J.G. Keely's Reviews > Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
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Jul 15, 2015

it was ok
bookshelves: science-fiction, uk-and-ireland, reviewed, space-opera
Read from May 26 to June 03, 2011

Welcome to another edition of 'Notable Genre Author Fails to Impress Some Guy on the Internet', I'll be your host: some guy.

Like so many highly-lauded authors featured here, Banks has been haunting my shelf for quite some time now. Countless are the times I have passed this book before bed, letting my eyes linger longingly on the spine, relishing the notion that I will actually read this book, some day. There have even been those occasions where I thumbed it down, peering at the cover, carefully comparing it to others, knowing that I must be the final arbiter of posterity--to choose one, eschewing all others to a cruel and unknown future.

As always I was prepared to be impressed, or even blown-away, and to tell the truth, it started off with some promise. The prose is fairly solid, and that title, it's a doozy. Unfortunately, the title's suggestion of literary intertextuality soon wilted on the vine, so I dialed-back my expectation to 'amusing, rollicking adventure'. Now, I would be lying if I suggested that there wasn't some breed of rip-snorting adventure in here, but unfortunately, it's all smothered beneath the cold, damp pillow of Too Much Explanation.

It is a lamentable condition which affects nearly four quarters of all science fiction authors, and in many cases, proves uncurable. I can understand the temptation: you create this big, crazy world, and you want to share all of it with the reader, all the time! But what sci fi authors make up for in enthusiasm, they lack in structure, plot, and character.

We are given long asides about the world, the politics, the war, and the characters' thoughts--the onmiscient narrator going on excitedly about tangents and small points to the detriment of the plot. Truly, there is no insight too small to be explicitly stated; even things we already know, like the fact that taking in an enemy and keeping them around is dangerous, or that the decision whether or not to shoot someone has two outcomes, one with shooting, the other with somewhat less shooting.

People have described this book as an 'intellectual Space Opera', but when I picture an intellectually engaging book, it's not one that tells me that kissing is nice, that people with guns are scary, or that losing loved ones is sad. It's like the 'adverb problem' many writers suffer from; in the sentence:

"What did you say?" John asked, questioningly.

We have a redundant description (questioningly) that adds nothing to the story but needless length. A good writer doesn't tell the reader things they already know; and they certainly don't tell them the same things over and over.

I found the repetition particularly inexplicable. On one page, we're told that the character won't die of thirst because he's floating on a freshwater ocean. We are told it again on the following page, from the same character's internal monologue, on the same day. It just felt like bad editing at that point.

But the worst thing about these kinds of overt explanations is that they make books dull and tedious. All characters go through similar struggles, and for the most part, react to them in similar ways: people like pleasurable things, they try to avoid pain, and they're afraid of the unknown. What gives characters personality is how they experience these common reactions. It's in the little details. The more you take advantage of these little details, the more personality your characters will have.

And it actually works the same with the plot: the way you reveal events and information, the way things unfold, the little details of writing create the tone. When an author wants to demonstrate something--a character's personality, the progression of a relationship, some point of politics or philosophy--he designs a scene to illustrate this point. So, if you want to show that your character is afraid of snakes, you might set up a scene where he sees a rubber snake and freaks out and maybe he feels embarrassed and holds a grudge over being fooled. It not only reveals the fear, it also reveals other aspects of the character: their pride and capacity for resentment.

It's the old writer's adage about 'showing instead of telling'. When you show what a character does, you're demonstrating a distinct personality; when you tell us 'he's afraid of snakes' you're just describing a generic trait. Remove the need to show how characters react and you lose the best way to make them unique and intriguing.

It makes it hard to connect with characters when they are mainly a list of traits--and it's even worse if the author doesn't actually have them demonstrate those traits. If a character is constantly described as being 'strong-willed', but is never shown actually behaving that way, then the author has failed to write the character they intended. If you show the audience something that looks, feels, smells, and tastes like an apple, they aren't going to believe it's a banana, no matter how many times you tell them it is. Because of this conflict between how the characters were described and how they actually behaved, they never developed into real personalities, and their actions rarely made sense--except that they facilitated the plot.

At one point, we are told at length how much the character is worrying about some friends of his, if only he could get to them. The moment he gains the ability to reach them, he forgets about them and goes off to check something else out. Then, a bit later, this character--who has been shown as deliberate, conniving, and calculating throughout--suddenly behaves erratically and does a bunch of short-sighted, stupid things for no apparent reason, except that it lets the author put in his Big Chase Scene.

Unfortunately, since the characters were shallow and undeveloped, the reason for the chase a sudden bout of stupidity, and the stakes for the chase unclear, it made the whole thing tedious, when it should have been a high point. Many authors (and summer movie directors) seem to assume that pure action and explosions are exciting, but without purpose and pacing to back them up, they are just filling space.

But then, the whole book had flawed pacing; and not just because it was chock-full of tangents and redundancies. Mostly, the problem was a common one: the 'back-loaded McGuffin'. A 'McGuffin' is just a generic thing that moves the plot along, usually something a character wants. Some common examples are: the diamonds, the plans, the one ring, the magic sword, the launch codes. In general, it doesn't matter what the thing actually is, they're mostly interchangeable.

