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Previous BotM--DISCUSSIONS > 2009-08 Consider Phlebas - finished reading *spoilers*

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message 1: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
Post here if you've finished reading the book!


message 2: by William (last edited Aug 02, 2009 06:21AM) (new)

William (williamjm) I read it about a year ago. Having read most of Banks' Culture books, I thought this was one of the weaker efforts although it did have its moments. It is a good introduction to the Culture (I might have liked it more if I hadn't read some of the later Culture books beforehand) and the scenes in the GSV and at the end in the Command System were entertaining and fast-paced. There are also some subtleties in the plotting and characterisation that give things a bit more depth.

I thought the first half was a bit weak, the plot meanders a lot as Horza goes through various adventures which have nothing really to do with his overall quest and aren't intrinsically very interesting. I also didn't think it worked very well to suddenly introduce about 20 or 30 characters with short biographies of them, many of whom soon get killed off without ever getting proper characterisation - the large number of characters is a bit confusing at this stage. As the number of crew members diminishes the survivors do get more characterisation.

Overall, it was reasonably entertaining but it feels like Banks fell short of showing his full talent, some of the other Culture books are much better written, particularly Use of Weapons which I reckon is one of the best Science Fiction novels ever written.



message 3: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments I found this novel to be quite rewarding on rereading. I read it first in 1987 or so, not long after it was published, and thought it was head-and-shoulders above the space opera books I had read to that point. I loved Banks' notion of 'the Culture': a material utopia (a real one, not the beloved 'dystopia' of so many sf writers) with unlimited resources and energy so abundant that money is meaningless and apparently non-existent. I quite liked Horza, even though he was working for the bad guys. I liked the scale of the 'clash of civilizations' of the Idiran-Culture war, and the fact that no-one thought the mission in the book would end the war, just reduce its length by a little bit, and yet they still thought that important enough to do. I liked the general violence of the book, the crash of the Megaship, the Eaters, the game of Damage, the insane piloting of the pirate vessel out of the GSV and the various battles in the tunnels (Banks has always been good at written violence.)
But, on re-reading, I see it more as a book about the nature of belief: from Horza joining the three-legged Idirans because he believes the Culture is a dead end, to the monks at the Temple of Light, to the strange religious parody of the Eaters, to Kraiklyn believing his own myth of himself, to the Idirans, generally in their "jihad" (that's the word Banks uses) and individually in the incredible efforts of the severely wounded Idirans in the tunnel complex. That also seems to me to be the reason for the various interruptions, the "State of Play" chapters and the monologues from the trapped Mind.
Enough for now.


message 4: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
I read this novel about 10 years ago and didn't have the chance to re-read it for this discussion. I remember enjoying it, but I thought the next books in the series were much, much better. I vividly remember there was one scene in this novel which was possibly the most disgusting scene I've ever read. I always tell people that "Consider Phlebas" is the book you have to get through to get to the really good later books in the series (similar to "Shards of Honor" for the Vorkosigan series, actually).


message 5: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments I feel fairly sure that the scene you recall, Stefan, is Horza's sojourn among the "Eaters". It is quite horrible, it's true, but I think it is of a piece with Banks' depiction of religion throughout the novel, and with other early writing of his, like "Wasp Factory", some bits of which are also quite stomach-turning. Having read "WF", I was maybe more ready for that scene in "CP".


message 6: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1348 comments I read this long ago and from the discriptions you guys are mention I have no recall at all.


message 7: by Kathi, Moderator & Book Lover (new)

Kathi | 3088 comments Mod
My review:
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks is the first book in his science fiction series about the Culture. In this wild adventure, Horza is an agent for the Idiran who are currently fighting a war with the Culture. He has a number of experiences, some stomach-turning, some heart-pounding, as he tries to carry out his mission to capture a hidden Culture Mind.

I liked Horza, although his connection to the Idirans never seemed terribly strong to me. His status as a Changer, while useful in some of his escapades, also didn't seem to set him apart from the other characters as much as I thought it might.

My favorite characters were actually the two females who became close to Horza in one way or another--Yalson, his ally in the Free Company, and Balveda the Culture operative who keeps turning up in Horza's life. And I really liked two of the machines--Unaha-Closp, the rather prissy drone who has a lot more fight inside than anyone realized, and Jase, the ancient drone who serves Fal, a Culture Referer (a rare and highly intuitive thinker). We are given glimpses of personality that are very revealing for each of them.

Some readers have criticized the number of characters who are introduced and then killed off. I think that is an accurate reflection of Horza's life and the way most people come and go in it. He doesn't have a chance to really connect with them, and it would interfere with his mission, so we don't really get to connect with them either.

Some readers have also expressed concern about the violence. I think a lot of the violent action is similar to a big budget action adventure film with great special effects--exciting and spectacular. The disturbing violence, to me, is contained in the more personal scenes, like the sewage torture, Horza'a combat to join the Free Company, and the Eaters. Each of these is important to the plot, I think, and had more impact on me that the "shoot 'em up" scenes.

