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Culture #1

Consider Phlebas

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The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

467 pages, Paperback

First published April 23, 1987

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About the author

Iain M. Banks

69 books5,579 followers
Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.

Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.

As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.

In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.

Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.

His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.

Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.

The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.

*The Quarry was published in June 2013.

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Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
July 15, 2015
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.
Profile Image for carol..
1,566 reviews8,210 followers
November 15, 2022

And today, mine is going to be unpopular. But remember the advice from 9th grade Advanced English teacher Mrs. Muench about metaphors. Or maybe I mean false equivalency. Regardless: you are not what you like. If I dislike something you love, I am not disliking you. But you may not want to read my review, friends who love this book.

Consider Phlebas is classic sci-fi that I missed while growing up. Periodically, I try to exercise my genre core, and it was with a bit of ‘read-harder’ spirit that I picked it up. Initially intrigued, I gradually lost interest as the main character, Horza, ended up in one disastrous situation after another. Horza’s a Changer, a shape-shifting species that is extremely rare throughout the galaxy. He voluntarily works for the Idiran race in an ongoing war between the Idirans and the Culture. Disaster seems to sharpen Horza’s philosophical skills, because as he attempts to save himself from (da-dum) Certain Doom when we first meet him, he takes a little bit of time to compare and contrast the structured and AI-dominant Culture with that of the religious and militant Idirans.

I’ll take ‘C,’ none of the above.

Honestly, I ended up bored, and there’s no way that should happen when you are a) in a torture chamber filling with liquid waste, b) in a deep space shoot-out, c) captured by space pirates, d) attacking a monastery for a priceless artifact, e) involved in a mega-colony ship crash, f) about to be eaten by cannibal cultists, g) playing a card game to the death, or h) making a daring spaceship escape, which is where I last set the book down.

One of my favorite teachers always insisted that 'boredom' was due to not asking enough questions or invoking enough curiosity (on behalf of the students, naturally). I’m willing to accept some responsibility here, but frankly, this story feels padded with filler. Though Horza is approached with a job for the Idirans that involves returning to a planet and people from Horza’s earlier life, very early in the book, he doesn’t actually start that particular task until close to 3/5 through, having to get through the aforementioned adventures to get close to his objective. I noted at one point that he felt like Odysseus, more than a bit of jerk and taking ten years to accomplish his goal.

So, the plot is somewhat meandering. Maybe the characters are interesting? Well, not really; Horza is hard to enjoy. While he is resourceful and confident, and occasionally even affable, he truly connects with only one person. He shares very little of his past, so despite reading three hundred pages or so, I can’t really tell you much about Changer culture, his childhood, his family, etc. Although he states Changer families are close-knit, his parents are dead and he’s the only one in his ‘clan,’ so one presumes he’s been isolated by circumstance. His feelings towards other beings is largely dispassionate, strategical over emotional.

The writing failed to grab me as well, with a fair amount of description that doesn’t really advance the story or the world-building. For instance, when on the pirate ship:

“During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew. He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn’t. Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his roommate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet, and, when not eating or working, usually asleep. The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn’t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.

Dorlow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson. She was plump, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks. She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice, which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot. Her movements were fluttery and nervous.”

It goes on like that for another three pages for the rest of the crew, and this is on page 67, mind you, of people who quite possibly may be killed. The descriptions aren’t even particularly interesting; different cultures/races represented and we get that the voice was high and her eyes watered? No dialogue on discovering this? I remember reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and being intrigued by interaction with the crew members, the details that made their race/personality come alive. Banks doesn’t even have the courtesy of character preservation, so that my effort in learning these almost faceless blobs’ names might be entirely wasted.

It just didn’t work for me. Explanatory and expositionary; full of telling, a main character that was a challenge to connect to, and a rather arbitrary division between religious extremism and A.I. regulation couched in yawning philosophical dichotomies meant this was a struggle all the way through.

Sorry, friends! Always a downer when someone doesn’t love the book that you do.

Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
March 24, 2009
Many discerning readers, even ones who like SF, will reflexively sneer if you say the dreaded words "space opera". One need only think of E.E. Doc Smith, for a long time the unquestioned king of this particular sub-genre. I read Galactic Patrol when I was at primary school; like innumerable other geeky nine year olds, I adored it, and particularly loved the "Helmuth speaking for Boskone" tagline. I also remember how, aged 12 or 13, I picked it up to see if the magic was still there. Oh dear! It was maybe the first time I felt embarrassed at ever having liked a book, and wondered how I could have had such poor taste. You will gather that he really isn't terribly good.

None the less, if you love a book when you're nine, it probably has something to recommend it; what's great about space opera is the sense of wonder it inspires, as you are taken outside our little planet and shown how huge and strange the larger Universe is. As people like Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss have argued, the roots of this kind of literature go back to imaginative, ostensibly mainstream authors like Dante and Milton, but the project somehow got hijacked in the early 20th century. In the 1980s, Iain Banks conceived the ambitious idea of redeeming the space opera, and started writing the Culture series. Consider Phlebas is the first one. The title --- a quotation from The Waste Land, no less! --- lets you know at once that something important has been fixed. (The author presumably wanted to increase the number of people who'd get as far as even opening the book). Instead of Smith's dreadful prose, Banks writes elegant, literary English. By the time you've got a dozen pages into it, you're convinced that this will, at the very least, be pleasant to read at the sentence level. After a while, you find out that he's also addressed most of the other standard problems.

Banks has given interviews about the Culture novels, and one aspect he likes to focus on is the politics. He said he found it distasteful that galactic empires always had to be right-wing military hierarchies; I didn't realize it when I was nine, but the basic plot in Smith is one bunch of Nazis fighting another. The Culture is a more interesting beast: a decentralized, anarchic society, which consists of a loose federation of humans and intelligent machines, spread out over many worlds. The humans use their advanced technology to support a relaxed, hedonistic life-style, with a lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. A nice detail is that they are genetically engineered so that their bodies can synthesize their own drugs. Not so far-fetched: our own society has plenty of endorphin junkies, to mention just one hormone we regularly enjoy.

The machines are very well done. Most space operas never really consider the fact that machines will eventually be smarter than people, but Banks confronts this head-on. You see the Culture both from the inside and from the outside; its critics tend to say that it's really run by the AIs, with the people having little influence. The smartest Culture machines, the "Minds", are indeed enormously more intelligent than any person could be, and have almost godlike powers. I see the relationship between machines and people in the Culture as being rather like the relationship between a person and their genes. You're far smarter than your genes. However, the genes built you to take care of them, and you often do what they tell you. Just as a person can get into a relationship that they know makes no logical sense, because their genes like the idea, Banks's godlike machines also let their human partners make important decisions for them on emotional grounds. Although his main purpose is to tell a story, Banks is saying some quite interesting things here about the future of technology.

Well, that's a lightning tour of the Culture universe, and Consider Phlebas makes good use of it. There's a war on between the Culture and the Idirans, and the book is about one tiny incident in that war. Neither side is presented as intrinsically good or bad; the main character, Horza, is a spy working for the Idirans, who has been assigned the job of retrieving a Mind that has been accidentally stranded on a remote planet. Horza is opposed by a Culture agent; there is again no attempt to show that he is morally superior, and in fact she comes across in many ways as a better person. We see acts of treachery and heroism on both sides, and one of the things I liked is that some of the bravest and most heroic acts later turn out to have been utterly misconceived. The story at first seems to be meandering around, but as Horza gets closer to the Mind it tightens up more and more; the ending is absolutely terrific, and left me with an adrenaline rush and a head full of startling, nightmare images. I enjoyed this book as much as my nine year old self enjoyed Galactic Patrol.

