So at the end of the book, it is revealed that

Flere-Imsaho is in fact Mawhrin-Skel, after having been modified by Gurgeh's request, I assume.

But they're both so different from each other, that it makes me think that the blackmail situation was made up by Special Circumstances to persuade Gurgeh to accept their mission. Is it possible that Flere-Imsaho's personality and things like watching birds were faked?

Also, what was the real purpose behind Gurgeh's mission? It is also revealed that

the Azad tournament had very high stakes; if the emperor lost, the Culture would invade and conquer Azad, but if he won, they'd be left alone. Gurgeh'd didn't knew that. But why have Gurgeh win the tournament if they can conquer the empire any time they want? Why give that option for the emperor? This makes the process of conquering Azad seem like something that the Culture considers trivial and of no importance, like something they'd do because they're bored. If it is not considered important, why do it at all?


You seem to be finding some things puzzling that are actually made explicit in the book.

By Gurgeh's request? No, not at all. It's quite clear that Gurgeh had no idea of the drone's real identity.

Yes of course Flere-Imsaho's personality was faked. He was an expert SC agent: the bird-watching was just a cover, as we learn in the sequence when he takes Gurgeh for a tour of the seedy side of Azad civilization. Similarly, yes of course the blackmail was made up: Mawhrin-Skel was never a failed SC agent, he was working for them the whole time - in fact that whole bitter personality was just as much an act as FI's fussiness.

As to the reason for the whole game plot, that's just the way SC works: they never do things by violence if there's any other way. The game was the way they'd agreed - it wasn't that they'd invade if they won, but that they'd simply take over, having - in the Emperor's eyes - shown that their way of life was better, by having won the game.

  • "he was working for them the whole time" I think you missed something. Mawhrin-Skel and Flere-Imsaho have more in common than just acting ability... – endolith Aug 18 '20 at 3:17
  • What could you possibly mean? I know MS and FI are the same, that was even mentioned in the OP. The point was that both personalities were acts. – Daniel Roseman Aug 18 '20 at 7:51
  • Ok. It doesn't sound like that from "he was working for them the whole time" – endolith Aug 19 '20 at 14:00

The impression I got is that the whole Mawhrin-Skel situation was planned from the start by the same Minds that came up with the whole plan. Presumably, they thought that Gurgeh would not agree to leave his home and play Azad for them without Mawhrin-Skel's threat. So their plan would look something like: Get a fully operational Special Circumstances drone to play the part of the disabled Mawhrin-Skel, set up the blackmail at an appropriate point, and then let Special Circumstances come in with their rather conveniently-timed offer. Once he accepts, Mawhrin-Skel gets a new body and takes on his new role as Flere-Imsaho to guide Gurgeh through the mission.

As to the other point, near the end of the book, Flere-Imsaho explicitly tells Gurgeh:

Coming in ‘all guns blazing’ as you put it is almost never the right approach; Azad—the game itself—had to be discredited. It was what had held the Empire together all these years—the linchpin; but that made it the most vulnerable point, too.

So, SC's goal was never a military conquest of the Empire of Azad - they could already do that anytime they wanted to. They wanted instead to discredit the game of Azad in the minds of the empire's elite to destabilize the empire, as that way, the Empire would fall on its own. In the introductory section, where the SC drone Worthil is briefing Gurgeh on the Azad mission, he says, with regards to direct intervention:

We might be forced into a high-profile intervention against the empire; it would hardly be war as such because we’re way ahead of them technologically, but we’d have to become an occupying force to control them, and that would mean a huge drain on our resources as well as morale; in the end such an adventure would almost certainly be seen as a mistake, no matter the popular enthusiasm for it at the time. The people of the empire would lose by uniting against us instead of the corrupt regime which controls them, so putting the clock back a century or two, and the Culture would lose by emulating those we despise; invaders, occupiers, hegemonists.

Essentially, they could destroy the Azadian military easily enough, but that would leave the people with a flag to rally around and an enemy to rally against. A violent, degrading, and resource-intensive occupation would be the only solution at that point. With or without military conquest, the elite of the empire are too unified for Contact to come in and play one against the other to achieve their goals of reshaping the society, and any direct war would only intensify that.

If instead they are able to discredit the lynchpin of the empire and let it collapse on its own, the threat dissolves and the situation becomes more fluid. SC can subtly aid the resulting factions that are most aligned towards their goals, and subtly hinder those most opposed, without ever making themselves the enemy.


There's no evidence at all that, had Nicosar lost, the Culture would have come in and invaded the Empire. In fact FI/MS makes this quite clear directly to Gurgeh:

“That’s why Nicosar did all he did. He wasn’t just a sore loser; he’d lost his >Empire. He had nothing else to live for, so why not go in a blaze of glory?”

“Was all that true?” Gurgeh asked. “Would we really have taken over?”

“Gurgeh,” Flere-Imsaho said, “I have no idea. Not in my brief; no need to know. >It doesn’t matter; he believed it was true.”

As FI/MS says - all that mattered was that Nicosar thought it to be true, that was enough to tear down the entire edifice of the society and the game.

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