Banks tries a few times to make his McGuffin more pertinent to the plot, but it's a pretty standard 'the thing'. When I talk about a 'back-loaded' plot, I mean one where all the action is constantly focused on the final conclusion. Now it's good for a story to progress toward this conclusion, but you've got to put smaller arcs and motivations along the way. Really, there should be a fairly clear goal for each distinct scene, otherwise, all of the build-up, all the tension, all the motivation is pointing at one spot--all loaded on the back, which that doesn't make for a very balanced story. Plus, no conclusion will ever be good enough to live up to four hundred pages of 'wait for it!'.

What's worse is when the climax is already pretty clearly outlined and the author keeps stalling. If the reader can see what the conflict is, where it's going to take place, and more-or-less how it's going to play out, stalling is only going to annoy them. Sure, you can take a minute to have everyone watch the game-winning hit with fear and apprehension, you can even do it in slow mo with the outfielder running to the wall hoping to catch it. But if you keep cutting back to the wide-eyed faces, the outfielder running, the ball soaring, the faces again, the ball, the crowd, the ball--well, it all starts to get pretty stupid.

That was how I felt as the book 'neared' the climax. It was pretty clear how it was going to play out, because we could see the stuff that needed to happen before we could move on, but Banks spends a hundred pages stalled out at roughly the same moment, going from the team, to the bad guy, to the team, to a guy thinking, to the bad guy, just showing us incrementally smaller bits of the same stuff back and forth over and over. He seemed to be trying to build tension, but there really wasn't much tension to build. A half-pat of butter will not spread over a whole loaf of bread, no matter hold long you rake it with the knife.

At this point, since he's constantly returning to the characters sitting around and talking, waiting for something to happen, he actually begins to develop some personalities for them, but I quickly began to suspect that he was only doing this so he could shoe in some emotional connections before killing some off in the climax in an attempt to make their deaths more poignant. Unfortunately, that just just meant that the emotional action was telegraphing the plot--if a character is suddenly revealed to be interesting, makes a connection to the protagonist, and then finds peace with life, you can be sure they're about to bite it.

Banks also telegraphs the plot when he tries to increase tension, because he will tell the reader (through exposition) about future possibilities. He'll talk about how, if the prisoner escapes and gets a gun, it won't be good for the main characters--as if that were some kind of revelation--but in every case, these are just red herrings, so it becomes easy to predict the outcomes of the book by assuming that anything the characters worry about won't happen.

Now, there are some smaller arcs in the book too, so it's not all back-loaded, and some of them were okay, but they suffered from the same structural problems as the rest of the book. Many of these scenes were gory, which some people found compelling, but I didn't feel were particularly disturbing. Sure, there was violence, unpleasant people, cannibals, shit-drowning, cracked carapaces, snapped limbs, laser wounds, shrapnel, and all that stuff, but it was just flash. It might not have been pleasant but it didn't open up any unsettling psychological implications. As with personality and tone, it's not the bare fact of violence that is disturbing, but its specific treatment, its implications. Just as explosions don't equal an exciting plot, slasher gore doesn't equal tension.

The weirdly effusive voice of a nominally neutral omniscient narrator was only one part of a rather silly tone in the book. I found most of the ship names quite cleverly funny, but in general, the jokey tone was a poor match for a brooding book of life-or-death consequences. The whole epilogue actually hinges on a tacked-on punchline, which made me wonder if this book wasn't just the longest Shaggy Dog Joke I've ever read.

This book also hit another genre trend: the protagonist collecting women. You can always spot it when a woman walks in the room and gets a description several times as long as any male character. Often, this description will be repeated or echoed every time that female character reenters the room, while many male characters will persist throughout the book in a vague, featureless haze.

These women always start off cool and distant, but keep coming to the protagonist, bantering with him adversarially, but playfully--there's never any real conflict between them, just enough tension to sweeten the pot. I found the central romance particularly disappointing because it comes out of nowhere. I actually appreciated at first how the characters seemed to take a nonchalant, almost awkward approach--it made sense considering all the other things they had on their mind--but then, suddenly, it's all lovey-dovey and everyone is spouting awkward platitudes:

"What she did not know about him was only what he did not know about himself (but that, he told himself, was quite a lot still). Perhaps she even knew him better than he knew himself."

There is never anything resembling real thoughts or emotions in the entire relationship, and it rather reminded me of Scriptshadow's observation about the film Aliens: namely, that love stories don't fit into every scenario, particularly not tense, difficult ones where characters are thrown together, under constant stress, and plot takes a backseat to worldbuilding. In such a case, an attempt to add a love story is always going to feel like an extra shovelful of clutter tossed on the pile.

I said earlier that the prose wasn't bad, but the figurative language smacks of trying too hard; it's not a natural part of the authorial voice but an intrusion of forced poetics:

" . . . a thousand-kilometer peninsula sticking out into a frozen sea like some monstrous fractured limb set in plaster."

A lot of the figurative language is written weakly, without confidence, as the 'like some' above indicates--whenever you see 'like some kind of' or 'it almost seemed as if', you know an author was struggling with their voice. Unlike William Gibson's direct, assertive style, Banks' metaphors are often vague. Metaphors are intended to provide the reader with a more clear and physical comprehension of the world, not with a cloudy possibility of 'some' resemblance. We also have:

"He put his head back to her chest, nestling it between her breasts like a huge, delicate egg."

and a couple pages later, of a different woman (same protagonist):

" . . . taking his hand and bringing it to her mouth, kissing it, stroking it as thought it were a small, defenseless animal."