Profile Image for mark monday.
1,677 reviews5,253 followers
September 26, 2018
Consider Iain M. Banks. an unsentimental, often ruthless writer. his characters are provided robust emotional lives and richly detailed backgrounds... all the better to punish the reader when those characters meet their often bleak fates. his narratives are ornate affairs, elaborately designed, full of small & meaningful moments as well as huge, wide-scale world-building... all the better to deliver a sucker punch directly to the reader's gut when those narratives turn out to be ironic, predetermined mousetraps. yet despite the cruelly intelligent design of his novels, a strong case can be made that Banks is a fiery humanist - if the idea of "humanism" is expanded to include all forms of consciousness, including the psychologically aberrant, including artificial minds. is there a genre specialist who is a more passionate yet clear-eyed (even cold-eyed) partisan for the right of all conscious beings to pursue their own individual desires, dreams, and destinies - while not fucking up the lives of other beings? even his utopic, galaxy-spanning civilization The Culture has its own major achilles' heel in their theoretically positive desire to improve the self-determination of other cultures.

Consider Consider Phlebas. now this is a SPACE OPERA. it has it all. multiple alien cultures in a race against time and each other. sentient machines. piratical mercenaries. world-hopping. the destruction of 'orbitals' and entire cities. a graveyard world overseen by a transcended being. an incredibly advanced, liberal, permissive society in conflict with barbaric, right-wing, militaristic religious fanatics. a shape-shifting spy for a protagonist (a very canny choice in regards to providing an outsider perspective on The Culture). it is filled to the brim with so many things, including a handful of long digressions in the first half of the novel, chapters that are pretty much only side-adventures (some of which seem like trial runs for ideas expanded upon in Player of Games and the non-Culture Algebraist). despite the length of the novel, despite wide-ranging adventures and misadventures, the blood & vengeance, the extreme presentations of eating & defecating, despite the in-depth detail present in all that running-about in the tunnels of Graveyard World, despite the whole sturm und drang of it all... this is an intimate novel. intimate in its character work and almost peculiarly intimate in the way that Banks allows his ethical concerns, his - one could say - almost rigid moralism to dominate the proceedings. this is not a tale of crazy adventures that eventually finds its way to a punchy end; this is a novel of rigorously political ideas (and, perhaps, ideals). those ideas are carefully encapsulated within each sequence, by the grand conflict at hand, and by the eventual fates of each one of its major characters.

the choice of the title is wonderful. how fitting! i was also reminded of another well-known passage:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Banks is not a depressing writer. he can have a light touch. his novels are full of life, full of wit and love and laughter and bravery and mindboggling invention. and yet they are often a rather depressing experience. i can see why some folks avoid him. i can understand why some dislike Consider Phlebas and its often uncomfortable combination of digressive high adventure and stark, moralistic political analogies. hey, the world can be an awfully shitty place and so why immerse yourself in more of the same? although he is easy to read, Banks certainly doesn't make things easy on readers and their various sentimental attachments. he chooses discomfort and tragedy at nearly every turn.

well who ever said that utopian ideals are an easy thing? striving for utopia should be hard! it should be long and difficult and heartbreaking and full of intensely uncomfortable ambiguity. it should make you want to cry, little baby.

Profile Image for Felicia.
Author 47 books128k followers
June 1, 2010
I can't really say much, other than Iain Banks has become my #1 favorite Sci-Fi author. I love the way he fleshes out flawed, believable characters in a Space Opera setting. I'm always surprised by his writing, and that keeps me coming back for more. If you're not into the genre, but want to give it a try, pick up this book. You will not regret it!
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
411 reviews2,222 followers
June 18, 2018
Posted at Heradas

In my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another. In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives. It went way over my head the first time I read it. I think I didn’t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was. Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me. It’s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it. Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.

The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his "honor". It's a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.

After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre: a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures. However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes. Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a much more nuanced story. The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a “picaroon” (rogue or untrustworthy anti-hero) rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives. By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics. When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in a more literary minded, left leaning, progressive direction. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F. Hamilton continued the change forward from there. There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition.

Iain Banks

Historically, space opera has been a simplistic genre. In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term “space opera” was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama. Think: soap opera. Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader. In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively-in-the-wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade-esqe holy war against the Culture, a post-scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds. The Culture are arguable the “good guys”. For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it “Special Circumstances” goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture’s way of thinking. Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can’t help but adopt them as their own. Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for. He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past. He doesn’t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on “the side of life”. The enemy of his enemy is his friend.

“Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you (319-321).”
- T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre. There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book. The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S. Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation. The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran/Culture war. I’ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months. They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary. Excellent sources for these between-the-lines details are Simone Caroti's "The Culture series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction" as well as Paul Kincaid’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks”. These are books I’ll be recommending frequently. Both Caroti's and Kincaid’s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.

Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series. The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from the more interesting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means. It handles a huge amount of world-building, and is multilayered and complex. It's one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits. It isn't the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.

Personally, I think it's a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it. It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building ~80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood. I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it’s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.

My favorite sections of the book are the short "state of play" interlude chapters, with the character Fal 'Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture. Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from the more adventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative. Fal 'Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles. She's able to comment on the story as it's happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels. She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book. She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself. She's able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza's perspective. She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they’re watertight.

"We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short-sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas... "

"...We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused. And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran."

The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks' style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing. He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos. This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it's large and exciting.

The Player of Games

All that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series. If you're not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point. Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you've read some others without missing anything particularly crucial. However, if you're a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it's better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.

Up next: The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we’ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture: Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc… and of course the empire and game of Azad.
Profile Image for Emily (Books with Emily Fox).
551 reviews60.4k followers
Want to read
January 29, 2022
Starting my "One Week, One Shelf" challenge!

I've heard the first book in this series isn't the best but I'm stubborn so...
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,041 followers
June 13, 2019
Two stars is about right.

Voltaire said something like "the best is the enemy of the good" (okay, he actually said le mieux est l'ennemi du bien). But what is really annoying is that the coulda-been-good is more disappointing than the meh.

Banks clearly has a great deal of imagination. If he was able to discipline himself, he'd have some four-star stuff going on here, easily — maybe better.

But he fritters away his energy on irrelevant grotesquerries, like a schoolboy scrawling naughty pictures inside his textbooks, or sneaking fart jokes into the Wikipedia page for the Sistine Chapel. Because naughtiness is its own reward.

Consider Phlebas opens with a character drowning in a room full of shit. Why? Because he's failed at an espionage mission, and the rulers are nasty enough to want to degrade him as they kill him. Does this have anything to do with the larger story arc of Consider Phlebas? Well, no: it has no bearing whatsoever, other than being a memorably gross entrance for the major character.

Later this same fellow will encounter a band of starving religious cannibals led by a grotesquely (yes, there's that word again) obese prophet. Does this interlude have any bearing on the larger story arc? Again, no. Those are just the most glaring flaws, but the book is pervaded with haphazard storytelling.

There is actually a story, and if it weren't for all the ill-considered byzantine dross, it would probably be pretty good. There are two or three characters that are well developed enough that one might actually care what happens to them, and a depth of context and mythos that is very alluring. Sometimes the story is smooth and very well told for several pages at a time.

But it really isn't enough.

And the reason I first heard about the Culture Universe isn't dealt with well, either. The Culture is an amalgam of human and machine intelligence, with the latter forming the functional backbone and the humans being mostly decorative. The question of how humanity will deal with (or survive, or whatever) the Singularity should be a philosophically engrossing aspect to any book that touches on the subject, but Banks really doesn't seem to want to stretch himself reaching for the tough stuff when his febrile imagination can spin off so much vomit-flavored cotton candy.

Too bad.

Oh — if you are looking for a much better space opera, may I recommend Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space ? Reynolds doesn't promise as much as Banks, but he actually delivers on the promise, and then some.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,848 followers
November 16, 2019
There are some motives and ideas that pop up in all of Banks' works. In this, his first culture novel, I want to mention some of them.

His background in philosophy and psychology enabled him to combine Sci-Fi with really deep criticism regarding the human past, presence and future. No matter if it was the dark medieval time, the presence or any period of the future, he managed to show the flaws, errors and grievances. He even anticipated problems in detail that might once occur.

The belief in a better life for all humans by giving all important tasks to all-knowing, huge AI construct, called the brain is something many technocrats, transhumanists and futurists may see as the best option. As long as the risk of human error could lead to disaster, it would be reckless to let things like the ones known from history happen again.

