Updated on June 30, 2018
23. ‘Consider Phlebas’ by Iain M. Banks
Here’s a quick story about why you shouldn’t be a snob about genre fiction. Several years ago, I walked past my local Waterstones and saw that Iain Banks would be speaking there. I’d read The Wasp Factory around that time, and was momentarily excited, until I saw that he was there as Iain M Banks (his sci-fi author name), and he would be promoting his latest sci-fi book. I turned my nose up and didn’t go. Now I love sci-fi, but Iain Banks has sadly died – I passed up the chance to see one of the giants of sci-fi, which is now my favourite genre. ‘Kicking myself’ doesn’t really cover it!
Anyway, I’ve now read Consider Phlebas, the first in Iain M. Banks’ ‘Culture’ series, and my first experience of his science fiction. There are a lot of reasons why this should be my new favourite series – it’s sci-fi on a grand, galaxy-wide scale, a space opera that spans hundreds of different planets – but although I enjoyed it, I didn’t love it.
The protagonist of Consider Phlebas is Horza, a human ‘Changer’ who has the ability to (slowly) shapeshift to look like other people. He uses these skills to work for the Idirans – an alien race that is at war with the technologically advanced, machine-dominated human Culture – and in this novel Horza’s mission is to get onto a tightly guarded neutral planet (Schar’s World) to find a missing ‘Mind’. The Minds are super-advanced computers created by the Culture. The Idirans want the technology; the Culture don’t want the Mind to fall into their enemies’ hands. When Horza joins up with a ragtag team of mercenaries aboard the spaceship Clear Air Turbulence, he starts a race against time to take over the ship, get to Schar’s World and find the Mind.
There are some really fantastic ideas in Consider Phlebas. The technology, for instance, is just awesome. There are spaceships so big that they can build other spaceships and destroy entire planets. There are ‘Orbitals’ – giant, O-shaped space stations that have atmospheres and oceans, and spin so rapidly that they create their own gravity. Banks is also great at writing an action set piece; an ‘end of the world’ card game and a rocket chase through a country-sized spaceship were among my favourites.
The central Idiran/Culture conflict is really interesting, and there are lots of discussions about the philosophy behind it. The Culture has created a basically perfect society – it’s fair and equal and all the humans live in almost guaranteed luxury and peace, but it all relies on their super-advanced gene-editing and computer technology. The Idirans, on the other hand, are messier, warlike, but they have not altered their genes or become totally beholden to their technology. From Horza’s point of view they are more real and alive. One of the central questions of the book is which is better: soporific comfort or wakeful pain?
“The Idirans are on the side of life – boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smelly, fallible and shortsighted, God knows, but real life.”
I also enjoyed how quite a few of the incidental side characters were female. Usually when you read older sci-fi (Consider Phlebas is from the 80s), characters like guards and pilots and drivers are just default male, but in this novel several of them are women, and they’re not always sexy or falling in love with our protagonist. It’s a low bar to set – and Banks still throws in plenty of love interests for Horza – but it is a little bit refreshing to have female characters around without it being a Massive Deal.
There were a few things I was less keen on, though. For example, I had forgotten (from reading The Wasp Factory) that Iain Banks writes some fucked up stuff. In this book there’s a particular sequence involving a primitive island ruled by a crazy despot that gets real dark, real quick. That’s fine – I like dark stuff, when I’m expecting it – but it’s been so long since I read Banks that I had not prepared myself for that and it did freak me out a bit.
I also wasn’t a fan of the final section, when Horza finally goes to Schar’s World. It is just too long. The pacing in the rest of the book is pretty decent, but once we get to Schar’s World it really slows down, and Banks spends chapters and chapters building up to the climax. Literally every few sentences he describes where everyone is standing and what they are doing. I could practically see Banks behind the page saying, “See how I’m building the tension! Are you feeling tense yet?” It was just too obvious what he was trying to do, and that really took me out of the story. However, the ending does have a pretty dramatic pay-off, so it is worth wading through all that build-up (just don’t expect everything to turn out all sunshine and roses).
Although this wasn’t the strongest start to a series for me, I think I will carry on with it. I want to read more Iain M. Banks, and I think each of the Culture books deals with different characters, so even if I wasn’t a big fan of the adventures of Horza, I’m sure other Culture novels will appeal to me more.
“She felt herself as the speck she was: a mote, a tiny struggling imperfect chip of life, lost in the surrounding waste of light and space.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Consider Phlebas here.
[Disclosure: Above is an affiliate link. If you buy a book through that link, I get a small cut, at no extra cost to you.]