Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

consider-phlebas-by-iain-m-banksGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Published: 1987
Reviewer Rating: threehalfstars
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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Iain M. Banks has built an impressive reputation of what might be called (if one dared) “Literary Space Operas”, which is to say, Science Fiction set in space, usually outside our solar system, and featuring “traditional” stories including space battles and wars, aliens, “big dumb objects”, and the like, while at the same time adhering to fairly high “literary” standards: that is, placing a high value on prose style, characterization, and integration of story elements with a “greater” theme. Other examples of “Literary Space Opera” would include Samuel R. Delany’s Nova and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.

Most of Banks’ SF is set in an intragalactic milieu dominated by the “Culture”, a somewhat amorphous confederation of humanoids (apparently genetically related to each other and to Earth humans, as a result of some process I haven’t seen Banks explain (panspermia? or something akin to the underpinning of LeGuin’s Hainish universe?). The Culture is “ruled”, essentially, by its artificially-intelligent “Minds”, while the humanoid members of the Culture live long, hedonistic, lives. Its main ethos is maximizing pleasure for individuals, and spreading the benefits of Culture technology and social structure to more and more planets. The Culture seems to occupy a mixture of huge starships, “Orbitals” (sort of mini-Ringworlds), and planets. (Note that this brief description is based on reading one novel and one novella, and more details are doubtless given in the three novels I haven’t yet read.)

My introduction to Banks was via his excellent non-Culture novel Feersum Endjinn. Since reading Feersum Endjinn I have read Banks’ other non-Culture SF novel, Against a Dark Backgound, which is quite good, and a Culture novella, “The State of the Art”, which I didn’t like a whole lot. Consider Phlebas was the first Culture novel to be published, so I judged it a good starting point.

Consider Phlebas is a story of the war between the Culture and a religiously fanatic alien species, the Idirans. It is told mostly from the point-of-view of Bora Horza Gobuchol, a humanoid working for the Idirans. Horza is a Changer, a constructed humanoid species, officially neutral in the Culture-Idiran war, the members of which have the ability to change their appearance over some time to exactly resemble other humans, which makes them excellent spies and moles. As the main action of the novel opens, Horza’s latest disguise has been exposed (by a Culture agent) to the ruling class of a strategically-located neutral planet which he had infiltrated by imitating one of its members, and he has been sentenced to a (grimly humorous) death. This leads to the first of a number of spectacular set-pieces that Banks arranges. Of course, Horza escapes this first danger, and is soon sent by his Idiran masters on a new mission, to recover a newly-created Culture Mind, of apparently special abilities, which escaped from an Idiran attack and landed on a “dead world”, off-limits to both Idirans and the Culture.

The rest of the novel follows Horza through several exciting episodes on his way to find the lost Mind. (As a Changer, he potentially has access to the “Dead World”, and in fact his former lover is part of a Changer contingent acting as caretakers of the world.) The eventual resolution of Horza’s story is fairly satisfying, and a logical result of Horza’s character. Along the way, Banks introduces some impressive made-up future technology, and arranges some further neat set-pieces. He also spends some time examining the Culture and its foe, the Idirans. Ostensibly Horza is an Idiran advocate (to us readers), though Banks’ heart clearly isn’t in it, and the Culture comes off rather better (though somewhat ambiguously and unconvincingly so).

I found Consider Phlebas to be a worthwhile novel, well-written, exciting, and often (as seems characteristic of Banks) blackly funny. (Banks is extremely good at creating unique character names and especially ship names.) However it fell somewhat short of complete success. The high points are the “neat ideas”, several well-done and fairly spectacular action scenes, and the characters of Horza, a couple of the Idirans, and a couple of AI’s. The weaknesses are the rather episodic plot, the characterization of the humans other than Horza (especially the Culture agent), and a general failure to integrate the story per se with any “big theme”. For a variety of reasons, the ending, which should have been and could have been profoundly moving, fell a little flat for me. It wasn’t bad, and it certainly wasn’t wrong, it just didn’t work as well as it could have. He also occasionally and rather annoyingly switches POV without warning.

There are several interludes featuring a Culture human who ostensibly is able to intuit likely future events better than Minds, and who thus allows the Culture agent to follow Horza: I found these unnecessary to the main story. The real reason for these interludes, it seems, is to introduce examples of peacetime Culture society as a counterexample to the type of society Horza seems to favor.

In summary, I liked Consider Phlebas quite a lot, despite the above-mentioned misgivings. I’d rank it third among the three Banks novels I’ve read (Feersum Endjinn first, Against a Dark Background second), but third among these three is no insult. I definitely plan to continue reading Banks.

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