The most important thing to remember, both for groups and for individuals, is that each human consciousness and personality could be described as more or less stable, mentally healthy and normal, but generally rather on the unstable side. Or, as different hidden or obvious grades of insanity. Whoever wants to say that she/he is perfectly normal, just shout out loud, I certainly am not. I have a serious reading problem, I definitively should interact much more with real humans, but I simply don´t have any interest in it what probably motivates each so-called expert to pointing with the ICD 10 Mental and behavioral disorder manual in my direction. Cause I am introverted, cold, analytic, could stay alone for months, see emotions in another way than many people, etc, I could hit many points in the manual. What about you?

Now, after this short soul strip, back to what happens if many of such naked apes come together, cause they find an ideology sexy, crispy and cool? Yea, repetition of history again. So, apart from the hint that we all are to a certain degree lunatic and insane without even recognizing it, this warning should be considered each time one tends to integrate her/himself in any kind of group process that could run out of control.

About the book itself: OMG, read it! It´s the foundation of a milestone of Sci-Fi, something that could be used in many classes in high school and college. Religious fanatism, shapeshifter, non-intervention clauses, "special circumstances", insectoids, cannibals, what do you need more, there is no comparable Sci-Fi out there.

Tropes show how literature is conceived and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,882 reviews16.6k followers
September 11, 2018
It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ve got to watch out for space operas. I will either buy in early or … I just won’t. And then I’m staring at 400 pages of … ehh.

It’s too bad, I really liked the idea and Banks’ writing seemed inspired. There was a cool interstellar culture called … The Culture. The post-scarcity confederacy of different races reminded me of Star Trek and there was also some Dune references.

But … it just didn’t take. DNF at 30%, life's too short.

Sorry Iain, I might try again some other time.

Profile Image for Joel.
556 reviews1,667 followers
May 6, 2011
This is the second Culture book I read but the first one Iain M. Banks wrote. One of us did something wrong, because I liked The Player of Games a lot more, and yet my reasons for not liking Consider Phlebas are almost all about what the book isn't.

It isn't about the Culture, for one thing. Sort of. Not really. The other books in the series are from the perspective of a citizen of the Culture, which is difficult to define succinctly so I will just say, imagine if you lived in a universe where you were practically immortal and super-smart robots took care of pretty much everything, leaving you free to live your own life to the fullest existential extent (do you want to be an artist? a writer? do you like orgies?).

The main character in Consider Phlebas is Horza, a rare shape-shifting dude who haaates the Culture, which he considers hedonistic and base and godless &c. Partly he objects to the Culture's policy of interfering with other civilizations, whether to "uplift" them (not to mix my sci-fi metaphors) or to eliminate them if they pose a threat to the Culture's, well, culture. This is basically the opposite of Star Trek: TNG's vaulted Prime Directive, which I, as a reader, don't really have a problem with. Personally, if benevolent artificial intelligences want to pop by an offer a few helpful corrective suggestions that will put a stop to, oh, take your pick or check out whatever is on the front page today, I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. Just as long as they don't start using humans for batteries or anything.

But Horza instead throws in his lot with the Idirans, a xenophobic and deeply religious, deeply warlike society that is at major war with the Culture. I don't want to get too into the nitty-gritty of the plot, because it does offer up some nice set-pieces, but basically, he's off on a mission to capture a new breed of "Mind," which is what the Culture-ruling machines refer to themselves as. This Mind is stranded on a hostile world that, conveniently, only Horza has access to, but getting there will require some Ocean's 11-style adventures first.

So here is my problem: I read this after The Player of Games, which offers you the inside view of the Culture, both the good parts and the bad. It is also a very fun book, despite some dark themes: the smart-ass Culture Drones, even just the mind-boggling concept of sentient, continent-sized worldships that you can have a chat with. Just a lot of cool stuff. Consider Phlebas gave me very little of what I wanted: only one Drone. No talking spaceships (wait, no, there was one, but it was a small one). By necessity, it is a darker, angrier book, and by the end, very nearly an abusive one. I get what Banks was going for thematically, I'm totally on his wavelength, but the ending of this thing just punishes the reader.

On the other hand, it is still totally crazy, which is, I am starting to suspect, Banks' modus operandi, and so you have a few largely inconsequential narrative pit-stops that are nevertheless awesome, like when Horza gets trapped on an island with a horde of technology-fearing cannibals (you don't even know, it's so gross and intense). Or a high-stakes card game involving telepathy and actual human sacrifice. Both concepts are pretty rad, as is the writing throughout.

So which one of us messed up? If I had read this first, and hadn't spent most of the book looking for the Culture and not finding it, would I have enjoyed it more? Or was it a bad idea for Banks to start the series with an unbalanced, action-heavy, black-as-tar nihilist downer of a novel?

Considering he's super rich and probably the most popular sci-fi author in the U.K. today, I'll kindly request that you not answer that.
Profile Image for Mark.
776 reviews62 followers
June 5, 2008
I usually like Iain Banks' sf novels, but this is simply a bad book.

It is partly an action novel, with the plot roughly "go to planet X and retrieve an advanced piece of technology." There are a few very exciting action sequences. The major problem is that after setting up the plot by page 4, we have a diversion of about 300 pages before returning to the plot. ??? The vast majority of the in-between chapters feel like a bunch of half-realized short story ideas jammed together, including one chapter whose sole purpose is to be be disgusting. Ugh.

I want to believe Banks was also trying to accomplish something beyond an action novel. Maybe developing a deep main character? Except the main character is "irrational hatred of computers" + "feels tender about women he feels tender about". That's it. Big whoop. Or here's another character: on the outside it seems like a single-minded alien soldier, but on the inside we find it is really, well, a single-minded alien soldier. I think we can scratch "deep characterization" off the list of possible positives.

Banks does a few good things in terms of creating a universe, but the fundamental disjointedness of the book undermines the attempt to describe a cohesive world.

And a final pet peeve -- bringing a character back from the dead is 95% likely to be a bad move. Doing it needlessly is 99.9% likely to be a bad move. Just...don't.
Profile Image for Scott.
292 reviews317 followers
November 2, 2016
Be warned. This book is hard-core, gateway reading-crack. Science fiction loving readers will be incurably hooked, staying up late, letting their social life decay and cravenly devouring all the Iain M. Banks they can get their hands on in a desperate, sleep-deprived book-orgy. Well, that’s what happened to me anyway.

As is obvious, I loved this book. Consider Phlebas is everything I want in science fiction, and it is where my passionate love of Iain Banks’ work began. This is big concept, sprawling stuff, and Banks has both the imaginative chops and the writing skills to make it a must read.

The central character -Horza, a shape shifting assassin - is recruited by a warlike race of tri-legged religious-extremist reptiles – The Idirans – to help them in their brutal war against a vast, previously peaceful society known as The Culture, a post-scarcity near utopia run in tandem by humans and machines. The Culture looks like a pretty cool place to live – no poverty, disease or violence, liberal attitudes to sex (including bodily modifications to make the act more pleasurable) and inbuilt glands in every citizen that release various drugs on demand. The Idirans are not so fun, but they’re pretty motivated in their religious fanatacism, and they are pushing the Culture hard in the war.

At the beginning of the narrative a new variant of the AIs that run the Culture, known as Minds, escapes an Idiran attack and hides itself on a graveyard world home to a being so terrifying that neither side dares to approach it. As the story unfolds Horza pursues this Mind across space, competing with Culture efforts to retrieve it and travelling through a scintillating and baroque series of places and worlds that sent my imagination spinning.

This is first-rate stuff. Banks has something very rare in SF – both a sense of humour and the skill to bring that humor to the page. I’ve laughed out loud reading Banks, and that puts him in a very, very small group of SF writers. Don’t misinterpret this however – Banks is no Pratchett. Consider Phlebas is serious SF, and there are numerous moments of horror and sadness in Banks’ universe that make his occasional bursts of humor stand out all the more.

