The downside comes in that while this is a good science fiction novel, it is perhaps not the best entry into the Culture series...anyone who reads any of the other books first will have the eventual outcome of Consider Phlebas spoiled for them, dropping a lot of the tension the book creates. While this is not entirely important, it is something that should be addressed for budding readers of the series. Also, there are several sequences that feel like padding, though they do illustrate the nature of the books they are trying to satirize-- the author will try to pack as many interesting set pieces between the protagonist and the end of their journey so that at the end, it feels like they've accomplished much. Which Banks then cruelly stabs in the gut.
"Fuck your soul, stranger. You’d better hope there’s no such thing. There’s people that are natural eaters and there’s those that are always going to get eaten, and I can’t see that their souls are going to be any different, so as you’re obviously one of those that are always going to get eaten, you’d better hope there isn’t any such thing. That’s your best bet, believe me.”
- Mr. First
I first started to go through the Culture series two springs ago when I finally read the excellent The Player of Games, and its take on the "lone hero topples an oppressive regime" story. It was...well, the link's right up there, you can read what I thought of the book. But circumstances conspired and it took me a while to get back to reading it*. And when I finally did, I was far from disappointed. The book works as a deconstruction due to the affection it has, the strength of its characters, and the adherence to its theme, and it's a fantastic read, as well.
Consider Phlebas is the story of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a genetically-enhanced "changer" mercenary fighting for the Idirans in a war against the collectivist society known as the Culture. Horza trusts the Idrians because while they are religious fanatics, at least they aren't machine-dependent, and they believe in something. After a failed espionage operation, Horza is tasked with going to a "planet of the dead" to retrieve one of the Culture's Minds-- the artificial intelligence brains that run their starships and can think in four dimensions. However, the ship he is on immediately gets sucked into a conflict with a Culture ship and Horza becomes lost in the crossfire.
And then things get weird
Horza is picked up by a Free Company vessel trying to use the chaos of the Idiran-Culture wars to loot and plunder to their hearts' content. A crew that, in a subversion of the usual "ragtag band of misfits" trope is a group of paranoid sociopaths captained by an even bigger sociopath with a compartmentalized brain who literally gambles with people's lives. The crew is headed for the mysterious and dangerous Temple of Light to attack and plunder it. They then plan to jet off and spend some much-needed R&R time on the Vavatch Orbital, a massive ringworld-like** structure surrounding a planet, before the warring forces blow it to smithereens. Naturally, since this does not gel with Horza's plans one bit, his solution is to plot a way to kill the company's captain, Kraiklyn, impersonate him, and then head off to complete his mission with a crew in tow.
And if Horza is to survive to the end of his mission, he will have to negotiate a trap-filled gunfight-proof temple, a group of anthropophagous religious fanatics, the members of the Free Company themselves (as they're just as big a danger as everyone else), and finally the warring forces of the Culture and the Idirans, both of whom have decided to send their own teams to retrieve the Mind and tip the tide of the war in their favor.
I suppose the main thing I like so much about the book is the way it plays with the common tropes. Horza is the common space hero-- he believes very strongly in the right things, if not actually any of the causes in the war-- but the cause he is fighting for is a rapidly-expanding empire of homicidal religious fanatics who (as it turns out) would happily blow a great big hole in anyone who so much as looks different than they do. And, in fact, by the end of the book, the Idirans have caused as much harm to their own war effort as anyone else. As for their supposed enemies, the machine-dependent Culture, the Culture don't...actually do anything all that villainous. The most they do is thwart the plans the Idirans have leveled at them again and again. Even the pirates, who would normally be portrayed as a Robin Hood-esque gang, or eventually learn to work together, are turned on their ear. Out of all the characters in the book, the only two who do anything even remotely heroic are the Culture's agent in the matter, Balveda; and Horza himself. The book plays itself out politely turning every situation inside-out and escalating the consequences until it envelops everyone.
Another thing I like is the pacing. In the style of other space operas, the book moves very quickly and never seems to flag for very long. The fight scenes, instead of being long and drawn-out, are decided in very quick bursts of violence, never lasting more than a few pages at most. It's good when a book moves, be it a slow build towards something or a breakneck pace downhill, and something few authors manage to capture well. Even the best of them get stuck on places that should take shorter but take longer, or gloss over places that should be drawn out. Banks has, and this is the second time one of his books has done so, managed to hit the right balance. Phlebas is a lot of fun to read, despite the grim tone and impossibly high body count, in part because it moves. Banks has a wonderful grasp of cinematic style, and you can see the scenes unfolding as they play out, which is always a nice touch.
However, the book is not without its faults. The entire central story in the book becomes pointless at the end (which is part of the point, I suppose) due to the actions of the two massive forces in play, anyone reading the Culture series having started with The Player of Games is going to have a book strangely devoid of much tension due to the resolution of the War being played out between books one and two, and Banks still hasn't lost his gift for the grotesque. But in the end, these are not slights against the book itself, more its place in the series.
So in conclusion, buy this book. Borrow it from a friend. Have someone eagerly shove it into your hands, because you should read this. You should want to read this. It may not be Iain M. Banks's best work, but even at his weakest, he's heads and shoulders away from the competition. And as far as space operas and black comedy go, he is still one of the best.
- Brian Clevinger's superhero novel Nuklear Age
See you then!
*Just check out the "up next"s of past reviews...this one's been in the pipe for a while.
** Totally a thing now. And also stolen by Halo. Suck it, Bungie fans.