years of Nutraloaf and waiting to get shanked?  This in turn might suggest the beginning of a discussion of prison reform, but for now I will just note that while there is certainly an argument to be made that the state should not be in the business of killing its own citizens, it seems to me that it's really weird for the state to be in the business of carefully calibrating an environment to be worse than any existence outside of prison while still remaining preferable to a painless death.  Some societies have tried to resolve this issue by making no crime punishable either by execution or by sentences tantamount to execution, such that Anders Breivik could murder seventy-seven people and still be given an initial prison term of only twenty-one years — and that to be served in a system where some of the prisons are quite comfortable and full of amenities, as the evidence suggests that these conditions are conducive to successful rehabilitation.  That's fine for muggers and dope dealers, some might argue, but what about those who have taken lives, and thereby shattered many more?  Why should we even care about rehabilitating them?  To which the usual answer — the one the Pope recently gave, in calling for the end of both capital punishment and life imprisonment — is that every life matters, even that of a murderer.

Banks makes some interesting points about the extent to which anything matters, quietly following up his story with a handful of appendices that radically recontextualize the preceding 500-odd pages.  We learn that:

  • If we were looking to see how this story might matter to us, how Earth fit into the picture — might it turn out that the post-apocalyptic planet on which the final act takes place was Earth all along? — the answer is that it doesn't, because everything we've just read happened not in the far future but in the fourteenth century

  • If we were looking to see how significant Horza's rescue of the Culture agent was to the course of events thereafter, the answer is that it wasn't, because she commits suicide

  • If we were looking to see how significant the deaths of most of the book's cast were, the answer is that they weren't, as they were just a handful of the over 850 billion sentients killed in the war

  • If we were looking to see how significant the war was, the answer is that it was contained within 0.02% of the volume of a single galaxy

After spending a few years working as a screenwriter in an industry whose mantra is to raise the stakes, raise the stakes, raise the stakes, it was interesting to see an author very consciously attempting to lower the stakes — to point out that not only are stories of Only One Man making some tremendous difference basically bullshit, but that even events on the scale of a decades-long interstellar war don't actually make more than the most trifling difference in the grand scheme of things.  It's a point that dovetails with a thought I've had during the shouts and counter-shouts of "Black lives matter!" "All lives matter!": actually, no lives really "matter".  Soon enough the oceans will have boiled away and all life on Earth might as well never have existed, which is probably for the best.  But in the interim, yeah, we should probably cultivate some of that pan-human compassion and pretend that each other's lives matter, and do things like saving your archenemy from falling to her death a few moments before you all die anyway, because if nothing else, it makes for a stronger loving world to die in.

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