Of course, this is just the beginning of a landmark SF series. There are nine more Culture novels, and each of them is well worth your time. Other than telling you to buy a copy of Consider Phlebas immediately my only other advice regarding Banks' work is to try to pace yourself. I binge-read the entire Culture series, and now that Banks has passed away I regret that I have no further of his works to look forward to.
Profile Image for Infinite Jen.
87 reviews425 followers
March 20, 2023
Consider this: When you are a genetically modified organism that can approximate the gross physical anatomy of other sentient humanoids to an order which would bamboozle even their staunchest allies, you might, in times of large scale, galactic conflict, find yourself among the most prized military assets in a cosmic conflagration. Suppose furthermore that you were able to induce chemosis and vicious, corneal swelling by ejaculating geometric patterns of toxungen via forward-facing holes near the tips of your retractable fangs into the photon trampolines of visually adapted combatants, (alternatively biting and secreting said venomous ejaculate into punctured epidermal tissues for explosive peristaltic effect [citation needed] ASCII diagram of whole fang in the sagittal plane to better illustrate discharge orifices: abandoned), could deposit soporific/paralytic molecules with your nails, and, with immense concentration, alter your physiology on a local level via cellular reorganization in order to escape bonds and produce copious amounts of acidic booty-sweat - well, that would just be gratuitous, wouldn’t it? So perhaps it comes as no surprise that, after gestating within the axonal perturbations of the late Iain M. Banks until your conception, and the subsequent mass-placentophagia of 1987, during which science fiction aficionados reveled in a postpartum ingestion of your conceptual afterbirth with a fine vintage of amniotic fluid, you would be placed in the service of the Idirans (The dominant, three and a half meter tall, keratin enshrouded, tripedal species of a savage planet Idir, whose biological systems have so many redundancies that they are virtually immortal) due to your intransigent views on the machine intelligences which have come to govern progress within The Culture (Post-scarcity Humanity in symbiosis with AIs ranging from human equivalent in the form of service drones, to godlike in the form of the “Minds” which make possible the hedonistic utopia in which sapiens, and humanoid adjacent species, currently thrive in.) so that you might find and retrieve a particularly promising AI which has crashed on a ruined planet invigilated by a post-fermionic civilization of unknown expanse and power that maintains such civilizational dead ends in order to vindicate the Black Ball hypothesis of one Nick Bostrom, before a particularly determined and skilled Culture agent can find it first and coop it for nefarious purposes. To wit: Use its imponderable cognitive abilities to make further advances in the art and science of glandular self-synthesis, so that culture blokes may more effectively carpet bomb their mind-meat with psychedelics, attention enhancing pharmaceuticals, and Peruvian gensing with but a thought.

Consider this: Much of Iain Banks’ conceptual fuel stemmed from the frustration caused by an itchy venereal disease he contracted in the 60’s, and so all his attempts to redeem space opera can be seen as an indictment of Heinlein Papilloma Virus and the family of right wing, fascistic fiction which preoccupied the pubical municipalities of his youth. While there is no known cure for HPV, the genital warts which would later appear were subjected to the following therapy: Injecting moral ambiguity and exploring deep philosophical questions regarding cultural relativism and the imposition of liberal values on societies structured with more rigid hierarchies. A closer look at the ennui of humans increasingly pampered and superseded by super intelligent machines and the search for deep meaning when all pleasures are trivially obtained. The creation of The Culture: an anarchic, hippie-diaspora of humanoids and Salacious Singularities hellbent on replacing every spectra of molecular hydrogen with phosphodiesterase type 5 to fulfill their obligation as Orgy Maximizers, with no formal law or legal tender, spread across a collection of staggeringly large colony ships (with spectacular names such as: Horizontal Exclamation Point, Angle of The Dangle, Purple Headed Yogurt Slinger, The GSS Eric Shaun etc. [cite me, cite my brains out, bitch!] and orbitals, who considers it a sacred imperative to infiltrate and fiddle the cultural diddles of less enlightened societies in an attempt to further civilize and encourage the self determination of its constituents so that freedom, the proliferation of modern art, and explosive piñatas full of engorged genitalia might replace the hormetic stressors (ie. Starvation, exposure, war, disease, squats to depth, and US Politics.) which normally define the Darwinian struggle for existence. Galactic pansies who deplore forceful compulsion of any kind. (Though I must note the extremely suspicious fact that their entire language is constructed on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and so, at minimum, a certain semantic dexterousness creeps in when they aver an opposition to compelling others. Suss, Minds. Extremely Suss.)

Consider this: While being a more than competent first foray into science fiction, this is not Banks at his finest. The plot is a bit too contrived while also meandering to the point of feeling as if several short stories were sewn together and the central pursuit inelegantly driven into an orifice without a single pump of emollient. Too many characters are introduced with little insight gleaned into their histories and motivations. Perilous situations seem to be thwarted with a tad too much authorial whimsy. Characters often behave in ways that seem incongruous with their stated values (perhaps this is art imitating life?). Horza’s (the aforementioned highly trained shapeshifter) allegiance to the warmongering, religiously fanatical Idirans isn’t articulated well, and isn’t properly tested despite serious complications encountered later on. The credulity with which a particular (extremely dangerous) prisoner is handled, was almost too much to bear. And the servility of another formidable captive, despite several intimations of potential rebellion, bordered on nonsensical. Despite this, there are many ways in which Banks discloses his larger and more intimate ambitions. Intermittent and ponderous disquisitions on tolerance, intervention, and the human condition. On emergent complexity and the oneness of things. The ethical struggles The Culture faces when interacting with less technologically sophisticated societies. Questions of where people tap meaning when nearly all work is handled by non-sentient devices which obviate the need for economic constructs, and genuine risks are vanishingly rare. All these things, which will later come to define and distinguish this series from the glut of others in its genre, show hints of a brilliance only later realized. Stick with it.

Now Consider Phlebas?
Profile Image for Ian.
125 reviews490 followers
June 28, 2011
I read all of Iain Banks' Culture books in order in which they were written, beginning with Consider Phlebas and ending with the latest, Surface Detail, from 2008 through 2010. Consider Phlebas being the first Culture book Banks wrote, it was the first I read back in the Spring of 2008. I liked it. One might even say I liked it a lot. But I didn't love it. Not yet.

I just re-read Consider Phlebas and I can tell you it’s a whole different book when you have the entire collection under your belt. That’s when the brilliance of Consider Phlebas begins to shine. That’s when you recognize the foreshadowing and prescience, and, even more impressive in my eyes, the acknowledgement of, and responses to, objections that people would raise to the whole idea of the Culture, or at least the Culture as conceived and fleshed out by Iain Banks, objections that people wouldn’t raise until later books like Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail come along. The protagonist in Consider Phlebas raises all those objections himself, and argues with himself about their merit, about the Culture’s merit.

There’s another, more potent aspect of Consider Phlebas that makes it more powerful when read the second time, and it has to do with knowing how the book ends, so here I’m forced to use the embedded spoiler function. Click at your own risk:

If you haven’t clicked then I assume you haven’t read Consider Phlebas. I don’t know how to suggest that you read it. If you’ve read other Culture books, then definitely read Consider Phlebas at your earliest opportunity. If you haven’t read other Culture books, then I still say read Consider Phlebas first. Even though you may not get the full meaning it has to offer, it sets the stage. Consider Phlebas takes place during the Idiran War, the consequences of which would reverberate through the Culture for centuries to come. Then maybe read it again ;)
P.S. This audiobook is once again read by Peter Kenney, who is the reader on many of Iain Banks' audiobooks. Mr. Kenney's pacing and voicing are excellent, as ususal.
Profile Image for Dirk Grobbelaar.
554 reviews1,092 followers
January 28, 2019
Interestingly, while this is the first Culture novel, it is told from the perspective of a somewhat antagonistic protagonist. Bora Horza Gobuchul opposes the Culture. Vehemently.