So in one fell stroke we have redundant repetition, awkward metaphors, and cheesy romance.

Not only are the emotions flat (due to the expositional method of characterization), they're also surprisingly modern and staid, especially for a story about alien cultures. Love, gender, pride, religion, and most other traits are played fairly straight. We do have a noble warrior race in there, but that's hardly less cliche, just being the sci fi version of the 'Noble Savage'. Banks will sometimes talk about purported differences in personality, but as usual, these are never actually demonstrated by the characters themselves. This isn't necessarily a problem if you're writing a light, accessible Space Opera story, but it's detrimental to a ponderous, meandering book that relies on a more complex, unusual setting.

The actual science elements are also rather unremarkable, even for the period. Much of the plot relies on a strict delineation between robots and humans, focused mainly on a false dichotomy of emotion vs. logic. I've always found this silly, not just because emotions are logical (you can't have logical thought if the emotional center of the brain is damaged), but also because there is no reason that humans won't progress along with robots as technology increases. In all likelihood, humans and robots will progress toward one another as time goes on until there is no functional definition which separates one from the other.

Now some of this is meant to be overplayed in the book; we're not supposed to fall entirely for this point of view, which is nice, I appreciate the ambiguity. Yet, Banks doesn't have any new insights about the similarities and differences between robots and humans, either.

Lack of insight was a general problem. There were very few moments where I felt surprised or spurred to thought by Banks' story. Everything was laid out in front of me, explained, repeated, and followed the basic rules of the genre without introducing any new innovation. Yes, the narrator was morally ambiguous, but I would have appreciated that more if it didn't merely seem to be a symptom of ambiguity in general.

In some ways ways, it resembles The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but without the humor. It has the big set pieces, characters hopping all over, a rather silly, self-aware tone, and a lot of asides about the universe--but lacked the style and satirical insight that made that series such a delight. Unfortunately, the most interesting and intellectual part of Consider Phlebas is the title, and the rest never manages to live up to that promise.

As far as Space Operas are concerned, Hitchhiker's Guide is earlier, more intelligent, and more fun, with better pacing and writing. This book had about 230 pages of plot, character, and world buried in 500 pages of redundant explanations, appendices, exposition, explosions, gore, gross outs, and digressions. I wasn't wowed by speculative insight, intrigued by unpredictability, or amused by an exciting story. I found much of the book dull and overwrought, which may have made for a quick read, but not a particularly enjoyable one.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 82) (82 new)


message 1: by Dr M (new) - added it

Dr M I'm looking forward to your review of this supposedly intellectual space opera. I have the book on my to-read shelf.


J.G. Keely So far it's definitely Space Opera, but I'm not picking up anything intellectual--besides the title. I mean, it's not dumb or anything, but I'm not finding it particularly sophisticated.


message 3: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I too am looking forward to what you might say I do hope you'll do a review.


J.G. Keely Review's up.


message 5: by Kendra (new)

Kendra Hysterical! Thanks for the laugh, to bad the book was so disappointing.


message 6: by Autumn (new)

Autumn Wow! That was a long review. I'm considering writing a review of it. :)


message 7: by Jim (last edited Jun 07, 2011 10:41AM) (new)

Jim Keely,

Commenting on Boradicus' tongue-in-cheek comment - the best reviewers write in a way that the reader can apply her own filter and get a relevant impression. This is something that "fan-reviews" rarely offer. A fan review is like a political rally - everyone at the party is already a fan - the right things are said, everyone cheers at the right times, beliefs are reinforced.

You were suckered into spending time to plaw through 500, mostly not worthwhile, pages - probably by many kind ot that sort of fan-review.

I will next admit that I didn't read YOUR entire review. But....

The first part - TOO MUCH EXPLANATION - aroused me to comment. I may misunderstand the literary term "exposition", but I think you are saying that Banks should do that rather than explain. Two examples in SF that come to mind are Dune and Neuromancer. In both the narrative uses allusion, metaphor (NOT like the howlers you cited above), and circumstance to create setting. The reader must infer to .

Dune was the first "difficult" book I tried - at age 13. 100 pages into the pocket-paper edition, I caught a second wind.

Gibson's work is dense and forced this oft-lazy-reader to read slowly and carefully.

Skimming your review further, it looks like the author has committed various other sins - which his space-opera-fans apparently eat up. Oh well, once you've sampled fine dining, fast-food doesn't get five, four, or even three stars anymore. Some will always be satisfied by a Carl's-Jr. Triple Bacon Cheese Burger and never venture into Lutece or the like (or even the local Asian/Thai/Lao hole in the wall).

Howzat for some tortured metaphors? At least your don't have to pay 4-bits at a garage sale for my stuff.

Finally, I've heard of fan-fiction, wherein the faithful will write stories designed to fit with the series-setting/characters.

I wonder: has anyone ever tightened up a loose yet popular novel - and gotten any attention for it? This would be more than a Reader's Digest Condensed Book treatment (though that would be a good first step) - it would involve cutting those not-useful adverbs and those head-like-a-huge-delicate-egg (and hand-like-a-small-defenseless-animal!) chestnuts.