I plan to acquire the other Culture books and look forward to reading them in the future.


message 8: by Random (new)

Random (rand0m1s) | 805 comments Well I finally managed to finish. For the most part I felt rather eh about it all. I had a difficult time caring about what happened to the characters so many of the scenes (like the island) really didn't have much of any impact on me. In fact, the only character I found interesting was Balveda and we saw so little of her.

The descriptions of the Damage game were interesting.

Oddly enough, I did enjoy the ending. For some reason their deaths, except for Balveda and the Mind, seemed to emphasize the futility and pure pointlessness of it all.

I've never really liked space opera though, and that may be why I've had such a bland reaction.

I find I do think the Culture society sounds interesting. Whether or not its enough to get me to try another, I don't know.


message 9: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments "For some reason their deaths, except for Balveda and the Mind, seemed to emphasize the futility and pure pointlessness of it all."
Random, I think you have this exactly right, and I think this is why Horza has to die of his injuries too.



message 10: by Random (new)

Random (rand0m1s) | 805 comments I guess you could look at this in a backwards way.

Many books focus on the hero and how one person can really make a difference/save the day.

Consider Phlebas turns things on end and shows how that one person is just not enough to make any difference in the grand scheme of things. He caused a lot of destruction and made some waves in his immediate environment, but no further really.

Also, in the long run, what was the purpose of the Mind's destruction other than it is an intelligent machine that Horza and Idirans despise? It was not a vital component, not even unique really. Just another individual in a galactic war.

The pointlessness of Horza's actions seems to increase the more I think about it. :)


message 11: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments I don't think the Idirans intended simply to destroy the Mind; I think they wanted to reverse-engineer it, if not to gain themselves the ability to create Minds of their own (since they consider them abominations), then at least to find weak points in their enemy. Horza all along is planning, or at least hoping, to capture the Mind and bring it back to the Idiran Fleet, not just kill it on sight.


message 12: by Nick (new)

Nick (doily) | 966 comments Ron, Kathi and Random have great points to make about this book. I, too, have not always enjoyed "space opera" for its own sake. But I really liked this book. I've known Banks only as a writer of thrillers before now, but this, though a strange introduction to the Culture, makes me want to read more. The themes brought out in this discussion of futility and destruction in the face of overwhelming outside forces, and of the disturbing nature of misplaced belief, make the book, upon reflection, all that more meaningful.

I thought Fal, as a link to the Culture in the plot, would have more "stage time" in the story. But I think Banks was keeping a lot of aspects of the Culture mysterious on purpose -- because obviously Horza had only a limited view of the Culture -- and because in a huge, multivolume exploration of the Culture universe, the reader is only going to find things out little by little anyway. I'm anticipating a good time reading more Culture novels.


message 13: by Kathi, Moderator & Book Lover (new)

Kathi | 3088 comments Mod
Nick wrote: "I thought Fal, as a link to the Culture in the plot, would have more "stage time" in the story. But I think Banks was keeping a lot of aspects of the Culture mysterious on purpose -- because obviously Horza had only a limited view of the Culture..."

Great point, Nick, and I think that makes a lot of sense.


message 14: by William (new)

William (williamjm) Nick wrote: "But I think Banks was keeping a lot of aspects of the Culture mysterious on purpose -- because obviously Horza had only a limited view of the Culture -- and because in a huge, multivolume exploration of the Culture universe, the reader is only going to find things out little by little anyway. I'm anticipating a good time reading more Culture novels."

I think Banks has commented in the past that it is difficult to write novels set in a utopia such as The Culture since when all it citizens can pretty much have anything they want it cuts down on the dramatic possibilities a bit. I assume that is part of the reason that his Culture novels all focus to a greater or lesser extent on The Culture's interactions with other civilisations rather than being purely set in the Culture.




message 15: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments William has a good point here, essentially that a true Utopia is pretty dull to observe, even if it's an anarchistic, hedonistic, post-monetary paradise run by quirky AIs with IQs in the eight-digit range. One good way to define a thing is in opposition to something else, so Banks shows how the Culture deals with other civilizations it meets, either by going outside the Culture volume of space or by having visitors to the Culture who don't quite "get it", and usually Contact and Special Circumstances agents, human and machine but equally citizens, are the intermediaries.


message 16: by Nick (new)

Nick (doily) | 966 comments Great point, William and Ron. I just started "Matter" and am enjoying getting to know another planet outside the Culture system. This one has a major character from a royal household on the planet who was "gfiven" to the Culture as a child and is now a Contact and Special Circumstance agent for the Culture. Great fun.


message 17: by Random (new)

Random (rand0m1s) | 805 comments Ron wrote: "I don't think the Idirans intended simply to destroy the Mind; I think they wanted to reverse-engineer it, if not to gain themselves the ability to create Minds of their own (since they consider th..."