While the novel, arguably, isn’t quite as sophisticated as later entries in the series, it sucked me right in. It certainly is a lot of fun, and feels more action based than most of the books that came later. It’s no surprise that many reviewers prefer the later entries in the series to this one (they are somewhat more literary focused with lots of intellectual aspects to chew on), but I have a lot of love for Consider Phlebas. It’s a quicker read, and much less demanding than, say, Use of Weapons, while the latter packs a bigger psychological punch. Again, I enjoyed both, but for different reasons.

There’s quite a bit happening here, with characters hopping from one exotic location to the next in a series of adventures leading to an inevitable Banksian conclusion. If you’re a serious Science Fiction fan you are probably going to read the Culture series at some point (if you haven’t done so already) and this is still the logical place to start. While the novels are standalone, there is an overarching theme of moral conflict and political commentary, and it starts right here. Don’t let the more conventional nature and high adventure of this one fool you into thinking there isn’t something more beneath the surface, this is still Banks we’re talking about. There are other reviewers here who have pointed out the academic considerations much more appropriately than I can, so I’ll leave it at that.

In closing. I enjoyed it. A lot. It’s a fine example of Space Opera and it opened up the whole Culture Universe for me.


As of 2018 it seems that there is a TV series being developed for this. Wonder how that’s going to pan out?
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews805 followers
September 29, 2017
“You’re ruled by your machines. You’re an evolutionary dead end. The trouble is that to take your mind off it you try to drag everybody else down there with you.”

Back to the beginning. Consider Phlebas is the first book of the Culture series (ten volumes in total, I believe), one of the most beloved sci-fi book series ever, written by the late great Iain M. Banks, feel free to confuse him with the equally late and great Iain Banks, who is indeed the same writer but is described as a “literary novelist” and wrote mainstream non-sci-fi books. It is not surprising then that this series has a more literary, at times experimental, prose style than most sci-fi books, and is treasured by sci-fi connoisseurs.

In a nutshell, the Culture series is an epic space opera featuring a post-scarcity galaxy spanning group-civilization called “The Culture”, ostensibly owned by humans but actually run by super AI entities called The Minds. The humans live hedonistic carefree lives, everything they can possibly want is catered for by the AIs, the Minds, the drones (smaller AIs) and other high-tech devices. Banks avoids using the words computers and robots as the Minds and the drones are hyper-advanced sentient machines with personalities, they are living non-biological entities. The Culture series are all standalone books set in this universe, each volume tells a story concerning the humans and the machines of this powerful empire.

Consider Phlebas is the story of protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer, a transhuman with an ability to gradually morph into other humans. “Horza” hates the Culture with a passion and has sided with the Idirans, an alien race at war with the Culture, a war of ideology. The Idirans think the Culture is too influential in the galaxy and too uppity with their mission to “improve the lives of those in less-advanced societies”, in direct opposition to the Idirans’ expansionist policy of conquering such societies through military might.

An Idiran

The main story arc concerns a Mind which crash-landed on a remote planet, the Culture and the Idirans are racing to retrieve/capture this Mind as it possesses a wealth of information that can be used against the Culture. Horza is employed by the Idirans for this mission and the narrative depicts his long, complicated and very dangerous mission involving an encounter with a race of cannibals, participating in a bizarre high-tech computer game, taking over a mercenary ship by taking over the captain’s identity, and the eventual confrontation with the Culture and his less than trustworthy employer, the Idirans.

Consider Phlebas is a very entertaining, wild, and sometimes thrilling read. It is, however, a sprawling adventure with a rather episodic feel to most of the chapters. I do find some of the chapters to be a little longer than they need to be; I wish it was a tighter narrative. Having said that, I do not recall any actual dull moments, just that some scenes are less compelling than others. Characterization is definitely one of Bank’s strengths. This book features a complex, interesting, badass and, at times, hilarious characters. Horza is something of an anti-hero who does some reprehensible things throughout the narrative, but he also has his moments of heroism. Culture agent Perosteck Balveda is a very tenacious character with a strong sense of morality, but best of all is the sarcastic longsuffering drone Unaha-Closp who outshines all the biological characters for me.

Unaha-Closp by verox11

Is Consider Phlebas the best Culture book, or the best one to start with? I would say no to both. The Player of Games is my favorite Culture book (so far, I have a few more to read), it is shorter, tighter, quite riveting and is generally wonderful; better still, you do not need to have read any other Culture novels to follow it. However, in and of itself, if what I wrote so longwindedly about this book so far seems enticing to you then yes, I can confirm it is a good and worthwhile read. The series itself I can certainly recommend as something unique that you should not do without.

ray guns line

• If you want to read some background information about the Culture series, read Banks’ own guide: A Few Notes on the Culture. You can, of course, just dive into any one of the books.

• I was watching Star Trek: Discovery last night and it occurred to me that the Culture is similar to Trek’s Federation in some ways. Both include advanced utopian human civilizations, and respected by alien races. Though The Culture appears to be primarily owned by humans and the most powerful civilization in the known galaxy.


“What do you want? A robot?” Its voice sneered. “I don’t have an Off button on my reasoning functions; I can’t choose not to have free will. I could quite easily swear to obey all orders regardless of the consequences; I could vow to sacrifice my life for you if you asked me to; but I’d be lying, so that I could live.”

“But the Culture, that seemingly disunited, anarchic, hedonistic, decadent mélange of more or less human species, forever hiving off or absorbing different groups of people, had fought for almost four years without showing any sign of giving up or even coming to a compromise.”

(On the game, “Damage”) “It’s been called the most decadent game in history. About all you can say in the game’s defense is that it, rather than reality, occupies the warped minds of some of the galaxy’s more twisted people; gods know what they would get up to if it wasn’t there.”

“They had their communist Utopia. They were soft and pampered and indulged, and the Contact section’s evangelical materialism provided their conscience-salving good works.”

“Individuality, the thing which most humans held more precious than anything else about themselves, was somehow cheapened by the ease with which a Changer could ignore it as a limitation and use it as a disguise.”

(On the Minds) “They were so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).”
Profile Image for Melissa (Mel’s Bookshelf).
470 reviews286 followers
August 8, 2020
I love a good sci-fi. Something to get me out of this world and into the universe for a while. And although this was a solidly good read. I guess I was expecting more from what has been dubbed by many as the best sci-fi series of all time.

I read this one as part of a youtube culture series read-along I am doing with Moid and his followers on Media Death Cult (awesome channel, check it out if you are a sci-fi fan!) and I did a bit of research leading up to this one. Many people say it is the worst of The Culture series. That it is more of a space-opera rather than a hardcore sci-fi, and that it lacks the substance of the remaining books. Some people even go as far as to say you should not start this series by reading this one even though it was the first one published. The Culture series are mostly all stand-alone books so can theoretically be read in any order, but I am a stickler for reading things from the beginning.

It just fell flat a little for me. There were some great things about it and some not-so-great. So I am going to change from my normal review formatting style and use some bullet points for a change. And I’m going to start with the things I didn’t enjoy:

The Bad
- I originally purchased the audio version. Although I didn’t mind the narrator too much, I found that I was distracted from the storyline VERY easily. Even the mundane tasks of washing the dishes (our dishwasher broke down OMG) and hanging out the clothes did not allow me to cling to every word unfortunately. So I sent it back in favour of the kindle version.
- There were some LONG SLOW parts. More than I would have liked to be honest, even the action scenes were not particularly exciting.
- I didn’t warm to the characters very well.
- How it ended. Well, let’s just say I won't be expecting a happy endings in the next books!

The Good
- The premise. WOW I can see that there is going to be so much more to this universe and all the different technologies and politics. I absolutely loved the culture/Idirians conflict and am excited to see where it goes and who the good-guys actually are!
- I loved the weird tangents it goes on! The section where Horza is captured by the strange cult was one of the highlights of the book for me.
- The writing was great. Easy to read, even through the slow parts.
- A good introduction and teaser for what is to come, I hope.

Would I recommend Consider Phlebas?
I don’t know yet. As a total stand alone it was a little flat, but as an intro to a universe in a series, it shows a lot of promise. I will be able to give a better rationale behind my recommendation after I have read a few more to get a wider perspective.

