Consider Phlebas presents among other things a backdrop for a contest of ideas. The ideas don’t really compete directly, though. It’s hard to say whether this is a failing of the novel — the contest is a literal war, and wars are settled by force. In fact, force — violence — is the only thing that really animates in the novel; with the exception of a brief cringing portrait of a Culture citizen’s plaints about his life, all of the compelling scenes concern torture or killing. The book begins with a character chained up to be drowned in falling excrement, and goes on to feature a stranded man forced to snap a giant’s neck in single combat; a live human sacrifice who is force-fed shit and then chomped piecemeal from the toes, by the steel dentures of a morbidly obese cannibal; a poker game where, with every hand, each player antes up the life of a listless human victim; and numerous men and beasts clawed, cut, poisoned, burned and beaten to death. These scenes are frequently set off by depictions of shipwreck and privation.
This horror, one supposes, is the negative case for the Culture: the unordered universe, vibrant though it may be, is filled with cruelties and stupidities which produce unending suffering. A society that prevents this does a great good, even if its only consolations are the freedoms of peace and hedonism, which to some are lesser freedoms. A Culture character is lost mountain climbing and breaks her leg — but one senses that she was watched the whole time, and faced little real danger. (Traces here of Captain Kirk channeling George Mallory.) Still, emphatically, ennui is much preferable to having your teeth yanked out.
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