What the Hub Mind Said
July 9, 2012 4:05 PM   Subscribe

What is the relationship between the Iain M Banks books Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward? The names come from the same T S Elliott poem, and are even adjacent in the poem, so I'm sure it's significant - but how would you explain that significance? I've quoted the relevant bit below. Spoilers for the two books present and expected, of course.

PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
posted by Sebmojo to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The link by way of the Idiran-Culture war, and the uncanny anticipation of a September-eleventh-esque event, made me think on reading them that Banks, had reconsidered the Clash of Civilizations element in the Consider Phlebas conflict in light of the Gulf War, and that Look to Windward was an attempt to think about fallout from that kind of thing (in addition to just the experience of its margins). The Culture's chickens come home to roost. If, then, "Consider Phlebas"'s comment on western military adventurism (published 1984) looked back - that is, consider he who has come before - to conflicts of the latter 20th century, then, "Look to Windward" refocuses our attention from the act of reflection to the challenge of anticipation.
posted by Ravagin at 4:19 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ravagin has provided a good meta explanation. In the context of the story itself the links are numerous. Some of the Culture ships in LTW fought in the Idiran war. Ziller in LTW was commissioned to write a piece to be played at an event commemorating the arrival of light from (the last?) supernova caused by Culture weapons in the war. And as Ravagin says, it is a meditation on unintended consequences and ripple effects caused when you intervene unnecessarily (or even necessarily) in the affairs of other civilizations. The Chelgrian Civil War in this case.

It's very much an indirect sequel.
posted by Justinian at 5:05 PM on July 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Both novels also focus on a character who lives outside of and is acting in opposition to the Culture. Both end up dead and their lives become stories to meditate upon, much as the poem's narrator asks us to consider Phlebas.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:18 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you could make a case that the books kind of provide the two poles by which one can look at the Culture. In the Consider Phlebas, we see one Culture agent and a few little notes from inside about the woman who has the amazing predictive powers. In Look to Windward, we actually get to see what the Culture is like for its average citizen. One looks at the effect the Culture has on the outside universe without its agents directly interfering (after all, the Culture agent really doesn't manage to do much except a little at the beginning and end), the second looks at the effects the Culture has on itself, without agents directly messing with its own people (as in Player of Games or Excession).

I think what Ravagin and Justinian have written is more important, but the exterior/interior view the two books presented always struck me as a nice touch.
posted by Hactar at 6:21 PM on July 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was struck, when reading the Coda of LTW (it's been a while), that the Culture had passed on and been largely forgotten. And that was the significance of "Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." Only tens of thousands of years after the book takes place (again, excuse my fuzzy memory), the mighty Culture is gone.
posted by One Hand Slowclapping at 6:41 PM on July 9, 2012

Interesting and thoughtful responses! One follow-on question - was the LTW plot fomented by Culture Minds?
posted by Sebmojo at 10:06 PM on July 9, 2012

The Coda takes place a little bit longer after the main events, which makes the Culture's disappearance a little more respectable.

"Airspheres migrated round the galaxy, orbiting once every fifty to a hundred million years, depending on how close they were to the centre."
posted by Balna Watya at 3:10 AM on July 10, 2012

It's always been implicit in the Culture universe that eventually the Culture was going to sublime and leave the physical world behind them I think.
posted by pharm at 4:40 AM on July 10, 2012

It's always been implicit in the Culture universe that eventually the Culture was going to sublime and leave the physical world behind them I think.
Actually, I thought it was implicit that the Culture's "mission", embodied in Contact and Special Circumstances (activities which other galactic races regarded as "meddling") was specifically inhibiting the Culture from subliming.
posted by SpecialK at 9:39 AM on July 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's been so long that I can't recall what the particular indications are that a Mind or Minds are behind the whole plot. Does anyone else? What I do recall strongly is the sense that, in the final balance, there was never any real danger - the Hub mind had the ability to stop the plot, and the masterminds lived and died by the Culture's whims. I recall feeling a little dismayed that none of the anxiety we felt about the Hub and the plot was justified, that the Culture's chickens would never really come home to roost, given how powerful the Minds are. But in light of the comments here on the far-future coda I suppose the passage of time is what we understand will really serve that function. Phlebas becomes a sort of Ozymandias figure for the mortality of all civilizational flesh.
posted by Ravagin at 12:07 PM on July 10, 2012

was the LTW plot fomented by Culture Minds?

From the "Epilogue";

"In the end it was it was decided that sufficient other safeguards had been put in place for the Displacements to go ahead, with the aim of back-tracking along the attempted wormhole link to discover and even attack the Involveds behind the attack (this failed and to the best of my knowledge it is still not known who those mysterious allies were, though I'm sure SC has its suspicions)."

So, I think, either up to the reader to decide, and/or an unresolved plot point for Banks to draw from in future novels.

Which, by the way, the next Culture novel (The Hydrogen Sonata) is supposedly appearing in Oct of this year and, "it's about the whole subliming business".

My general feeling is that from "Excession" onwards (possibly with the exception of "Inversions") there's been a regular shadowy sub-plot (or maybe sub-theme would be a better term) of conflict among the Minds, with the events of the novels being how these conflicts play out in "meat-space", so to speak. So it's not unreasonable for the reader to get the impression that Minds are involved without Banks actually specifically saying so.

Only tens of thousands of years after the book takes place (again, excuse my fuzzy memory), the mighty Culture is gone.

Minor point, but I got curious about this myself, and I think it's more like either 14-18 million years or 250 million years, depending on how you define "Galactic Grand Cycle."
posted by soundguy99 at 6:45 PM on July 10, 2012

It was a point of pride with the Culture that they hadn't sublimed SpecialK, that the "mission" was keeping them rooted in our reality. For me it was always implied that they would do so eventually regardless even if it took longer than for other societies though. Looks like we may find out in the next book!
posted by pharm at 2:00 AM on July 11, 2012

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