I purchased Consider Phlebas at my own expense.

For more reviews check out my:
Profile Image for Kevin Kuhn.
Author 2 books583 followers
July 7, 2023
“Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.” – ‘The Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot

This is my first read of Iain M. Banks, who comes highly recommended everywhere I look. Highly recommended enough that I bought all ten ‘Culture’ series (in paperback) without really knowing much about them. For some reason, I was expecting British high-brow literary fiction filled with challenging references and complex science. Instead, I found a very approachable action-filled tale that falls somewhere in between Star Trek, James Bond, and ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.’

On the plus side, this book is well-written with strong male, female, and non-human characters. The action is non-stop and engaging, and the world-building is imaginative and interesting. In just the first fifty pages we get a space battle, a prison break, space pirates, and a fight to the death. The action never lets up and is always high-stakes. We follow Horza, a future-human ‘changling’ who feels a little like James Bond to me. Women are drawn to him, he escapes seeming impossible situations, and he’s brimming with swagger. The backdrop is a short war between the Idirans (a religious war-like species) and the Culture a humanoid post-scarcity socialistic society (hence the tie into ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’). Both the Idirans and The Culture are interested in expansion although for different reasons. I liked that Banks made both Horza and The Culture more complex and it’s often difficult to determine who’s good and who’s bad.

I also enjoyed the description of the Culture’s super-intelligent A.I. minds which have enough storage capacity that if it was physically manifested, it would take up a thousand worlds. These minds can manipulate hyperspace and possess field generators and I believe we only scratched the surface of their capabilities in this first book.

So, what’s the downside? Well, they are few and far between. I would say although I enjoyed the Culture A.I. minds, and the descriptions of several space mega-structures, there was nothing mind-blowing in this book. Of course, it’s only book one of ten, so plenty of time for that. In addition, because the characters and the societies are complex, I sometimes struggled with motivation. The conviction to war from the Culture and the commitment to the Idirans by Horza, never felt fully rationale to me. Of course, wars are rarely rationale.

Ultimately, I look forward to the rest of this series. It’s smart space opera with big characters and massive amounts of action. Banks includes enough theme and sophisticated sci fi tech to spice it up. Four exploding stars for this devastating trail of death and destruction across ships and planets set against the backdrop of a war between civilizations.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
Author 3 books85 followers
February 3, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Jamie Collins.
1,434 reviews274 followers
May 11, 2011
A frustrating book, perhaps just not my cup of tea. The writing did not click with me - I can't put my finger on it, but I kept being pulled out of the story because the writing felt bland and awkward. Considering the popularity of this series, I'm obviously in the minority in feeling this way.

I think that if I had enjoyed Banks's writing style, I wouldn't have objected to the slow pacing or the meandering storyline, but as it stands I thought most of the book was dull. The story seemed to be composed of pointless vignettes. Each time a new one started I would get excited: ooh, space pirates! Ooh, a giant orbital ring with floating megaships! Ooh, a life-or-death game of chance called Damage! But the narrative never lived up to my hopes, and I spent the whole book feeling disappointed. By the time the plot actually started to get interesting - the final sequence on Schar's World was admittedly suspenseful - I still didn't care about the characters.
Profile Image for Gavin.
883 reviews397 followers
March 15, 2019
I enjoyed The Wasp Factory when I read it a few years back so had fairly high hopes for this sci-fi series of Banks as I loved the premise of the story. The bad news is the story failed to live up to my high expectations and ended up being a total disappointment that even became a bit of a chore to finish!

Consider Phlebas really should have been my sort of book as the ideas behind the world were fantastic, the choice of unique main character was good, and the story had a good mix of political intrigue and action. I'm not quite sure how it all went so wrong as the start was really good. I was sucked in right away and intrigued by the world and story. It all went wrong as soon as the space pirates hit the story and never got back on track.

The Good

-The Worldbuilding. Banks world was a fascinating one. The story was set in the far future populated by multiple human societies and a few alien ones. The story kicked off as the alien Idiran race were taking the war to the Culture. To complicate things a few other human and alien factions were drawn into the conflict. The Idrian were a race that was both superior physically to humans as well as a lot longer lived. They were also fanatically devoted to their religion. I found them interesting enough but the real fun in the story came from the Culture. The Culture was a liberal socialist society that was governed by AI. What an awesome concept! I'm not at all surprised that it was a Scot that came up with such a fun potential society.

-Unique Main Character. The main character had the potential to be a fantastic one. Horza was a human but no ordinary one as he was a shape changer that worked as a spy and infiltrator for the Idrians. His home world had been conquered by the Idrians a bunch of years before the story began and he was a willing collaborator with the Idrians as he saw them as better bet than AI. The Changers were human but a splinter society that had undergone a lot of genetic modification to make them more than human. I enjoyed how Banks did not shy from the fact that humans would use technology to advance or improve their bodies if it became a possibility.

-The AI. We met a couple of sentient AI minds in the story and they were more interesting than the "living" characters!

The Bad

-Horza. Horza should have been an awesome main character and to be fair he did start out that way. I was caught up in his story and intrigued by him for the first 20% of the story. Unfortunately he never quite built on that early intrigue and the more the story developed the more and more I grew both bored and disinterested in him and his story. It did not help that he was not particularly likeable.

-Lack of Emotional Investment. My lack of emotional investment in Horza or any of the secondary characters in the story was a big problem as it meant that when we were not learning titbits about the Culture I was bored as I could not care less about Horza's fate or that of any of the other characters in the story.

-The Plot. I feel Banks made a poor call with the focus of the story. The would-building was great and the intrigue we got at the start of the story was a lot of fun. I feel that should have stayed the focus of the story but instead we got a bunch of mindless action with Horza blundering from one near death action scene to the next and it all got very samey and boring. This was a big part of the reason the book became a chore to finish.

All in all I was really quite disappointed by what we got in this one. It had a cool sci-fi concept and a similar story and character set-up to what we got in the Wasp Factory but sadly Banks just never managed to make either work as well as they should have in this particular story and the end result was a story that got worse and worse as it progressed. It is a real pity as the Culture is the most fascinating future society I've encountered in ages and I'd have loved to learn a lot more about them than this story offered.

The biggest condemnation of this whole book was the fact that the appendices at the end covering the Idrian War and the Culture ended up being a way more enjoyable read than the actual story!

Rating: 2.5 stars. I'm rounding up to 3 stars here on Goodreads just for the ideas and the world-building. They were 5 star great but the plot and characters were 2 star drivel.

Audio Note: Peter Kenny did a decent job with the audio but failed to bring the character and story to life in the same way he did with the Wasp Factory.

Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,712 followers
April 22, 2016
I'm not really sure what to say about Consider Phlebas. It was, quite fittingly, the first Culture book I read, though it was my fourth Banks book (preceded by The Wasp Factory, Dead Air, & The Bridge respectively). And now it is the third Banks book I've reread (The Wasp Factory twice, and Use of Weapons once).

I like it very much, so I feel a little sad that many friends I respect don't love it as much as I and a good deal of them just think it is mostly okay.

I love that Horza is an unlikable protagonist, but I think that bothers some.

I love that Banks delivers on the promise of his title and epigraph:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
But I am certain there are those who find the finish too bleak, and more than a little hopeless.

Many are frustrated by Banks' propensity for long, detailed, action sequences and feel that these scenes disrupt the flow of the plot, whereas I love the cinematic quality of the action.

A few don't like what they see as a choppy narrative -- more linked short stories than one cohesive novel. Again, I love the episodic nature, and I love the way we grow into our knowledge of the characters through these sporadic brushes with their lives. That works for me, and seems real -- sorta like the way I connect with all the friends who don't live with me on a daily basis. We brush by each other in episodes, and all we learn about each other is in our own little short stories of companionship.

Some find Consider Phlebas too brutal. I think it is just brutal enough.

Others can't find any character to relate to and pull for, or are only able to embrace one, but I find myself liking them all, even the most unsavoury, like Fwi-Song and Mr. First (although I wouldn't want to eat dinner with them ;)).