(hoo hah! How can he read those and leave them in?)

(Maybe he doesn't - read them, that is)

I think Harlan Ellison, in a fairly recent interview, said that he reads all his stuff aloud - then edits.

Anyway, even though it's unlikely I would ever have picked up any Banks, thanks for the entertainment of your detailed warning.


message 8: by Jim (new)

Jim Bordicus,

Keely is not only erudite, perceptive, clearly well-educated, broadly-educated, he has tons of energy for reading/reviewing - and no life!

(Kidding about that life thing)

He is smart enough not to turn over his down cards re: his political beliefs (unlike me) - but I gather that he and I would behave much differently if he or I were king.

So, while I am rarely enthralled by his writing, I am often entertained and/or illuminated, and always take a smidgen of time to read his reviews that show up in my in-box.

Sometimes, when the muse strikes I will comment. See my comments on his review of The Giver.

(you see, I don;t have a life either).


message 9: by Jim (new)

Jim Bordicus,

I see from briefly checking out your GoodReads page (and Keely's), that I am a GoodReads slacker.

I also see that you are "reading" (studying is more like it) a book on applied Calculus.

Having survived multiple accelerated calculus, diff eq, linear algegbra, and probability courses (with applications in engineering and physics), I wish to offer condolences.

(unless of course you're reading for fun or solving problems)


message 10: by Jim (new)

Jim So, no Boradicus, you are not currently enbroiled in calculus?

My own approach to the "bookshelf" is to focus mostly on the excellent and occasionally on the merely recent.

If its one or two stars - I won't bother.

But, I can see, upon a shred of reflection, that GoodReads can make a good personal diary - a reminder of what one was reading at a certain time.

I was invited to GoodReads by a vivacious, attractive, (married, alas), fellow Toastmaster.

I looked at her shelf - a number of books I considered 5 (or more) star she apparently considered to be middle of the pack (most of these were SF classics).

That opened my eyes a bit.


message 11: by j (new) - rated it 3 stars

j yeah, i didn't like this book. i think his Use of Weapons is a much more ambitious and thoughtful book. And if you want to talk about structure, good grief. That book is nothing if not painstakingly structured.


J.G. Keely Good to know. I'm not opposed to trying out one of his other books, though I admit my ardor has cooled due to this one. I'll keep an eye out--thanks for the comment.


message 13: by Colin (new) - added it

Colin A good read as always, Keely (your review I mean). I felt pretty much the same way about this book. Which is unfortunate, since I know a lot of people who absolutely love this entire series. What you said in particular about "you create this big, crazy world, and you want to share all of it with the reader, all the time! But what sci fi authors make up for in enthusiasm, they lack in structure, plot, and character." really rang true for me on this one.

On a more positive note, I have to second what Joel said. The second Culture book I picked up was Use of Weapons and I enjoyed it a lot more.


J.G. Keely Oh, cool. Glad you liked the review. Maybe the next one will fulfill some of the promise I felt was squandered in this one.


message 15: by Steve (new)

Steve I abandoned this shitty turd right before I drowned in its shittiness. This review has made me clean again. Thank you.


J.G. Keely I'm glad you liked it, thanks.


Robin Just joined goodreads and I'm drawn to your thoughtful reviews Keely. I was pretty disappointed in CP too. Expansive, gritty universe populated by 8-bit characters who behaved unconvincingly a lot of the time. I was expecting Horza to have a massive problem on his hands when he took over from Kraiklyn, for example, but the response from the crew was just a shrug and why not, we'll join you on your mission. Real shame, I wanted to love this book, much as I want to love a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read but end up disappointed. Thank god for Perdido Street Station, and the fact I still have the Scar to look forward to. Keep up the great reviews.


J.G. Keely Yeah, I always find it disappointing when an author wastes a promising interpersonal conflict and then has to create some other external conflict to keep the plot moving. It's much better to stick to the conflicts that are already there rather than trying to shoehorn in some other twist.

I did enjoy The Scar, different from Perdido--slower pace, more internal--but still interesting. Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the review.


message 19: by Andyw (last edited Aug 16, 2012 03:30PM) (new)

Andyw I always find it disappointing when someone comes up with a review that contains a statement such as

"The weirdly effusive voice of a nominally neutral omniscient narrator was only one part of a rather silly tone in the book.

You can get away with effusive and omnisicent, just about because I am being kind, but nominally? You are just throwing words at the review aren't you? You seem to be more interested in the quality of the review rather than the quality of the book.

So in summary, you screwed the review because of this. 1 star (and that is me being kind again)

Andy

PS I didn't read it all either just in case it went from very bad to very worse.


J.G. Keely Firstly, I feel a need to point the 'omniscient narrator' is a standard literary term, not a combination of my invention, so any wordiness there shouldn't be placed at my feet.

Moving on, the word 'nominally' is a modifier to 'neutral'. In most cases, if a book has an omniscient narrator, it is an unbiased voice which does not pass judgment on the characters or offer its own opinions. It doesn't make sense for the narration to have an opinion if it is an impersonal voice instead of a character's voice.

So, what I'm saying here is that the narrative voice in this book was too effusive to be neutral, like most omniscient narrators are. Let me give you an example in hopes of making it clearer.

