Jonathan Cullen's Reviews > Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
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Feb 03, 11

Recommended for: as a starting point in the Culture series
Read in November, 2010

The opening scene to Iain M. Banks' opening novel in the Culture universe is one of my favourites in sci-fi. How would an ultra-sophisticated artificial intelligence escape certain death at the hands of an enemy? What moves would it make? What sacrifices?

The very next scene, in which we meet our protagonist Horza, is a huge win. Remember when we met Aragorn in Lord of the Rings? There was practically a drum roll. Yeah, well there's none of that here. Horza is being slowly put to death by drowning in the enemy's sewer system. Blagh. I've read a couple of Goodreviews that write this scene off as extraneous or at best irrelevant. To the contrary, I would argue that it gives you a nice idea about how easy the rest of Horza's travels are going to be and sets the dark(ish) yet playful mood.

Horza is himself rather interesting. He has unique physical capabilities, is introspective, and extremely resourceful. He laments many things. Consider Phlebas basically covers his Indiana Jones-type adventures.

Banks has made unusual choices in his viewpoint characters in all three of his novels that I've read: an enemy of the Culture (Consider Phlebas), a bored gamer who temporarily leaves the Culture (Player of Games) and a non-Culture agent who does their dirty work (Use of Weapons). We're always on the edge of the Culture itself, and only get hints of it as background, foreground and texture. I find that technique effective for a couple of reasons. First, as others have remarked, it wouldn't be much fun to read about the interior utopia of the Culture itself: "Woke up on silk sheets, didn't work, ate for free, worked a bit cause I liked it, played a game, glanded some wicked-bad drugs, went to bed." Also, seeing glimpses of something is always more interesting than being exposed to its raw nature. The influence of the Culture is constant, if distant. Sounds like most governments.

Banks' ability to describe scale is also impressive. In my review of Ringworld, I argue that Larry Niven failed to take advantage of his own wonderful construct of the Ring. I found his exploration of this incredibly impressive artifact to be a snooze ride. Banks picks up where Niven leaves off. In particular, Horza's flight through the General Systems Vehicle, which are typically between 25 and 200 km in each dimension, was some of the best action I've read in a while.

I take this opportunity to highlight Banks' deliciously subtle humour. Due to their complexity, the starships in the Culture universe are inhabited and controlled by a Mind(s). The inert and stale names given to the starships by humans, such as General Systems Vehicle and Rapid Offensive Unit, are contrasted wildly and wonderfully with the names that the Minds give themselves and therefore the ships. Some examples include No More Mr. Nice Guy; Profit Margin; Prosthetic Conscience; Nervous Energy; and Sweet and Full of Grace.

I've made the opposite of the following comment in my review of Greg Bear's Eon, but I feel with this worth repeating. Although Phlebas was published in 1987, in no way does it feel outdated or Gorbachev-like. The politics feel fresh, sharp and modern. Consider Phlebas was my introduction to the Culture and what an introduction it was. Whether Banks' series is my favourite sci-fi is still up in the air as I go through the books. However, I can say that the Culture is one of the most well thought out, interesting and multi-faceted political systems/civilizations in modern speculative fiction.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Ryan Agreed. That opening scene with Horza drowning is great. I was otherwise not a big fan of Consider Phlebas. However, I am considering reading the next two.


message 2: by Jonathan (last edited Feb 03, 2011 02:05PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jonathan Cullen I definitely recommend that you keep going. The third,
Use of Weapons, was my favourite to date.


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