But mostly I love what Banks is whispering in my ear while I read: "Hey, Brad. Heroes don't exist. Violence is our natural state, no matter who or what we are. Death comes to us all, somehow, someway, even seemingly immortal Minds. But that doesn't mean that life isn't beautiful. There is life in death, thus death matters. It makes life sweet, so don't forget to live it." For me, that's a message worth reading again and again.

Yep, it's good to be reminded that my bag of skin is nothing but crude, decaying matter. There's humility in that, a humility that makes me look at the black ant crawling up my leg with brotherhood rather than disdain (and it really is, right now, this second). It reminds me to recognize our shared experience. And so I let him(it?) continue his(its?) walk and don't crush him(it?) between my thumb and forefinger. I simply let him(it?) get on his way. I hope I will always be able to do the same.

(I wrote a review of Pippi Goes On Board just after I finished reading Consider Phlebas. If you've read the latter you may like my review of the former. Check it out.)

April 22, 2017 -- Been a while since I spent some time in Culture space, but I came back for a journey with the Clear Air Turbulence -- except this time I listened. I don't really want to add anything to my feelings about the text. I said it well enough above, but I do want to mention that it was a pleasure to listen to Peter Kenny's narration of the book. I'll be seeking his voice out in the future.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,929 reviews439 followers
February 22, 2023
'Consider Phlebas' by Iain M. Banks is the first novel in the Culture series. I loved it! This book is an amazing thrill ride of fast-paced entertainment as well as a fantastically imagined universe full of hard science technology.

The writing is so good it takes awhile before you realize the book's chapters consist of a series of tableaus that are sort of a tour of violence in this galaxy. It's exciting! Ok, that came out wrong. Moving on...

The science is the best part. All the cool body add-ons. Let's hope our current gene wars in 2011 come out for using and exploring this technology. I'd LOVE glanding! Individual scenes in this book are fast and furious and you won't want to quit reading until the next chapter.

Two types of dominant societies, the Culture and Idirans, are both theological-based. The author Banks writes as if a pox on both houses sometimes. But the Culture is the best one for me as I admire humanism, the Culture's theology. The Culture’s utopian ideals of spreading around happiness by enabling everyone to do their own thing as long as no one is harmed, and promoting science, seems the best system to me.

I had some difficulty connecting with any of the characters (all aliens or modified humans) despite my sympathy with the agents from the Culture. The Culture is fighting back throughout the novel against the horrors of the evil militaristic Idirans. The Idirans are forcing all societies they attack in the galaxy to convert to beliefs in God. But when Unaha-Closp is introduced 2/3rds into the book - I had my hero! I wanted one of the other main characters, anti-"hero" Bora Horza Gobuchul, a shapechanger, to die early on since he was on the side of the religious fundamentalist Idiran murderers. The Iderans are evil as far as I am concerned.

The novel takes place in a violent and graphic world, very dark noir with lots of tricky spying and sabotage and war battles and torture and space ships with very cool hard science. Plus there is a mystery race of aliens, the Dra'Azon. They don't have much to do with the plot other than having attained a kind of godhood I think. They are a pure energy superspecies which no one seems to notice, only that they are superior to everybody else in technology. At least so far.

I am surprised the Iderans haven't made the Dra'Azons part of their mythology, perhaps as Dark Ones of a sort, since the Iderans believe sentient machines are evil. The Dra'Azons appear to have the best technology along with having lost their physical form using technology. Isn't that an anathema to religious folk? A presumption of God-like powers in becoming energy beings? Maybe the next books will provide enlightenment.

The "what happened to..." in the back of the book was hilarious.
Profile Image for Simon Fay.
Author 4 books154 followers
November 29, 2018
I'm rather curious what other people think of the Culture: One of the dominant powers at the forefront of a decades-long galactic war, and, more importantly, the side that Horza, the protagonist of Consider Phlebas, has chosen to fight against.

At the outset, Horza has allied himself with a millennia-old alien species that holds little regard for human life. Horza is a shapeshifter, not entirely human himself, but his biology is a heck of a lot closer to folks like you and me than to the three-legged beasts that aim to conquer Earth's greatest empire. At first, I thought his reasoning for working against humanity a little underdeveloped: He didn't seem to have a personal vendetta against the Culture. Yes, he had some ideological issues with them, and a healthy dose of paranoia regarding the artificial minds that run their civilization, but the book never made much of an effort to convince you of the danger that the Culture represents. In fact, at times you wonder why Horza bothered to get involved with such a dangerous conflict at all.

I do think the flat characterization is a bit of a fail for Bank's on this occasion. Horza often comes off as a two-dimensional James Bond type. But there are aspects of Consider Phlebas that are much more fleshed out: namely the Culture itself.

While Horza treats us to a handful of propaganda lectures regarding the evils and stupidity of the Culture, we are given enough glimpses of their inner workings and the people who populate it to realize they're not necessarily a bad bunch. In general, they come off as kind, educated and enormously empathetic, a quality that works in stark contrast with the meanness that most other characters in the book demonstrate at one time or another. It would have been nice to explore some concrete reasoning behind Horza's paranoia regarding them, but, as it stands, having a protagonist whose goals I didn't agree with did create the interesting effect in me of not knowing how I'd like the story to end. I can't think of another book that left me disappointed, satisfied and relieved all at the same time, but that's what happened here, which more than made up for sections I felt more lacking.

Besides all that, Consider Phlebas is a really enjoyable dark space adventure. It's a bit heartless at times, and certainly doesn't try to endear you with loveable characters or romantic quests, but Banks' rich imagination ensures that anybody will find something mindblowing, thought-provoking, or just downright fun within its pages. I look forward to reading the sequels and discovering if Banks will ask me to reevaluate my experience with this first outing... something I strongly suspect he'll do.
Profile Image for Michael.
522 reviews240 followers
December 7, 2007
People love their Iain Banks, and I respect that, though I've yet to read something of his that impresses me much. Of course, I've read only two books, and both seemed like slow, ponderous exercises.

This novel, for example, was recommend as "thinking man's sf adventure." Hey, that's appealing. But this didn't strike me as that sort of book. Instead, it was slow-going, and lacked the giddy joy of invention and play that to my mind the best science fiction always has. I gritted my teeth and pushed my way through it and decided I was done with his sf.

And then someone recommended Complicity, and that annoyed as well, so I am done with his thrillers, too. All that leaves are his mainstream "literary" novels. Cripes.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews272 followers
June 7, 2015
Consider Phlebas: The first Culture novel, but later books are better
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
This is Iain M. Banks’ first novel (1987) set in his now famous CULTURE universe, and although it’s a well-written book with lots of clever ideas, I wouldn’t say it’s the best book in the series. Then again, if like many readers you would have feelings of angst and guilt if you were to read the books of a series out of order, then it makes sense to start with this one.

To be very brief, the Culture is a wide-flung galactic civilization in which artificial Minds co-habit with a hundred variants of humanity in a fairly symbiotic relationship, although there is always some sense that the Minds are basically running the show but allow the humans to feel more in control than they really are (like how cats seem to treat their ostensible ‘owners’). In any case, there isn’t much struggle for supremacy in the Culture, because it is a decentralized and post-scarcity society, one in which the ideals of self-expression and self-fulfillment are considered the highest priorities, so that humans and AIs are free to pursue whatever interests them most, and can enjoy long, hedonistic lives simply doing their favorite hobbies (or not, if that’s what they want). But of course a lack of conflict and danger make for a pretty boring existence, so Banks has wisely chosen to populate his universe with dozens of non-Culture species who come into contact with the Culture, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not. Frequently the cultures that the Culture encounters are far less sophisticated, and the Culture is not above interfering with them (via its Contact units) in order to improve their situations (at least, that’s how the Culture sees things).

So Consider Phlebas is about a military conflict between the Culture and the Idirans, a powerful and militant race that is united by its belief that its mission is to spread its religion to all other races, generally by force. The Culture is diametrically opposed to such behavior, so it reluctantly finds itself embroiled in a far-ranging galactic war that will eventually involve trillions of casualties and the destructions of thousands of planets, Orbitals, GSVs (General Systems Vehicles), Minds, etc. In the book, despite its length, we only get to see a tiny glimpse of this massive conflict via a few key characters and events.