If a book has a character who constantly talks about how fruit vendors are terrible people, that's the voice of the character, not the author. However, if we get a line like this:

"I never trust a fruit vendor" said Michael, and he was right to say it, because they are inveterate scum.

That's an instance where the narrator is actually expressing an opinion. If the narrator is not a character in the story, but an unnamed, omniscient force, then we have to ask where this odd opinion is coming from--often, it's the author's bias showing through. In any case, it tends to muddle the story, which is the point of the sentence you quoted.


message 21: by Muni (new) - rated it 4 stars

Muni Jump in, read it! Chances are you will really like it. I did.


J.G. Keely I did read it, and I didn't particularly like it, that's why I wrote this two-star review of the book.


message 23: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Well, I remember (in one or other previous decade) being curious about the ideas expressed in The Player of Games and wondering whether to read further. I can't remember if I did, but your review suggests it would be a fruitless application of time.


J.G. Keely Yeah, I don't know. I've been told to try some of his other stuff, but that's what fans of bad authors always say, so I'm not especially convinced.


message 25: by Nostalgebraist (new)

Nostalgebraist I've only read The Player of Games, and I wasn't that impressed with it. I don't know what it is that people like about Banks -- I kind of wonder if it's just that he's relatively left-wing as authors of space opera go, and is able to monopolize a certain niche because of that. That seems too cynical, though, given how widely read some of his fans are.

I still plan to read Use of Weapons sometime, since everyone seems to think that's the best one.


message 26: by Kyle (last edited Jan 25, 2013 10:50PM) (new)

Kyle Keely wrote: "Yeah, I don't know. I've been told to try some of his other stuff, but that's what fans of bad authors always say, so I'm not especially convinced."

Thanks for your review Keely, though I must admit I am not too heartened since I have this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it. *Curse me for not checking your review before I bought the book!* Or at least, hopefully I end up liking it more than you did.

I've too have had people tell me that some of the others are better, or that I should try Ian Bank's non-science fiction stuff (particularly The Wasp Factory). We will see though...anyway sorry for blathering away on your comment section, and thanks again for the thoughtful comments about the book.


J.G. Keely Rob said: "I kind of wonder if it's just that he's relatively left-wing as authors of space opera go, and is able to monopolize a certain niche because of that."

Yeah, there may be something to that, that this isn't Starship Troopers where it all centers on how cool the military and their technology are, and how interesting it is to be space colonials. Do let me know if you figure out Banks' appeal.

"hopefully I end up liking it more than you did."

Yeah, it sat on my shelf for a while, and I was excited to get to it--it was right next to Gene Wolfe's New Sun books, both series that had huge reputations and came highly-recommended, but both fell so completely flat upon reading. So disappointing when that happens.


message 28: by Kirkus (new)

Kirkus Your review actually fit quite alot of books I have read, unsure if it makes your review good or bad xD


J.G. Keely Well, either way, I'm sorry so many books you've read have fit the same ungainly mold.


message 30: by Zack (new)

Zack Just got an elementary, intermediate, and advanced creative writing class all in one comment. Not just a community college level course, but a full on in your face University of Iowa/Emory U. mash-up of how to make your book awesomely fckuing blow your mind. Thanks for not trashing Hitchhiker's too much by the way.


J.G. Keely Well, I'm glad it was useful for you, and I wouldn't be likely to trash Hitchhiker's Guide, I think it's a very good series.


Andrew I finished this yesterday and although I haven't finished editing my review I have to say that there is no way it could be compared to H Guide. Banks concepts are much more serious but this book failed to fulfill it's potential which I was catching a glimpse of. Hoping the sequels are improved as this needed some more editing.


J.G. Keely I think it is a mistake to assume that just because Douglas Adams is absurd, that he is not serious. The themes he endeavors to tackle: death, meaning, hope, faith, delusion, society vs. the individual, irrationality--are very serious matters, and despite the apparent lightness with which Adams touches on them, I think he has the mark of a great humorist, is that his comedy always points to some idea, some mortal pain, some inconsistency in man that goes to the heart of what makes us human, what makes us think and feel.

Indeed, though Banks may affect a more serious tone, I did not find him to be half as lofty in thought--indeed, there is a sort of contradiction between the two authors: Adams is silly about serious matters, while Banks is serious about silly matters. Indeed, Banks' inclusion of sex, violence, poop, cannibals, and amorality did not feel, to me, to be signs of a mature and thoughtful work, but of a sophomoric work which tried to use adult themes to put on a posture of serious-mindedness.


message 34: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra I like your style- but I have to point out that you fall into the same trap in this review that the author did... you tell the reader the same thing over and over, and then give an example and another example... Are you trying to drive home the point that the book is a tedious read by making it too difficult to get through your review? If so, bravo... I definitely won't read this book.


Andrew I'm on Culture Book Two now - "Player of Games" and I am finding as I suspected that Banks has superior creativity and that his ability to write stepped up a notch. Phlebas was his learning curve and he seems to have dropped most of the trashy stuff by book two. It's a bit early to say for sure yet as I'm just past page 100.


J.G. Keely Andrew said: "I am finding as I suspected that Banks has superior creativity and that his ability to write stepped up a notch."

That's good to hear--perhaps that explains his reputation in the genre. Even so, I'm hesitant to give him another try when there are so many other books on my to-read list by authors who haven't already disappointed me once.


message 37: by Atombender (new)

Atombender Note that this comment contains some spoilers.

