The Culture was at war with the Idirans, and a Culture manufacturing ship sent out a Mind shortly before it was destroyed. The Mind managed to escape, but only by doing a complicated hyperspace jump inside a nearby planet, Schar’s World. This was a dead world (all the sentient beings were dead), and was enforced as off-limits by the Dra'Azon, who were significantly more technologically advanced than anyone else in the galaxy. The Culture wanted to recover the Mind, and their agent Balveda was the only one in the area. The Idirans had the services of a Shaper named Horza, who had been part of the small maintenance staff on Schar’s World so it was likely that he would be permitted to return.
Horza, despite being one of the large family of humanoids, like the Culture, had allied with the three-legged and long-lived Idirans because he felt that the Culture had built machines so complex that humans could not understand them, Minds so complex that most of the mind was in another dimension; the Idirans were on the side of biological life, despite their ruthlessness. The Culture was not only self-righteous, but worse, ruled by machines instead of life. The Idiran ship he was in was about to be destroyed, so the commander of the ship pushed him into a life pod and ejected him.
Horza was picked up by the crew of a freelance scavenger group. He made a place for himself on the ship by killing one of the young men on the ship. The leader, Kraiklyn, led an expedition into a temple that was supposed to have some salable artifact, but it turned out that the temple was still occupied, and they were prepared for attack due to a civil war. Even worse, the temple was made of reflective crystal, so some of the party were killed by ricocheting reflections of their laser weaponry.
The Culture, which had mostly just retreated for three years, made an ultimatum that if the Idira continued to claim a certain area of space, they would destroy the Orbital there. (They offered passage off the Orbital prior to the destruction to all inhabitants.) Kraiklyn reasoned that there would be some cannons available on the Megaships which sailed the orbital’s seas, since a Megaship was so heavy that it took so long to speed up or slow down that it had to blast through icebergs rather than evade them. It seemed a likely place to play a game of Danger. The Megaship they landed on was the size of a city, but it hit an iceberg before they got to the bow, and Horza only barely made it back to the lander to be picked up by the pilot. The lander crash-landed in the ocean near an island.
Unfortunately, the island was inhabited by an end-of-the-world cult, presided over by a fat man, who ate anyone who washed up, while his followers tried to eat the inedible stuff on the island to purify themselves. He ate the previous person who washed up in front of Horza, and the next day had Horza bound and started on his hands. But Shapers have poison in their fingernails, in addition to the ability to change their shape, and the fat man died of the poison before finishing the first hand. Horza evaded the followers and fled to the Culture lander, whose mind was trying to convince the population to escape. It refused—bubbly but firmly—to leave until right before the destruction, so Horza, who needed to be at the Danger game, went to the electronics closet and destroyed it. Then he went to the port where the Danger game was about to start in the stadium.
He had been preparing his body to change shape to Kraiklyn for several weeks, and now he changed to look like Kraiklyn. He bribed his way into the stadium to watch Kraiklyn at the game. Danger was a card game, but the cards played were connected to an emoter, which projected an emotion related to the cards played at the player (and to a lesser extent, those seated behind them; there were some vicariants who went just to feel the emotions being sent). If you lost a hand, you lost a Life, who were real people who had volunteered, and who were drugged into unconsciousness during the game and killed, if required, but if the player won, they shared in the winnings. Kraiklyn had only managed to find three Lives, and had been addled by the emotions played on him, so he was out of the game early. Horza followed him and killed him, then went to the ship.
Kraiklyn had keyed the ship to respond only to his voice, thumbprint, and a ring he wore, which was why Horza needed to impersonate him. Onboard he discovered that the real Kraiklyn had offered the Culture agent, Balveda, a place on the team. Horza told her to leave, but before she could do so, he realized that the (huge) Culture ship that Kraiklyn’s ship was docked inside for repairs, had discovered that Horza was here and had depressurized their container unit to prevent them from leaving. Horza simply flew the ship around inside (the Culture ship had hallways kilometers long / high), taking damage but barely managing to escape into hyperspace. On the ships monitors they saw that the Culture did carry through their threat. The Orbital, a giant spinning ring (a la Ringworld) capable of holding a billion people, was destroyed in minutes by harnassing the subspace energy field to tear the Orbital apart into constituent molecules.
