Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks is something of an unusual author in that he both publishes science fiction, under this pen-name, and main stream fiction which appears under the name Iain Banks. In science fiction, he is probably best known for his Culture novels, a series that currently spans eight book and a bunch of short fiction. I understand that it isn't necessary to read them publication order, the second novel The Player of Games is frequently mentioned as a good place to start. Not having read any of Banks work however, I thought I'd start with the first one, Consider Phlebas (1987). The Culture novels have been written more or less in chronological order as well, for those of you who prefer that approach to reading a series.

The Culture is a galaxy-spanning, post scarcity civilization. A community where things like money, laws and poverty are part of history. Their technology is capable of providing for the trillions of inhabitants, who are now free to pursue the arts, education, sports and whatever else they desire. It may sound like a socialist's utopia but there are still people who feel threatened by it. After a hundred generations of peace, The Culture finds itself at war with the Idirans, a religious, biologically immortal race on a crusade to spread their faith. With this conflict as a backdrop, Bora Horza Gobuchul, member of a race known as Changers and agent to the Idirans, is faced with a difficult assignment. He is to retrieve an advanced Culture artificial intelligence known as a Mind, stranded on an off-limits planet. The assignment is made even more difficult by the fact that he is not the only one looking.

Banks makes in interesting choice by show us The Culture though the eyes of one of its enemies. Horza may not share the Idiran religious ideals, The Culture still makes him decidedly uneasy. Especially the extent to which it relies on artificial intelligence, some of whom are sentient and enjoy the same status (I won't say right since The Culture knows no laws) as any other citizen. He's pretty convinced the Idirans are right early on in the novel but as the story progresses and he is forced to spend more time with Culture operatives and drones, his certainty is beginning to show some cracks. I thought this was an interesting bit of character development.

Horza has one thing right though, the arrogance The Culture displays is stunning. The scale of the war Banks describes is incredible, he mentions casualty figures in the trillions, destroyed planets and spaceships litter the galaxy. The Culture is ill prepared for war and until they feel the can face the Idiran threat head-on, they retreat, destroying what they cannot defend. Everything can be rebuilt at virtually no cost after all, this scorched earth tactic makes perfect sense from a rational point of view. Their conviction that, even though they are on the defensive for all of the novel, the war will eventually be won and the casual manner in which entire planets are sacrificed in a strategic withdrawals really driven home by the scale of the destruction Banks describes. It also illustrates what Horza feels is wrong with The Culture and to what extend The Culture relies on machines to dictate their strategy.

On this point Banks makes the readers doubt again. Despite the outrageous computational capacity of the most advanced Minds in The Culture, a small group of human minds is still capable of more accurately prediction future developments. The author includes brief interludes showing us one of these people and it made me wonder how much of their strategy is actually thought up by the Minds. While these sections were very interesting and give us some insight into the workings of The Culture, I would not have minded if these sections had been a bit more integrated into the main story line.

Consider Phlebas is in essence a very fast-paced space opera. Huge spaceships and incredible constructs form the background of lots of detailed action scenes. Banks rarely takes his foot of the gas for long enough to really reflect on this universe. In that respect I had expected a little more from this novel. Then again, he's clearly not done with this setting so perhaps it is just as well he leaves something to be explored for the next volumes. I don't think this novel quite justifies the praise heaped on The Culture series as a whole, the setting may be awesome, the plot itself is rather straightforward. There's also an odd sense of disconnection between he plot and the setting. None of the characters in the book seem to influence events on a larger scale in any way, which is something I more or less expected given that the book is marketed as space opera. In fact, the whole ending of the novel is rather depressing. It's a conclusion Joe Abercrombie would approve of. It was an entertaining novel but it did give me the impression there was quite a bit of room left for improvement. For this series to live up to its reputation I expect stronger novels among the other Culture books.

Book Details
Title: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 471
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85723-138-0
First published: 1987


  1. I'm a big fan of Iain M. Banks and prefer his sff novels to his literary ones. I wish more mainstream readers would read his Culture novels. Although I do think The Player of Games is better than this one, Consider Phlebas is still one of my favourites because it kick-starts the series.

  2. I see we pretty much had the same reaction, Rob. Good book but not great, especially with all the hype the Culture series has. I will add myself (if you haven't included me already) to the chorus of voices extolling The Player of Games; it is a big improvement.

  3. @ chasingbawa: Are the main stream novels that different from the SF ones? I've seen several comments on various blogs than mentions that at least some of them could pass for genre.

    @Ben: I'm going to have the find a copy of that one I guess. Given the current state of the to read stack it might be a while before I get to it. I take it the title refers to the game that is also part of Consider Phlebas?

  4. No, the main character is a "player of games" and considered among the best, if not the best, in the entire Culture. So he's bored. And he gets drafted by Contact to learn how to play Azad, a game played in the Empire of Azad in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.