Iain M. Banks
Orbit Books, 2008
Last year, during a game of Diaspora, Banks’ Culture novels came up during the evening’s proceedings, and Consider Phlebas, the first of the Culture novels, has been languishing on my “to read” list ever since. Originally published in 1987, Consider Phlebas was re-released in 2008 by Orbit books when Banks revived the Culture series with Matter after an eight-year hiatus.
Consider Phlebas takes place amid a war between the alien Idiran empire, a war-like monotheistic race, and the vaguely human Culture, a post-scarcity sort of utopia-gone-wrong, an anarchic civilization driven to interfere in “lesser” cultures in order to maintain its own sense of moral purpose.
Having known that much about the set up going into the book, I had half expected the sort of philosophy-dressed-as-scifi reminiscent of, say, Ursula LeGuin’s classic The Dispossessed. I was surprised—pleasantly, it turns out—to find that Consider Phlebas was, by contrast, a strongly plot-driven, edge-of-the-seat story (with the political background largely relegated to a couple of terse appendices).
The protagonist of the story, Bora Horza Gobuchul, is one of the Changers, a human-descended species genetically engineered as a weapon some time in the forgotten past. An enemy of the Culture, Horza is tasked by the Idiran with retrieving a Culture “Mind,” a hyper-intelligent AI, stranded on a planet to which only Changers are allowed access.
In other words, your basic MacGuffin quest. But Banks rescues what could have been a fairly cliched plot with some moments of spectacular writing. Two scenes in particular stood out for me: In his description of the illicit card game Damage, in which the players have at their disposal technology that allows them to manipulate other players’ emotional states, Banks does a masterful job of eliciting the inner confusion of the participants. And in a gripping pursuit scene as Horza steals a ship in the guise of the vessel’s captain, Banks achieves some awesomely cinematic description, enough to almost make you forget for a moment that you’re reading a book, not watching the scene unfold on the big screen.
On the other hand, if you’re fond of strong character development, you might be a little disappointed as none of the characters in Consider Phlebas are fleshed out in much depth. This turns out to something of a mercy though: Banks’ universe is brutal, and there is not a single character that Banks doesn’t have in the crosshairs. But if you like good prose, intricate scifi world building, and a fast-paced plot, Consider Phlebas is definitely a book worth reading.