It depends on which group of Idirans. The group on Shar's world was very intent upon its destruction.

After thinking on things for a while I do have to give the book a plus. If the story was told with Balveda as the primary character and mostly from her point of view, it would have been the more traditional heroic story.

However, what Banks did was to give us the story from the point of view of the antagonist. An interesting approach and one I have to give him points for.

I do wish it had been better executed.

In regards to Utopia being rather dull, very true. It is conflict that makes things interesting. However, it seemed to be that the Idirans (that we see in the book) and others spent more time fighting each other and not the Culture. (Seeds of their own destruction maybe??) I just felt like hitting everyone across the back of the head and yelling "Grow some sense you moron!" :)



message 18: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments Well, yes, the Idirans in the tunnels were certainly out to destroy the Mind; but they were the last remnants of a much larger force, whose transport was crippled on crossing the Dead World's barrier and destroyed on landing, and who had died one by one on the march across hundreds of kilometers of the frozen surface of the planet. So, with no way off-planet and two soldiers left out of - I forget- forty?, and the officers all dead, killing the Mind is about all they have a chance to do, and they really want to kill something. And they do; it just turns out it's the Free Company and not the Mind.

And I'm with you on the smack-to-the-back-of-the-head idea.


message 19: by Stuart (new)

Stuart (asfus) | 136 comments I think this novel is one of the most exciting books I have read, I just loved the pace of the novel. It was not the deepest and richest novel I have read, but felt that I was reading the screenplay for a sci fi thriller. The only thing is the way the novel ends might not endear itself to Hollywood producers.


message 20: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
I just finished my re-read of this novel, and it hasn't changed the opinion I formed after my first reading: this is the weakest book in a very strong series. My main problem is the way a plot is ostensibly set up early on (Horza has to recover the lost Mind), and then the book takes a 300 page detour in which hardly anything is directly relevant to that plot. The book works for me as a (rather violent and often very entertaining) travelogue through the Culture, but I thought it meandered too much to work as a novel. Banks is one of my favorite SF authors, and the Culture series one of my favorite SF series, but for me this book just barely merits 3 stars.


message 21: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments I'm not sure I agree with this, Stefan. The plot seems to me to consist entirely of Horza doing what he has to do to achieve his mission: he leaves Idiran space, finds (or is found by) a vessel, joins the crew, fights alongside the crew, takes control of the vessel, goes to the planet where the Mind is hiding, and tries to find it and rejoin his Idiran employers. The strength of the various set pieces (the fight on the CAT, the assault on the temple, the attempt on the long ship, the eaters, the game of Damage, and so on) may make them seem like distractions, but his progress is fairly linear really, and each piece adds to the theme of conflict arising from faith. I think one might expect more of a one-to-one engagement between Horza and Balveda throughout the book, more of a punch-counterpunch sort of thing; I think it's one of the strengths of the book that she more or less allows him to defeat himself.


message 22: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
I agree that the set pieces add to the theme of conflict arising from faith (good point), but I feel that the sheer amount and length of them just destroy any narrative tension. My feeling during several of them - the Eaters, the assault on the temple, the game of Damage - can be summarized as "Well, that's all very neat, but where are we going with this?". The book just wandered around too much to work for me - especially compared to some of the other books in the series.


message 23: by Ron (new)

Ron (ronbacardi) | 302 comments Well, yes, I can follow that. It's something like what happens with "The Algebraist": the sheer goofiness of the time among the slow-living inhabitants of the Jovian planet deflates the tension of the war among the humans in the rest of the system. I think that goofiness is Banks' way of showing that the Jovians are so much more intelligent their actions can only seem absurd to us, but it does work against the novel.


message 24: by Nick (new)

Nick (doily) | 966 comments These are all great reviews of "Consider Phlebas". I agree with the comment of the plot "wandering around" and how that might appear to get Horza off the track of his main mission. I guess I am not too bothered by such narrative devices -- I think of Fellini movies where the main character just drifts from party to party or situation to situation trying to find meaning in a meaningless world. Horza has a mission, but he is a lost soul too, and so in trying to fulfill his purpose he ends up drifting a great deal. And he ends up being the last of his race -- and that kinda gives the whole novel a greater meaning in and of itself.

Kathi above described Horza as someone who doesn't reallhy have a chance to connect with anybody. I think this is true. I don't think his connections are superficial; but they are so brief as to render the other characters in the novel as perhaps not fully developed. I'm not particularly bothered by this, though, as I see it as a reflection of his trying to give meaning to his life and, ultimately, that of his race.


message 25: by William (new)

William (williamjm) Nick wrote: "I'm not particularly bothered by this, though, as I see it as a reflection of his trying to give meaning to his life and, ultimately, that of his race."

IIRC he isn't the last of his race - although we are told in the epilogue that the Changer civillisation is ultimately wiped out in the later stages of the Idiran-Culture War at the time of Horza's death the Changers' homeworld is still intact.



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