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/Book Club: Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas Legolas Send a noteboard - 02/09/2010 09:15:16 PM
Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks
Consider Phlebas, Banks' first science fiction novel, is the first in a series of loosely connected novels about "the Culture", an intergalactic civilization comprised of many different humanoid species living on thousands of planets, starships, "Rocks" and "Orbitals". The ninth book involving the Culture, Surface Detail, will be released in October.

The novel opens with a short prologue. A lone Culture starship controlled by a "Mind" (an immensely advanced and intelligent AI) finds itself intercepted by enemies, and so the Mind abandons the ship and performs an extremely risky manoeuvre to prevent itself from falling into enemy hands. It ends up stuck on a largely deserted planet, which is controlled by a force that neither the Culture nor its enemies dare to antagonize or take on directly. As a result, both sides find themselves forced to use more subtle means to get their hands on this remarkably able Mind before their enemy gets to it.

Considering this starting point, and the fact that this novel is supposed to be the first "Culture" novel, it is rather surprising that the novel's protagonist, Horza, in fact turns out to be an agent of the Culture's enemies, the Idirans. With a few short exceptions, the entire book is told from Horza's point of view. A smart choice, one has to conclude in hindsight.

Thanks to this decision, Banks can start off his story at a break-neck pace, and keep that up for much of the book, except for three short intermissions told from a Culture viewpoint - but not the one you'd expect. Horza moves from one spectacular adventure to the next during his mission to retrieve the Mind, while character development and world-building (or perhaps I should say universe-building) occur in bits and pieces inbetween and during the action. Only towards the end of the book does the pace let up a bit, in order to gear up for a big climax.

In addition, by showing the Culture-Idiran war through the eyes of someone not belonging to either civilization but associated with the Idirans, Banks gives us a more neutral view of both sides, and a voice representing the smaller species and civilizations that get caught up in the war between the two mammoth empires.

Of course, the choice to have a single protagonist, combined with the frantic pace of the action, means not too much time is devoted to character development. Only Horza and a handful of his companions are really fleshed out much, and the Culture books being as loosely connected as they are, characters don't really carry over from one novel to the next, so they won't be developed further in the future either. This is more a logical consequence of Banks' thematic and plotting decisions than it is a flaw, though. The Culture and its enemies are empires spanning thousands of planets, headed by large faceless councils, with inhabitants counted in the billions and trillions. The reader realizes, particularly in the epilogue to the book which gives a short synopsis of the Culture-Idiran war in its entirety, how unimportant individuals, even very powerful or special ones, are in this war. The events of the novel, as spectacular and large-scaled as they sometimes are, are just one tiny piece of the war, not some quest of heroes risking their lives to save the world/universe.

Characters, in other words, take a backseat to the themes and ideas in this book and, one assumes, all of the Culture books. Those ideas are clearly inspired by 20th century politics (Consider Phlebas was first published in 1987); Banks has said himself that the series is partially intended as a reaction to the rather different political views expressed in the American science fiction of the 1970s (see Rebekah's report of his talk at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival), and it shows. However, thanks to the relative neutrality of the protagonist, Banks avoids coming off as preachy or too strongly advocating any one political viewpoint. I don't think the politics will really turn anyone off this book, even those who strongly disagree with Banks.

I think this book could make for an interesting Book Club discussion, and I think people will enjoy reading it. It's a thrilling read with a fast pace, not overly developed but mostly credible characters, a relatively simple but well-crafted plot, and a few scenes that you can only call epic, in the good sense of the word (such as the one involving a 4 km-long "Megaship" ). The world-building is done in a clever way without pace-slowing infodumps, but is nevertheless quite solid and interesting. And the politics should make for good discussion without boring or annoying anyone during the read itself.

I look forward to discussing this with everyone who's interested in our Book Club, starting September 20th. So if anyone has comments or quibbles with my review, I'd suggest you save them until then. ;) Questions from those who haven't read the book yet and are hesitating on whether to do so, on the other hand, are of course quite welcome.
This message last edited by Legolas on 02/09/2010 at 09:17:31 PM
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/Book Club: Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas - 02/09/2010 09:15:16 PM 5965 Views
It is strange that you should say it is a reaction to the American sci-fi of the 70s - 02/09/2010 11:11:17 PM 1385 Views
It's Banks himself saying that, not me. - 02/09/2010 11:22:47 PM 1359 Views
Rest assured... - 03/09/2010 02:39:38 PM 1396 Views
I am on page 180-something - 12/09/2010 08:14:41 PM 1394 Views
How on earth can you be bored right after the big ships thing?! - 12/09/2010 08:42:45 PM 1379 Views
Action scenes are fun in films - 12/09/2010 08:45:22 PM 1339 Views
Ah. Yes, it's not going to get much better, then. *NM* - 12/09/2010 09:19:47 PM 747 Views
Damn - 12/09/2010 09:21:46 PM 1332 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:23:02 PM 1499 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:29:57 PM 1330 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:37:23 PM 1293 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:38:49 PM 1370 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:41:36 PM 1376 Views
Re: Damn - 12/09/2010 09:44:12 PM 1323 Views
... (spoilers) - 12/09/2010 09:44:34 PM 1364 Views
Re: ... (spoilers) - 12/09/2010 09:56:14 PM 1345 Views
Having now finished it - 19/09/2010 08:07:11 PM 1342 Views
How odd. - 19/09/2010 08:19:49 PM 1359 Views
Re: How odd. - 19/09/2010 08:20:57 PM 1396 Views
*cough* - 20/09/2010 09:39:47 PM 1368 Views
It's up now, but considering the time I imagine discussion will only really start tomorrow. *NM* - 20/09/2010 09:57:45 PM 725 Views
*NM* - 20/09/2010 09:58:25 PM 747 Views

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