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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks (Published 1987)
Genre: Science Fiction
Sub-genre: Space Opera
Completed: May 16 2010

Consider Phlebas has been my most disjointed reading experience for some time. It took me over a month to finish it when I had been averaging close enough to a novel per week. The issue was not necessarily with the book - I have been extremely busy at work. Ultimately the experience lacked continuity for me.

Some blame must go to the book - the list of places where I fell asleep while reading this book is quite long. The strange thing is, I don’t recall being bored by the story at any time. I just struggled to read it. The similar experience that I had with Neuromancer suggests that Science-Fiction may not be my thing – but I’m too intrigued by it to give up.

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. These books are linked through their setting, rather than story. I, however, am something of a completionist. I had heard that Consider Phlebas is not the best novel in Banks’ universe but it is the establishing shot. I felt that reading Consider Phlebas would earn me a better experience when I get to the later novels. Time will hopefully prove me wise.

I knew that I was in for a novel likely to be heavy on set-up. There is plenty of techno-jargon that I’m sure went over my head, though there was usually enough for my mind to picture what was going on. The descriptions of the world and its incredible Science-Fiction creations were vivid and exciting for the most part, but occasionally felt intrusive and excessive. In some cases, for all of the imagination at work, certain characters and events felt out of place in the world, as if they were designed primarily as allegorical comments then somewhat artificially inserted.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the world-building is that Banks often has to pull back from the characters in order to establish elements of the setting and to explain the part their actions play in a broader conflict. Yet it was of course the characters that I was interested in... even if I didn’t really like any of them. I found them somewhat unsympathetic - I didn’t really agree with any of the perspectives that Banks created through Horza, Baveda and Xoxarle - but the contrasting philosophies and motivations were the most intriguing part of the story. Essentially, if Consider Phlebas is viewed as a fable designed to validate the existence and beliefs of the galaxy spanning Culture it is very effective.

What was lacking was any clear understanding of the importance of the characters in the broader conflict. The resolution of Consider Phlebas is anticlimactic at best. If you proceed to read the (brief) appendices it becomes even more tragically apparent that the efforts of the characters were irrelevant in the context of galactic conflict. I was left with a fairly strong feeling of ‘so what?’ which was particularly disappointing given that the execution of the conclusion was much more fast-paced, engaging and exciting than the preceding chapters. Banks utilized unconventional and rapid viewpoint switches to ratchet up the tension while still disguising from the reader exactly what was about to transpire.

Consider Phlebas gets 3.5 stars, with some degree of benefit of the doubt. When I was able to give the book the chance to impress me, it did. I certainly churned through the last quarter, and I can’t wait to get to some of the later books in the Culture series. For all of the issues I have pointed out with the structure and broad thematic picture I can’t help but feel that Banks is a seriously good writer.

Read it – if you intend to read further in the Culture series, or if you have read other Culture novels and are keen to see where it all began.
Don’t read it – if you hate books that seem designed to explore and establish their setting as much as tell you a story.

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