I appreciated the review, but I think you are being much too harsh.

In particular, I think you simply did not pick up on Banks' mode of writing. Consider Phlebas, as all other Culture books, is broadly satiric. Yes, the story is basically serious; but as space opera it's consistently written with an ironic perspective on the universe.

Describing it as "silly" just misses the point. The Culture books are full of wry humour. Sarcastic drones, over-confident villains, crass anti-heroes, lots of ironic observations of history and civilization. Banks is very much a kindred spirit of Douglas Adams in that sense; Banks' books are of course nowhere near as absurd or overtly comedic, but they are often as funny.

The encyclopedic, expositional narrative is part and parcel of this panoramic style. Banks knows very well about the "show, not tell" principle, but that defeats the point of satirizing an entire universe. (If you want to read Banks' in extreme exposition mode, incidentally, consider The Algebraist. Or don't. It goes on for pages and pages about its — non-Culture — universe, and it's frequently hilarious, even if it's wildly distracting from the story.)

You mentioned a few things you didn't like. Like the weird unpredictability of the main character; actually, I appreciated how Horza was deeply conflicted throughout, and did not act completely rationally at all times. This explains his very reluctant, circumspect actions in the middle part, and the subsequent waffling. As for the indifference of the crew, consider that they are essentially mercenaries. And most of them are unimportant to the plot, which is why they are less than well defined. As for the "noble warrior" stuff, what were you referring to? If you were talking about Horza, I think you missed the idea. Horza is not supposed to be a noble character. He is, if anything, un-noble; a classic antihero.

As for the ending, I don't know why it disappointed you. As you point out, the search for the Mind is a McGuffin; Banks happily uses such McGuffins to focus his plots, and the irony (again) of the book is precisely that it doesn't matter. All that stuff happened just for a bunch of characters to die. Horza's meaningless sacrifice, and the extinction of his species, hinged on his personal choices, which led him on a not very important mission to accomplish infinitesimally little. I found this kind of nihilism beautiful, and the epilogue was depressingly, juicily satisfying in that regard. All of this stuff happened, all for nothing. It's an idea that Banks loves and repeats in many of his books, the notion that nothing much matters and events tend to play out in a certain way that is beyond one's ability to control. It meshes nicely with the idea that The Culture is all about power and control, all existing in order to create freedom from power and control.

As for the sometimes less than polished language, give the author some slack. Phlebas was Banks' first scifi novel; it was written in the 1970s and rewritten for publishing after he broke through with his first mainstream novel, The Wasp Factory. He got better over time. His scifi stuff is always more lurid, chatty and coarse than his mainstream works, but that's part of the charm, in my view.

You mention to other commenters that you are not tempted to try another Banks book. For your own sake, you may want to give Look to Windward a chance. It's a kind of loose sequel to Phlebas — no, really, bear with me — that is set 800 years after the first book. It shares no characters or events with Phlebas, although it deal with the cultural and moral consequences to the Idiran war. Unlike Phlebas, its plot is refreshingly McGuffin-free, and rather more complex, both intellectually and structurally; although it does have a typical banksian minor character working on the sidelines whose actions, in the end, amount to nothing. Windward is probably Banks' best Culture novel.


J.G. Keely "Consider Phlebas, as all other Culture books, is broadly satiric . . . Sarcastic drones, over-confident villains, crass anti-heroes, lots of ironic observations of history and civilization. Banks is very much a kindred spirit of Douglas Adams in that sense"

I guess I tend to think of Adams' satire as being focused: that it illuminates specific ideas and there is a certain philosophy that underlies it. Banks' sort of sardonicism didn't seem particularly pointed, just a continuous, wry tone that never actually subverts any particular concept. It was like a teenage kid who gives a sarcastic answer to everything--it doesn't actually mean that he's jaded and incisive, it's just an avoidant put-on.

I agree that Banks can be clever, but it didn't seem that this cleverness had any end in mind, especially since the meat of the story is full of such cliche plot and character types (i.e. antiheroes and crass villains). If that was the story that Banks chose to tell, and the characters he decided to tell it with, then what exactly is he meant to be mocking?

"I appreciated how Horza was deeply conflicted throughout, and did not act completely rationally at all times."

He didn't feel conflicted to me. I didn't sense that there was an underlying conflict between which he was vacillating, some central character motivation that defined him and his struggle, as much as he seemed rather undefined and weak as a character.

"As for the indifference of the crew, consider that they are essentially mercenaries."

Yes, but they're still characters, still individuals. Every person has a story, a motivation, something that lead them to the life they lead--especially for characters in a story about intrigue and life-or-death situations. They weren't even entertainingly, surprisingly indifferent (like many battle-scarred soldiers are apt to be)--it wasn't Cpl Hicks sleeping during the drop or anything like that.

"As for the "noble warrior" stuff, what were you referring to?"

I'm talking about the cliche of the 'noble warrior race' that is so common in space operas--think the Klingons or Wookies--an alien race who are basically a rewrite of the colonial 'noble savage' characters of the pulps, only updated for sci fi. In this particular book, the example were the big warrior guys who the crew were facing at the end--the Iridians, I believe.