Horza announced who he really was, resulting in some surprise, especially to his slightly furry humanoid lover woman on the crew, had Balveda’s baggage ejected (the Culture had all kinds of small bombs and other subversive devices), and announced that they were going to Schar’s World to recover the Mind for the Idiran’s. Balveda and Horza were sort of frenemies, so he still did not trust her, so he forced her to come along with them, restrained, to prevent her from trying to take over the ship or something. The Dra'Azon did let them through the Quiet Barrier, despite knowing exactly who Horza was and why he was there, warning him cryptically that “there is death here”.
Upon landing on the surface, they discovered that everyone in the Shaper outpost maintaining the old nuclear war command shelter (a many-kilometers long loop of train tunnels where the command staff could continuously ride around, safely, in the event of a nuclear war between the to major continents, although it was actually never used) was dead. Part of the Idiran invasion party was dead, too, and Horza’s party finished off most of the rest, excepting one who was so insolent that Horza kept him prisoner to bring back to the Idirans—along with the soon-to-be-captured Mind—to stand trial to teach him a lesson. From the Idiran Horza discovered that their ship was very badly damaged being attacked by the Dra'Azon crossing the Quiet Barrier, which was directly responsible for some of their losses. The Idirans were in the process of trying to bring back what looked like the Mind when Horza attacked (since the Idiran party was clearly unfriendly), but it was actually a decoy projecting the appearance of the Mind. The real Mind was extremely dense, so would show up like a star on the mass sensor. The Idiran destroyed the mass sensor by trickery, but Horza had a less precise version in his suit.
They walked the twenty kilometers to the next station, but could find no signal of them Mind, just a faint signal from the nuclear reactor powering the train. They went about powering on the train to search for and carry back the Mind, but three things conspired against Horza. First, the Mind had hidden itself in the reactor compartment to disguise its mass signal, so they did not realize that the Mind was with them. Second, the surviving Idiran was slowly loosening his bonds and playing mind games with the crew member assigned to guard him while they turned on the train. Third, back in the first station where they had killed the rest of the Idiran party, one other Idiran had survived, although he was slowly dying. Before he went unconscious and expired he managed to turn on the train, set the throttle for maximum speed, and wedge his hand in it to prevent the collision failsafes unthrottling. (The book was written in 1987 when things were still manual control but electronically assissted.) Horza missed the warnings of the oncoming trains: the light on the board indicating the second train was active appeared after he turned away, and he did not understand why there was a wind (from the oncoming train) until it was too late, and he barely escaped before the trains collided.
Balveda and the Idiran also escaped, the Idiran having escaped his bonds and understanding the meaning of the wind, and had hidden himself. The Mind, also had escaped and revealed itself, but it was damaged and could do little beyond hover. The Idiran had killed Horza’s slightly-furry lover woman, who was also carrying their child, and Horza wanted revenge. The Idiran fled, taking Balveda with him. He broke her arm and hung her over the side of a walkway, dangling above a tall drop to the station below, but Horza ignored her and ran past. In the end, a sentient robot whom Horza had annoyed by insisting on treating it like a robot instead of a sentient being, prevented the Idiran from kill Horza, but it was Balveda who who killed the Idiran. She tried to save Horza, but he was beyond saving, and simply said, “You won”.
