CONSIDER PHLEBAS is the first novel in Banks' "Culture" series, one of the founding and best works of the modern space opera sci-fi genre. Arguably no...moreCONSIDER PHLEBAS is the first novel in Banks' "Culture" series, one of the founding and best works of the modern space opera sci-fi genre. Arguably no one since pioneering sci-fi master Robert Heinlein works intellectual ideas into their novels better than Iain Banks, though stylistically and in tone Banks is completely different than Heinlein. Though almost all "Culture" books are stand-alone stories, they cumulatively form a greater story about the Culture, a futuristic galactic society in which an amazing diversity of human-derived lifeforms are free to pursue their passions and pleasures under the care--or guidance or possibly even control--of AI "Minds" and sentient drones. Almost every complex piece of technology humans use--particularly space vessels--is actually a sentient AI.
This novel is an essential introduction to the Culture, and it definitely should be read before the others. Banks' Culture is more than merely a government: It is an idea or meme that guides the existence and perception of billions of humanoids and that sees itself as the pinacle of the biological and moral evolution of humanity. Much like the neoliberal World System that has evolved since WWII on Earth (and seemingly inspired Banks' creation), the Culture has a self-evident ethical duty to intervene, guide, uplift, or at times even punish civilizations they see as less developed or more savage. Most people in the Culture see their society as a heroic force for good, but Banks seems to want the reader to feel uncertain about this self-justified image. Most other "Culture" books are told from the perspective of Culture agents, so negative reactions to the Culture way of life are not explicit but operate as an unsettling background for the reader. No characters can meaningfully oppose the Culture because it is too vast, too powerful, and too much of an idea ever to be physically destroyed. And this is why CONSIDER PHLEBAS should be read first in the series.
CONSIDER PHLEBAS is the story of the last attempt to resist and defeat the Culture. Its protagonist reviles the hedonism of the Culture people and their dependence on non-living Minds, so much that he chooses to side with a radically alien race in their destructive war against the Culture because, in his view, they at least represent biological life over a technologically dependent evolutionary dead end. The central theme of the novel is insignificance in the face of the vastness of time and the universe. Up close, events and objects in space may seem significant, but with spatial and temporal distance their actual insignificance becomes apparent. The protagonist sees his role in the conflict as central, but ultimately his struggle and even the whole war itself appears murkier in the greater scheme. The Idirans have no signficant chance at winning their war against the Culture, and indeed the protagonist's own race is but an insignificant blip in the history of the conflict. Yet, the whole war and even the Culture itself seem insignificant from the perspective of the Elder races of the universe that transcend physical existence--when they even bother to take note of the universe.
The title comes from the line in T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" mourning how the passage of time erodes beauty and greatness. This theme permeates the novel. As the protagonist single-mindedly pursues his dangerous but increasingly irrelevant mission, he encounters wondrous sites on worlds that are awe-inspiring until one considers their disposability. He and his allies fight a battle on a gigantic ship many kilometers long. This ship is actually part of a mildly famous fleet of oversized ships, which are really only a tourist attraction on an independent Orbital (a spinning wheel-like habitat the size of multiple planets). Yet even this awesome feat of world building is an insignificant castoff from the Culture, which has more and bigger artifically built habitats. This Orbital and everything on it is consigned to destruction (almost casually) by the Culture because they do not wish to risk the chance that the Idirans might conquer it. This monumental construction is winked out of existence in a few moments by what amounts to a miniscule fraction of the Culture battle fleet.
Readers who demand heroic endings shouldn't bother with the "Culture" series. Readers who hunger for sci-fi revolving around big ideas that they will be thinking over months and years later shouldn't miss it. CONSIDER PHLEBAS will leave you wondering who exactly is the "Phlebas" in this story--the protagonist, his tiny race, the Idirans, or possibly even the whole Culture itself? (less)
This book is either the best "bad book" or the worst "good book" in science fiction, depending on your perspective. Its plot and structure are a jumbl...moreThis book is either the best "bad book" or the worst "good book" in science fiction, depending on your perspective. Its plot and structure are a jumbled mess: It basically reads like two separate novellas forced together into a single storyline. The first storyline revolves around the technological as well as psychological needs for fighting a near-future worldwide guerilla war, in which the powers behind a globalized World System must suppress desperate peasants who are on the losing end of that equation with little hope for changing it. The second storyline revolves scientists pursuing a technological revolution that will transform the very nature of human existence and make war obsolete or even psychologically impossible. What is tragic is that either storyline would have been interesting on its own, but smashed together neither is very convincing or rewarding.
