Consider Phlebas

Consider PhlebasConsider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks was first published in 1987 and is the author’s first science fiction novel.  It’s title comes from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  It has, since then, been generally accepted as being “space opera.”  It is also the first in Banks’ Culture series of novels. I read the 2008 Orbit edition.

I really liked much of this book, but I also didn’t like some things about it.  First of all, I felt the first three chapters were interesting and I was a little unsure of who was doing what why – but it was full of action.  I, therefore, expected the novel to be more of the same.  But then it seemed that whole chunk was over suddenly and now we were reading a new, but similar, story. (The chapters introducing the Clean Air Turbulence.)  I felt that we had left the first storyline a little behind, but that was okay because this new “story” aboard the Clean Air Turbulence was interesting.  The main character gets to stay aboard this “Free Mercenary/Trade” ship if he wins a fight.  Okay, I’m invested in the main character – go Horza! Win the fight!

Then there are chapters wherein the pirate ship attempts a mission.  They are severely under-geared for this event and the mission fails. I actually did not really like this section because I was not sure what we were supposed to glean from it besides meeting characters.  Nevertheless, the pirates try again – the captain has a new mission for his crew.  They are going to the Orbital Vavatch – a ringworld.  And having read Niven’s Ringworld, I was all good with this sort of construct.  This was actually interesting for awhile, but ends poorly for many characters.

Insert new storyline:  Horza survives and ends up on island of crazy cannibal weirdos.  This is the part of the book that lots of reviewers like to comment on.  It has a lot of graphic imagery, but it is definitely creative and well, I hate to say it again, but it was interesting.  Next section:  the Damage game.  This part is a good example of something I disliked about this novel. There is a lot of build up to certain things.  However, the events seem to fall flat a bit.  The Damage game was probably my favorite section of the book.  Banks explains it well, gives us motives and concepts, and makes the whole thing seem really exciting.  And there’s a lot of elements here that make it unique and creative.  But overall, there’s something missing from it.  There’s something missing that would take it from good to great.  The trippy-LSD parts with Horza and his experience as a “changer” is different – especially the vague connection between him and Kraiklyn.

Horza’s adventures continue. We’re headed back to Schar’s World to capture the Mind.  I am not entirely sure why we are after the Mind – except in the very general sense of the war between the Idirans and the Culture.  Throughout the novel, we are given little interludes wherein we meet the Mind.  These interludes are somewhat tedious and somewhat interesting.  Sometimes they seem rambling and at other times, they seem to be really good at showing us the Mind.  I’m rather torn on whether these are well written or not.  Anyway, this last chunk of the novel is very action-oriented, except, really the last sixty pages, or so, is all build up for a very speedy ending.

The ending comes quickly, I guess I cared about the characters sufficiently, but I was not really upset or affected by anything that happened. There were several elements that were kind of just thrown in there to make it seem like small detailed twists. For example, Yalson’s pregnancy – I don’t really see how that’s anything other than the author trying to force a little plot twist.  The Idiran Xoxarle is a decent enemy, I suppose, but I really feel that he is there (this late in the novel) to finally give us some sense of the other major group in the war – the Idirans.  Up until meeting him, the Idirans are introduced via Horza’s thoughts about them.  But my biggest complaint was that for the whole last chunk of the book – the Mind – which was this amorphous entity with deep thoughts – now is reduced to a non-entity object.  It is incongruous.  I wanted another “interlude” regarding the Mind.

I really didn’t care for most of the chapters with Fal ‘Ngeestra.  I think they are there to get us to understand The Culture.  Which they did.  But also, the chapters seemed rambling and somewhat tangential.  I don’t know.  They served their purpose, but I guess I just didn’t really care for them.  Nevertheless, I really liked the drone. All readers seem to like the drone. (Personally, I think we all think of C3-PO from Star Wars and Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

I liked this novel – though I seem to be complaining a bit about it.  I really did enjoy it, even if it isn’t the greatest science fiction novel ever.  I liked a lot of what Banks did.  I liked the Culture concepts, the Idiran concepts, the Mind, etc.  I enjoyed a lot of the action scenes and the galaxy they are in.  The characters grow on the reader – but when Banks kills them off, it’s quick and to the point and we move on quickly.  I wanted to get to know more about several characters, but it didn’t happen, which was a little disappointing.  Fans of space opera will enjoy this novel.  I want to give it 3.5 stars, but I think I’m going to go with 3 stars.  Honestly, if you twist my arm on days that start with S or T, maybe I’ll give it 4 stars. If I tilt my head left, 3 stars, but if I tilt it right, then I give the novel 4 stars. This is a tough book for me to rate.  There’s a lot of good and some not-so-good.  Nevertheless, I definitely want to read more of Banks’ Culture series.

3 stars

One comment

  1. I recently picked up a copy of this one. Your review pretty much matches what I’ve heard elsewhere,that this isn’t the best Culture book, and probably isn’t the best place to start.

    If you go for another Culture book, I really hope you do, try Player of Games or Look to Windward. They have the sprawling “what the hell is going on? why are we doing this??” plots, but are probably a more compelling read. The bizarro and meandering plots seem to be a Culture thing.

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