Consider Pheblas is strange in that it is not clear who the protagonist is, even after having read it. While reading it, it seems that Horza is the protagonist, as he doggedly pursues the Mind. (One step forward, unexpected roadblock to solve, seems to be the formula here) If that is true it is a true Tragedy, since the protagonist (and pretty much everyone else) dies. However, it could be that the Mind is the protagonist, in which case it is the most passive protagonist ever. It is not even clear where the author’s sympathy lies: with the communistic, utopian, self-righteous Culture, or the life-loving Horza, although since the epilogue notes that the Culture inevitably won the war, and the only survivors are the Culture agent and a sentient machine who is accepted as a Culture citizen, it it seems like the former. Is Banks simply exploring what a true science-fiction Tragedy would look like (the Martian Chronicles, for example is not really a Tragedy but rather a dystopian vision), or is Horza symbolic of the fight against the inevitable electronic future?
Aside from those interesting musings, the book is solidly mediocre. The plot is a pretty transparent repetition of success, roadblock, success, except for the final failure. The cultures are varied but one-sided, and with names that have unusual letters but feel like random letters rather than from anything spoken. There’s alien sex—I have yet to find a book that highlights a sexual relationship that is also, and for other reasons, not mediocre, although at least Banks is tasteful about. The various segments seem more random ideas thrown together like the letters in the names, with no feeling of inevitability, either as a logical outworking of a cultural value, or as required by the plot. It is simply a journey through obstacles. Oh, and there is a surprise de facto resurrection of a presumed-dead—and even intentionally shot after fallen to ensure being dead—to build tension at the end.
I read this book because I had seen a number of recommendations expressed about the Culture. The Culture is interesting in its grandeur: capable of building armadas of ships so big that a city-size Megaship saved for posterity can easily fit in its hold, capable of building and destroying Niven-ring Orbitals, capable of building sentient Minds able to identify the one, difficult and unlikely, survival strategy within milliseconds of being attacked, and cunning enough to set off massive explosions simulating multiple battles along the Quiet Barrier border to entice Horza to obeying fraudulent, diversionary requests of by superior. The culture values, however, are pretty unconvincing. The Culture values the unihibited freedom of the individual, although the only freedom described are sexual, such as physical modifications and the ability to convert between sexes at will, etc. As a culture, the Culture seems individual to the max, but at the same time it seems collectively authoritarian, determined to enforce freedom, as it were. At first I thought Banks might be parodying the far Left or the Libertarian Right, but given the eventual success of the Culture, it seems more likely he just has not thought through the consequences of all this freedom. Despite it being tried in the real world, it just does not seem to work.
The values of the book are also pretty harsh. Life is cheap and the characters seem to acknowledge this. Horza barely survives death as a spy by being drowned in body waste from a banquet. The Idirans are successful because they had a bunch of wars and the result was the survival of the fittest, which they continue to propagate into the galaxy. Kraiklyn openly acknowledges he has no use for Horza’s life, but is willing let him buy his life at the expense of the boy’s if he can. Kraiklyn’s poor planning kills some of the party in the temple, then more of the party when the Megaship collides with the iceberg. The game of Danger literally uses peoples Lives as a play-thing, letting down-and-outters gamble for riches with their lives. The cult leader on the island casually eats people, growing fat himself while holding his followers to an ideology of starvation and ultimately death as they refuse to evacuate. The Culture tries to claim the moral high ground of the destruction of the Orbital by offering everyone safe passage, but the characters doubt that is even possible, and in any case, they destroy a structure that took immense engineering effort to build, not to mention the homes of a billion people, just to prove a point. Life is cheap.
In conclusion, this is a set of some interesting scifi ideas and future speculation/projection that is embedded into a random collection of plot elements, and a set of opposing one-dimensional cultures, in the form of a Tragedy. Life is cheap, plot is cheap, and at the end, the five hundred pages of narrative ends in failure. But it is not a tragic failure like Shakespeare or Greek plays, where the inherent character flaws produce failure. It is ultimately a failure due to a minor character whom the actors took care to ensure was dead, turns out not to be, precipitating a chaos where Horza loses control of the situation. Sometimes you get bad luck, but why tell those stories? Life is cheap, including that of the reader, who could be reading something better.