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