There are still reasons to read this book. Haldeman's vision of the future seems uncannily astute to me. He wrote this novel several years before the global conflict between the Western-led World System and terrorist insurgencies that has flared up in the early 21st century, yet Haldeman's book may offer a vision of what that conflict might look like in the future. Additionally, he is one of the first sci-fi authors to make compelling use of nanotechnology. His vision of a society in which work is almost discretionary because virtually everything can be built from the atomic level by automated nanotech factories may yet be prophetic, as scientists today research that very technological path.(less)
I found this novel to be one of the most sadly thought-provoking works of science fiction of the past few decades. Written in the aftermath of the Vie...moreI found this novel to be one of the most sadly thought-provoking works of science fiction of the past few decades. Written in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, it tells the story of a futuristic soldier who sacrifices his place in the world, even his whole identity, in order to fight a war he barely ever understands. The premise of the plot was stunning: The "front line" is on the other side of the galaxy, so the only way to prosecute the war is to hurl troop transports across the stars at relativistic velocities, which means that while only a handful of months pass for the passengers many decades meanwhile pass back on Earth. Each tour in the war leaves the characters more divorced from the world they fight to protect, as they recognize less and less of the society to which they return.
The ending of the book is an anti-climax: The war ends somewhat suddenly for the characters and with a whimper. Yet somehow this feels very appropriate for this war and this setting. While the dialogue, characterizations, and narrative are nothing special, this book is well worth reading for its ideas.(less)
This third book in Scalzi's series begun with OLD MAN'S WAR starts out very strong. It returns to first person narration from the perspective of his e...moreThis third book in Scalzi's series begun with OLD MAN'S WAR starts out very strong. It returns to first person narration from the perspective of his engaging protagonist from his first novel. Brought along are two major characters from the second book, THE GHOST BRIGADES. Wisely, Scalzi has allowed all three characters to age and be changed by their experiences over the years, making them highly believable as people. Once again, his world building is intriguing and his setting fascinating and convincing. The returning as well as the new characters are uniformly effective and interesting (unlike so many in the second novel). The initial premise of the plot is also highly engaging, giving the reader a chance to see galactic colony building in Scalzi's universe firsthand.
In the first two-thirds of the book I felt it was even better than the first in the series, but in the last third it gives way to rushed action-based space opera plotting full of convenient circumstances, in which a handful of heroes can yet again save the day against powerful and clever enemies who just fortunately happen to be stupid at the necessary moments. As a result, THE LAST COLONY is better than THE GHOST BRIGADES but fails to equal the quality of OLD MAN'S WAR.(less)
This book is a somewhat disappointing sequel to Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR, which is considerably superior due to its effective evocation of Heinlein's cl...moreThis book is a somewhat disappointing sequel to Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR, which is considerably superior due to its effective evocation of Heinlein's classic STARSHIP TROOPERS and the originality of its futuristic setting. THE GHOST BRIGADES mentions the protagonist of the first book only in passing and instead revolves around the "love interest" from the first book. Whereas the reader got to experience the world of OLD MAN'S WAR from the first-time perspective of its protagonist, making everything feel fresh and immediate, the third person narration of THE GHOST BRIGADES feels very standard and uninspired.
This only accentuates how unoriginal much of the plot is (something Scalzi acknowledges in his author notes). The novel's plot is largely a creative amalgamation of familiar elements from the space opera genre. The plot events are even more movie-like than the end of OLD MAN'S WAR, a melange of convenient action scenes in which a handful of heroes are capable of saving the day. Nor are the characters particularly interesting or likeable, not even the love interest from the first novel. The only reason to recommend reading this novel is because of the added detail and richness it adds to Scalzi's world building, which remains innovative and exciting. Indeed, the world building is so intriguing that it makes the book worth 3 stars. (less)
Holland's book is one of the best on the topic. It is both very well researched (and his use of quotes from classical sources is exceptionally helpful...moreHolland's book is one of the best on the topic. It is both very well researched (and his use of quotes from classical sources is exceptionally helpful) and very readable to a general audience. What makes his book unique is that it is not a biography of individuals but the story of the republican system, its people, and its descent into collapse. As he says in his introduction, it is a story about citizens in Rome and what they lost politically in the last century BC/BCE.