"As for the ending, I don't know why it disappointed you. As you point out, the search for the Mind is a McGuffin; Banks happily uses such McGuffins to focus his plots, and the irony (again) of the book is precisely that it doesn't matter. All that stuff happened just for a bunch of characters to die . . . All of this stuff happened, all for nothing."

I guess I felt like nothing of importance was happening the entire time, so I didn't find it particularly clever of Banks to invalidate it, since it was all just an arbitrary, McGuffin plot anyways. If the characters are flat, the writing sub-par, the humor without a target, the plot generic, and the ending a denial that any of it had meaning, I'm not sure which part of that I was supposed to be intrigued or impressed by.

"As for the sometimes less than polished language, give the author some slack. . . . He got better over time."

Well, if he's not very good here, the fact that he might write a better book later is no reason for me to judge this book any differently. If this book has flaws, then it has flaws, independent of what else the author may do in other books.

"you may want to give Look to Windward a chance."

Eh, I think I'd have to see a pretty powerful and intriguing review of it in order to consider trying Banks again. I won't be picking him up unless someone can make him seem more interesting than I've already found him to be.


message 39: by Atombender (new)

Atombender I think you (and I) have to accept that some of the things you didn't like is how Banks writes books.

For example, the satiric mode is, as you say, not really pointed at anything in particular except the ridiculousness of the universe; he continually makes the point that as civilizations grow up, they make the exact same mistake, and this kind of polemic writing comes up repeatedly.

The other target of satire is the Culture itself, which has reached a point when it doesn't actually need to do anything: When there is unlimited wealth (the Culture has no money, there is equality for all etc.), unlimited power (anyone can get any tech they want and do whatever they like with it, pretty much) and unlimited time (anyone can live for as long as they like, back themselves up, turn themselves into machine constructs, etc.) then there is not much to do except either engage in endless hedonism or to meddle and/or "school" other civilizations who have not yet reached that stage.

Whenever the Culture is not being used a proxy for objects of criticism in our own reality, then it's necessarily an hermetic and self-referential sort of satire, since the Culture doesn't actually exist, but it's interesting and fun stuff. Clearly much of the humour exists as a contrast to the often horrifying, violent events depicted.

Note that Phlebas is the first part of a series. As is often the case, the series works better as a whole than as individual novels; Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin is one example of this. O'Brian's Master and Commander is a good book, but it's rather weak in places and is somewhat odd compared to the rest; but taken as part of the series as a whole, it's the cornerstone. So as a reader it's easier for me to forgive minor flaws in Phlebas, and it's easier for me to accept the satiric tone because I am used to it, whereas to a first-time reader it may seem confounding and out of place. Again, it's also Banks' first scifi novel, which makes it appropriate to give a bit of leeway. If you don't permit any kind of leeway, well, then, how Idiran of you.

And as for the Idirans, I'm very puzzled why you think they conform to the "noble warriors" trope. I didn't see Banks depicting them like that; on the contrary, they are depicted as vile, philosophically inflexible fanatics who seek to conquer other civilizations and eliminate anyone who refuse to bend to their notions of faith. For one, the Idirans are not technologically backward; they have enough advanced technology to wipe out entire systems, which is why they are such a threat to the Culture in the first place; during the war they murder several billions in an attempt to force the Culture to surrender (although this information may have been in Look to Windward and not in Phlebas). I know that "unrelentingly fanatical, imperialistic alien" might also be a Star Trek-type trope, but that would surely be the Romulans or someone like Khan (not that I know my Star Trek that well).

One reason you may want to read something else is that Consider Phlebas is not considered a "proper" Culture novel; it takes place far away from the Culture itself, with a non-Culture protagonist and an outsider's perspective on the whole thing, and overall it is quite different from the other books in the series. Beyond that, if you can't trust Some Other Guy on the Internet, there is a gushing review in The Guardian, and The New York Times really liked it.


J.G. Keely Atombender said: "I think you (and I) have to accept that some of the things you didn't like is how Banks writes books."

Hmm, well, it seems to me that if I accept that what I don't like about Banks is fundamental to his writing, then I'm merely accepting that I don't like Banks' writing.

"Whenever the Culture is not being used a proxy for objects of criticism in our own reality, then it's necessarily an hermetic and self-referential sort of satire"

I guess I don't find it very clever or interesting for an author to mock something that he made up. Certainly, I enjoy a book where the satire comments on those great truths which exist in every culture and every mind, but as I said, I didn't find the satire in Banks' work to be pointed enough to produce such interesting insights.

"the series works better as a whole than as individual novels"

I hear this defense a lot in reference to big fantasy series, but I don't agree with it. I think a weak book is weak and a strong book strong, independent of whether they might be thematically and narratively connected to one another. I mean, if someone made a great movie out of a terrible book, it wouldn't retroactively make the book better.

"as for the Idirans, I'm very puzzled why you think they conform to the "noble warriors" trope . . . they are depicted as vile, philosophically inflexible fanatics . . . the Idirans are not technologically backward"

Actually, as the definition I linked says, having an intense, honor-based faith which causes them to seek out and conquer is pretty standard in the warrior race trope, and they are often technologically advanced (of mostly in weaponry), as the Klingons were with their cloaking technology.

"if you can't trust Some Other Guy on the Internet, there is a gushing review in The Guardian, and The New York Times really liked it."