Perhaps the most interesting authorial decision in Consider Phlebas is that the protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, is a Changer (a shape-shifter) who chooses to side with the Idirans, despite the fact that they are religious extremists who don’t mind exterminating other species, because Horza despises the Minds of the Culture, choosing the “side of life” instead. Although he freely admits that the Culture has never done him wrong, he categorically hates what he considers a decadent and arrogant civilization that considers its lifestyle and values superior to all others.

So essentially we have a complete inversion of the usual space opera tropes, in which the main character (it’s hard to consider him the hero) has sided against the more ‘enlightened’ Culture by fighting for the intolerant religious extremist Idiran Empire in their holy war against the machine-dominated Culture. Horza also encounters his counterpart and rival, female Culture agent Persteck Balveda. The story begins with him captured by a hostile government and about to be executed. The Idirans swoop in to save him at the last minute, while Balveda is apparently eliminated, but then a Culture ship attacks the Idirans and Horza is cast into space adrift until he’s picked up by a group of Mercenaries on the ship Clear Air Turbulence. Horza’s mission is to find a special rogue Mind that is hiding out on Schar’s World, a planet of the dead protected by a pure-energy race called the Dra’Azon. Horza previously was a caretaker on this world, so the Idiran’s think he is best suited to infiltrate the quiet barrier of the Dra’Azon and capture this Mind, which is of strategic value in the conflict.

The remainder of Consider Phlebas is a series of very elaborate, action-packed sequences as Horza moves from one crisis to the next, always trying to find his way closer to Schar’s World but with many setbacks and side adventures. You might assume that this is a typical picaresque space opera, but Banks is much more interested in subverting the reader’s expectations than fulfilling them. Time and again, where a Golden Age romp would have clearly identified heroes and villains, we instead find a thousand shades of grey, since both Horza and Balveda have legitimate reasons for being on their respective sides. Even the mercenaries don’t seem to be a bad lot. One of the most exciting and cinematic parts of the book (and something I remember vividly when I first read the story 20 years ago), was when Horza commandeer the mercenaries ship, since he isn’t afraid to create some mayhem to break out of an Orbital in spectacular fashion. I would love to see this sequence in a movie with today’s graphics, something like in Guardians of the Galaxy.

What I found strange and somewhat confounding is that despite Banks spending a huge number of pages describing all these extended action sequences, I also had the sneaking suspicion that he cared less for the action and more for the ideas of the Culture and its conflict with other empires. In the end, the reason the Culture universe has become so popular and well-regarded is not because of elaborate space battles and destruction, but rather by exploring the ideas of what a post-scarcity civilization would actually be like. Just imagine for a moment that you no longer had to do your 9-5 job in order to enjoy your favorite hobbies and entertainments. Then picture having unlimited creature comforts at your fingertips, no need for money, and built-in drug glands that can supply hundreds of customized drug cocktails that can enhance any experience you’d care to undergo. Why would you NOT side with such a civilization?

This is the central dilemma in Consider Phlebas, and it isn’t really resolved with a satisfactory conclusion. If anything, I’d say that Banks deliberately refuses to give us the usual payoff in which the hero saves the day and gets his just rewards. The final passages set on Schar’s World as Horza tries to track down the missing Mind and fights with Idiran soldiers who don’t know he is on their side is basically too long and implausible, and ends in a way that I can’t imagine would make any reader happy.

It is then followed by a coda in which Banks pulls the camera back from the minutiae of our story and gives a much broader perspective of the Culture-Idiran war, and we come to realize that all the actions of the book haven’t amounted to much difference at all to the final outcome of the conflict. So if that’s the case, why write the story at all?

It’s not clear if Banks actually anticipated that his CULTURE series would eventually extend to 10 volumes, and mark him as a very literary and subversive practitioner of the SF genre, one who could be popular with a certain devoted fan base while at the same time thumbing his nose at the more low-brow wish-fulfillment aspects of space opera. Mostly likely he didn’t.

So in the end I would say that Consider Phlebas is not a complete success or failure as a novel, but its primary importance is in establishing the template and introduction to the fantastic and limitless potential of the CULTURE universe. I think the next two novels in the series, The Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990), are frequently considered some of the best entries in the series, but I’ve also heard that Banks actually got better the further he refined his understanding of his own universe, so that later books in the series are also very good. That itself is unusual in a genre that is notorious for overlong series that essentially churn out the same stories shamelessly to an audience who reward this behavior by faithfully purchasing the next installment. So it’s quite unusual for an author like Banks to become so popular, but that’s a really good thing in my opinion.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Kenny, and most of Banks’ CULTURE books are narrated by him. He does a very good job and strikes the right tone of irony when needed. It would be great to hear all the CULTURE books on audio, but I discovered that the American Audible website is missing four of Banks’ CULTURE novels, while the UK Audible website has them (Excession, State of the Art, Inversions, Look to Windward), and a number of non-CULTURE books as well (Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn, and The Algebraist, though only an abridged version). That’s just frustrating and does nobody any good, so I wish that the publishers or estate could sort these problems out.
Profile Image for Gary .
200 reviews186 followers
December 20, 2018
This novel was good. The author did an excellent job of building a world and creatively fueling it with philosophy and technology. I like large scale space opera ideas when they involve religion, philosophy and the eventual evolution of materialistic ideas both philosophically and realistically. The developed stages of thought of group that were representative of modern day groups was interesting to me. Most importantly, it was character driven.
The main character, Horza, is a Changer and is able to assume any shape he wants to which makes him dangerous and coveted by the groups that are vying for power. I like the way his character is rounded out. He is selfish, and can be brutal and callous, yet still has enough of a personality and shows momentary lapses of compassion, that he becomes likable. He is believable, which is saying a lot for a science fiction character than can change shapes like Mystique.
The war itself is good, and serves as more than simply a backdrop to the story. The conflict weaves itself in and out of the thoughts and lives of the characters. Some of the most interesting parts of the story are digressions, like the segment that introduces the primitive civilization on a tropical island. It reminded me more than a little of Brandon in Apocalypse Now cross bred with Dune, and I mean that in a good way.
The pirate excursion to acquire objects works well the first time around, the second time it felt a little like filler. The plot seemed to meander a bit as it moved towards the conclusion, and while I always enjoyed reading it, I did enjoy rushing it a little towards the end. I definitely plan to read the next in the series, just not yet.
4.0 stars
Profile Image for Ivan.
434 reviews284 followers
June 24, 2017
When my friend Arhu recommended this series to me he said it's basically like 4X games and feline wizard did not lie although in first book we can only see that starting to shape out.

So what does this book have in common with those games. Well imagine session of Galactic Civilizations or Alpha Centauri (you have to be bit older to remember this Civilization 2 spin-off) going into late-game where all habitable places and resources are split among players and there are 2 main powers who try to get smaller ones by means of diplomacy or war to get edge over other power before final confrontation. This is the sate of the galaxy where book takes place and indeed world building is top notch. Culture as a faction is fascinating, they are anarchistic and hedonistic society where humanoids and AI coexist. Relations between humanoids and AI is superbly well done with some very neat ideas.
And while worldbuilding and deserve 5 stars this book isn't getting them because this is also book about shapeshifter Horza's misadventures as Idiran agent in mission to get fugitive mind. Most characters are uninteresting only few get decent characterization, rest are just cardboard cutouts that you will forget about as soon as you turn page.
Profile Image for Brent.
355 reviews147 followers
March 25, 2020
I had heard good things about the Culture novels but this was not a good start. Meandering plot, unconvincing characters, and oh so very, very wordy.

I think there is a decent book in there somewhere, but its buried under piles of extraneous dialogue and description. There are some cool ideas in play but everything felt so drawn-out and bloated and assembled pretty much at random.

I may give Player of Games a chance, but not for a while. I need to recover.
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