Much of Holland's narrative will be familiar to students of Roman history. You'll still find the Brothers Gracchi, Sulla and Marius, and the triumvirates. But, his narrative also brings much that is new or unfamiliar, particularly connections to culture, economy, and society at the time these political events were playing out. While their republic was fraying, these Romans still tried to live and enjoy life, even when those enjoyments provided distractions that worsened the plight of the republic. Holland also offers plausible alternative interpretations of the famous figures and their motivations. For example, shortly after defeating Antony, Octavian was granted the legal inviolability of a tribune of the plebs (a republican office). Normally this is interpreted as Octavian's first step in constructing the political basis on his principate regime. Holland points out, though, that legal inviolability meant nothing during the tumult of the civil wars, as inviolability didn't prevent the murder of Caesar or others. Instead of being a power grab by Octavian, Holland sees tribunician inviolability as a gesture by the Roman people themselves. Since inviolability would only mean something within the republic system, citizens were conveying their hope to Octavian that he would restore and honor the republic. By accepting inviolability, Octavian signalled that his rule would at least maintain a semblance of the republican system.
Of course, a semblance of the republic is all that remained under the principate, a semblance that faded under Augustus's successors. Ultimately, Holland's narrative is a somber one, a tale of loss of political liberty that would not be seen anywhere again in the world for the next 1,000 years. Though Holland pointedly avoids making explicit comparisons between ancient Rome and the U.S. today, he suggests (and I think quite rightly) that what happened to the Roman republic should be of interest to Americans today. The pressures that tore at Rome's republic--competition between the ruling classes, extreme factionalism, the criminalization of political differences, erosion of the political liberty and economic independence of citizens--are possibly timeless issues for any republic to consider.
The best praise that can be given to this book already is one of the reviews quoted on the soft cover: Of all the many authors who have been basically...moreThe best praise that can be given to this book already is one of the reviews quoted on the soft cover: Of all the many authors who have been basically competently following in the footsteps of Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS these past many decades, none of them comes as close to Heinlein as OLD MAN'S WAR. This is high praise, and what's more it is fairly accurate. Scalzi's first-person narrative is engaging and highly evocative of STARSHIP TROOPERS. Scalzi's protagonist may be even more likeable than Heinlein's. One of the real joys of the book is experiencing Scalzi's universe as it unfolds for the first time for his protagonist.
World building is definitely Scalzi's strength. His universe is STAR TREK-like in its scope and alien diversity, but the science and political nature of his setting are more plausible and convincing. By the end of the book, you will want to know more about his Colonial Union, CDF, and their alien rivals. Scalzi never provides excessive detail, just enough to help you envision and believe in the setting. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't hold up so well. The plot culminates in a palpably movie-like mission in which the protagonist is paired up with his love interest and must save the day. It is the only mildly disappointing aspect of the book.
While the comparison to Heinlein serves Scalzi well in some regards, it also points out why I cannot give the book 5 stars. While it is highly evocative of Heinlein, OLD MAN'S WAR is ultimately not as good a piece of literature. Consider that Heinlein rarely wrote sequels and never did for STARSHIP TROOPERS, despite its popularity and the public appetite for more. Put simply, Heinlein didn't need to write a sequel: Every point he wanted to make was in his original book. Scalzi's novel is not so rich or self-contained, nor is there a complete vision even with multiple sequels. (less)
Lem's novel is a dark meditation on the limits of human imagination to understand a truly alien intelligence. Solaris is not just a planet, it is a li...moreLem's novel is a dark meditation on the limits of human imagination to understand a truly alien intelligence. Solaris is not just a planet, it is a life form so different from humans that we can only struggle to begin to comprehend it. At the same time, Solaris seeks to comprehend humans--with terrifying consequences for the people involved. A major theme of Lem's novel is summed up in a moving passage in which he notes that humans go out into the stars with a "mirror" seeking only to find reflections of themselves in whatever they encounter. Solaris does not (or cannot?) oblige this hubris.
It is a shame that the book cover shown for Lem's provocative, strange classic is from the indulgent, partial Soderburg film adaptation. Tartarovsky's adaptation from the 1970s, while not perfect, was far superior. Lem's novel (and to an extent Tartarovsky's film) offer a Solaris that is mostly incomprehensible and utterly alien to human morality; Soderburg settles for giving us a Solaris that really is a nice planet after all.(less)