Friday, July 16, 2010

Genre Classics: Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks (Book Review)

"Consider Phlebas" (Amazon: UK, US)
Format: Paperback, 467/544 pages
Publisher: Orbit (first publication 1987)

Scottish novelist IAIN M. BANKS is deemed a science fiction powerhouse whose Culture series -- a set of standalone space opera novels that share the same milieu -- represent one of the finest works in the genre. "Consider Phlebas", published way back in 1987, was the first novel set in the Culture. It was originally written in 1984, but has been later rewritten; a fate shared by many of his earlier works. It is, by this day, considered to be one of the finest space opera novels ever written, rarely matched or surpassed even by later Culture works.
Bora Horza Gobuchul belongs to the race of Changers whose members have mastered the ability to alter their physical appearance. As such, they are extremely suited for spy and undercover missions. Bora Horza threw his lot in with Idirans, a pious galactic megaforce that chose to oppose Culture's unaggressive expansionism promoted by the promise of leisure and technological advancement. This is a clash of ideologies that spans across galaxies. Idiran's are a highly hieararchical and militaristic society and they cannot and will not forgo the threat -- may it be imaginary or not -- that the blashphemous sentient machines of The Culture present to the sanctity of Life.

Bora Horza is tasked with a mission to retrieve a renegade Mind that would bring Idirans invaluable technological and tactical intelligence on the state of The Culture. Along the way he employs with a crew of freelancers, gets involved in a kind of relationship, excapes from a mad prophet that rules over a tropical island, witnesess a grand destruction of an orbital, is on a reckless run from Culture agents and many more exciting things...
Now, to be totally honest, I expected more from a novel of Culture fame; but such is usually the fate of exuberant expectations...they shatter. Far from being a bad book in itself, but the high-octane adventure in space that the book does provide in spades, lacks some depth, a type of substance that makes great books out of good ones. Horza is thrust from one "grand scale" action scene to another, with little "slower passages" that would make the protagonist and the characters around him more tangible. I had similar problems with books like "The Ten Thousand" by Paul Kearney and Takeshi Kovacs books by Richard Morgan. I just have this feeling that something essential is missing. But what redeemed this book in my eyes is the ending, because it definitely carries that emotional punch that the rest of the book was missing. It conects you to Horza and the rest in a more profound way than before.

I would label Horza as a partial anti-hero. He's not as obnoxious a person as Thomas Covenant is, but there is this cold detachment and a nasty streak to Horza that makes a reader leery. He is still likable, despite his shortcomings. The support cast is, sadly, severely underdeveloped. They are intriguing, but the author rarely slows down the pace of the story to tell us what makes them tick. The unrelenting pace can be both a curse and a blessing at times. It might make you read the book in one sitting, but it also might make you feel a bit unsated afterwards. Although the ending carries the emotional punch that might be lacking before.

Banks often often stops to vividly describe epic vistas, blown-out-of-proportion entrails of flying cities and space crafts, colossal space battles and scenes of destruction. Worldbuilding is at the same time vast and limited (not overdone; it doesn't impose on the flow of the fable). If you're a visual type you'll get a big kick out of the novel, since the descriptions of scenes are done in exemplary manner. "Consider Phlebas" is without a doubt strongest in its beggining and its ending sequence. One of the novel's other hallmarks is without a doubt it's relentless pace.

If you enjoy vigorously energetic space opera with a clearly set course of action from the outset, morally ambiguous protagonist, crunchy prose, vivid scenery and destruction on behemothic proportions, then "Consider Phlebas" clearly comes recommended.


Related Posts:
Review of "Matter"

- Thrinidir -


Simeon said...

Actually, "Consider Flebias" was a huge disappointment to me as well, but the second book, "The Player of Games" (and from what I've heard, the third one - "Use of Weapons" - too) is a vast improvement in every conceivable aspect. I strongly recommend you read that one too before forming opinions on The Culture.

ThRiNiDiR said...

I've read "The Player of Games" last month (review forthcoming)and while I agree with you that it's an improvement I still don't think it quite deserves the fame. Some of the ideas are truely fantastic and there are a few flashes of brilliance to be found in Culture books, but there are also a few nagging flaws (occasional slow parts that drag which shouldn't be the case in such a short and concise read, somewhat superficial storytelling and a couple of other minor niggles).

Thanks for dropping by mate.

Eric said...

I came to the Culture Wars from the Algebraist via Consider Flebias. I thought Consider Flebias was excellent, while the more recent books lost my interest. Horza was a compelling character, and that makes a big difference to me. I agree with ThRiNiDiR about The Player of Games, but more broadly the Culture series are overrated.


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