Eh, those reviewers are also just 'Some Guys on the Internet', too, even if they get paid for it. Their 'reviews' are little more than plot summaries with some nonspecific assurances that Banks is good at what he does. I'm afraid there's nothing very convincing or interesting in either one.


message 41: by Atombender (new)

Atombender Yes, you seem to not like Banks' writing. That was rather my point. Clearly Phlebas has some minor problems, but the ones that you have a beef with are in my opinion a matter of taste. I love Banks' wry humour, for example; you see no point to it and don't enjoy it.

"I guess I don't find it very clever or interesting for an author to mock something that he made up."

The same criticism could be made of many writers, including Douglas Adams, who invents things just to make them seem silly; while Adams is frequently lampooning our society, it's also frequently humour for its own sake. And after all, the whole point of a novel is to create an interior world; if the interior world is well-imagined enough, you can also play with it. Banks sets up a utopia and then points out the problems of having an utopia; just because that utopia does not exist does not mean it's not worthwhile.

I think a weak book is weak and a strong book strong …

You misunderstand. I am not saying an individual book's quality depends on the series as a whole, I am saying that familiarity is something that adds richness and flavour that is not necessarily apparent when reading the first or even the second book. For example, in the Aubrey-Maturin series, O'Brian does the barest minimum to introduce each recurring character; a veteran reader will know much more than first-time readers, and will appreciate certain aspects and nods and references that a first-time reader will not. In later books, Banks introduces characters who are Minds, which are not present in Phlebas, and this makes the incident in Phlebas retroactively, as you say, more interesting. It was a minor point, but I believe it's the case with the Culture novel that even a minor entry is enriched by its companions simply because the established texture of the world itself is a part of the reading experience.

Actually, as the definition I linked says …

Oh, I see, I didn't actually read your link. The term "noble warrior" is surely a bit different than the "proud warrior" — I think maybe you mixed it up with the "noble savage" trope?

Honestly, while some of that definition applies to the Idirans, it is not a particularly good match. They are not depicted as "seeks battle and bloodshed because his culture teaches that doing so is the greatest source of personal honor and glory"; rather, they see themselves as eliminating chaos and bringing order to the universe in order to "clean up" their God's creation.

In other words, a better trope for the Idirans would be something like "proud holy warrior race", if that exists.

Eh, those reviewers are also just 'Some Guys on the Internet', too

You are either trolling or setting the bar at an arbitrary height, considering that you are also just Some Guy on the Internet.


J.G. Keely "The same criticism could be made of many writers, including Douglas Adams, who invents things just to make them seem silly; while Adams is frequently lampooning our society, it's also frequently humour for its own sake."

I think in nearly every case with Adams, his invented concepts provide commentaries about real ideas and structures--indeed, I think that tends to be true of most great humorists, that they are playing with and dissecting real ideas.

"familiarity is something that adds richness and flavour that is not necessarily apparent when reading the first or even the second book"

Eh, that's an argument I tend to be wary of--that repetition of certain in-world fact creates 'depth'. I know of too many series that dissolve into little more than self-reference, and the whole thing goes from being a story to a 'spot the hidden fact' game. Its easy for the goal of 'internal consistency' to lead to predictable stagnation.

I'm not saying Banks crossed that line, I'm just saying that the argument doesn't really move me.

"I think maybe you mixed it up with the "noble savage" trope?"

Well, the one is drawn from the other.

"You are either trolling or setting the bar at an arbitrary height, considering that you are also just Some Guy on the Internet."

It's not an arbitrary height: if a review consists of nothing more than a plot summary and some nonspecific praise, it is not going to impress me, no matter what its source is. My point is that we're all just guys on the internet, so the only thing that sets us apart is the strength and insight of our arguments.

My review is not a plot summary and a few unspecified points, but contains specific observations, incidents, and arguments about the work in question. Likewise, you have made some specific points in this discussion.

The fact that I am not impressed by pedigree and authority doesn't make me a 'troll'. I don't care if someone's a professional reviewer or a professor, I'm still not going to take their word for it: I want to see a well-constructed, well-argued, convincing case--indeed, that's precisely what I would expect from someone who considered themselves a professional.


Darran Mclaughlin This review is spot on


J.G. Keely Glad you liked it.


message 45: by Bill (new) - rated it 1 star

Bill Great review. This is exactly how I felt about the book. (view spoiler)

Hopefully Banks' writing improved in future novels. I would like to give The Culture another chance some day.


J.G. Keely Yeah, the structure of the whole thing was just a mess for me. I might try another one of his books. Not sure, yet.


message 47: by John (new) - added it

John I had never heard of this book. I had never heard of the author. I don't have a great interest in sci-fi. But damn -- damn! -- that's a well-written review. I think you have a better understanding of how books are to be written than Mr. Banks. Well done.


J.G. Keely He's a pretty well-known author, in sci fi circles--I'd certainly heard a lot about him before I gave this book a try. In any case, thanks for the kind comment.


message 49: by Imyra (new)

Imyra De souza Can't unsee anymore >.<

Just gave up the book after reading your review. You just nailed it! It's a very well-written review, congratulations =)


J.G. Keely Thanks, glad you liked it. I was hoping for more from this book, but alas, it didn't live up to its reputation.


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