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Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks, Bantam Spectra, 1991, 497 pp. (originally published in 1987)
Consider Phlebas is Banks' first science fiction novel, and he makes quite a splash. Astonishing, inventive, and highly readable, the book grabs the reader right from the beginning with a force and vivacity typically found only in space operas. But Banks' book has different concerns than "space opera" and Banks neatly evades many of the traps of that subgenre. The story consists of a number of picaresque adventures, with only a few signs of the stylistic excess that mark some of Banks' later books like Feersum Endjinn. Banks has an irrationally vehement dislike of religion, in the name of rationality of course, which creates some visceral but over the top passages in the book. Consider Phlebas is an excellent book, one of the best of its type that I have ever read, but it certainly has its own share of flaws.
The main character, Horza, is a Changer, who takes the side of the Idirans in their colossal war against the Culture. Horza gets jettisoned into space after a battle, and luckily, gets picked up by a group of pirates. The first half of the book consists of his adventures with the pirates, and then he takes control of the ship and goes on a personal mission. In the Prologue, we find out about a Mind (Culture AI) trapped on a Planet of the Dead -- it is this Mind that Horza is trying to rescue. Many of the former pirates fight for him, but he faces many enemies and many obstacles. The book ends much differently than expected, and then is followed by some clever additions, an appendix, dramatis personae, and epilogue, which add a nice postmodern touch. Banks also intersperses the narrative with three small sections labelled "State of Play." Here we find the story of Fal N'geestra, one of the thirty or forty humans out of eighteen trillion who can intuit the course of events better than any Mind. Fal accurately predicts many of Horza's actions, and is an interesting character in her own right. Fal's interaction with the Culture Minds adds a great deal of credibility to the Culture's eventual victory.
Horza is a ruthless person, and can be cold-bloodedly brutal. He kills a young man in single combat when he first arrives on the pirate ship, and he has few qualms about later killing the pirate leader and using his powers of Changing his own body to become the "new" leader. But it is also clear that, from Banks' perspective, Horza has chosen incorrectly in siding with the Idirans. Do we like Horza? I had mixed feelings actually, but I was more often pushed out of the story by Banks himself (more on that in the next section of my review) than by possible dislike of Horza. The other characters, such as the Culture Agent, Perosteck Balveda, or Horza's pirate lover, Yalson, were all well-written and credible. Banks also does a good job of portraying the Idiran mindset, as well as the internal workings of the Culture. As I already stated, I also liked the character of Fal N'geestra and her determined humanness in the face of her role in the war.
Banks extrapolates many astonishing ideas, and uses them to good effect. Vast orbitals, FTL, AI -- his take on each of these is unique and exciting. He also has a firm grasp of the sociology and the cultural implications of some of his ideas. The Culture lives in a post-scarcity civilization, highly reliant on the Minds and on its own anarchistic undefinability. But because of the AI, there can also be consensus, sometimes limited, in the face of disagreements. As it states in one of the appendices, the Culture is very different than the religiously dictated expansionism and conformity of the Idiran civilization. Did they have no choice about going to war? I wasn't sure that warfare fit in with the Culture mindset. I was also disturbed by Banks' fervent denouncement of religion, found in this book especially in Chapter 6, "The Eaters." Horza is stranded on an island somewhere on the vast Vavatch Orbital (which the Culture plans to destroy within a few days), and this island is ruled autocratically by the Prophet, a monstrously fat cannibal. An irrational target for Banks to knock over, a straw man to the uttermost. Beneath the layers of irony of Horza's mistaken allegiance to the Idirans, we get some pretty clear statements: "Horza recalled that the Culture's attitude to somebody who believed in an omnipotent God was to pity them... The nature of the belief wasn't totally irrelevant -- along with the person's background and upbringing, it might tell you something about what had gone wrong with them -- but you didn't take their views seriously" (167). This little bit of musing comes from Horza as the Prophet is preaching his own sermon. As far as I can tell, Banks isn't portraying a spectrum of irony, where the Culture is part of a continuum that begins with the Prophet. I find it frightening how sincerely Banks seems to believe the Culture viewpoint.
Consider Phlebas is a powerful book, and makes for quite a good read, despite Banks' refusal to see how narrow his "rationality" truly is. The book has many strong points, and the alert reader will see the gaps of logic in some of Banks' arguments and go on to enjoy what the book does have to offer.
Last modified: May 18, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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