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Mar 04

Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Goodreads figures: 15506 ratings at an average of 3.87

So I’m reading Martin Lewis’ blog (Everything Is Nice) and he’s ripping into Hartwell and Cramer’s introduction of a Gregory Benford story.* During the evisceration, mention is made of early New Space Opera from authors such as Banks and Colin Greenland. And it occurs to me that while I own books by these authors, I’ve never actually read them.**

At this point the words of podcast maestros Messrs Wolfe and Strahan ring out.*** Just because I’m not literate on the beginning of New Space Opera, doesn’t mean I need to read those books. But I felt this itching in the back of my head (I should probably have just scratched) and the next thing you know I’m blowing off the dust of my copy of Consider Phlebas.

I think the brilliant Abigail Nussbaum sums it up well when she concludes that with its, “unskilled, humorless prose, indifferent characterization, preachy and obvious philosophy–by almost every criteria Consider Phlebas is a flawed, perhaps even failed novel.”
As she also points out, it’s a novel with a very thin plot that muddles around for the first 250 pages or so, more interested in world building and philosophy then telling an actual story. The book has this tendency to lurch from one “OH MY GOD” set piece to another, making me wonder whether Consider Phlebas was a fix-up novel.****

It’s not helped that the characterisation of Horza Gobuchul, the novel’s main protagonist, never feels fully fleshed out or consistent. I think the idea is that he’s a James Bond type, a shape shifter performing missions for the Idirans in their galaxy spanning war against The Culture. And while he seems mostly competent, the first time we meet him he’s chained to a wall about to be drowned in sewage. A little later on, after being handed his mission from the Idirans, he gets stuck out in space only to be picked up by a bunch of Privateers. In fact, the main reason why the novel does stumble around is because Horza is unable to get back on track with his mission. It’s only after he escapes an island of cannibals on a doomed orbital*****, that the book starts to build momentum.

The secondary characters fare no better, though there is an attempt on the part of Banks to make Yalson, the main love interest, vaguely symapethic and believable. The problem is that Horza treats her like an irrational female, when he isn’t abusing the trust between them. Worst of all (and this is a spoiler) in the space of about twenty pages she reveals she’s pregnant – in a moment of pure, unadulterated cliche – and then promptly gets killed.

Actually, the most interesting character is the Culture analyst, Fal Shilde ‘Ngeestra dam Crose, who pops in and out of the novel in between the action set-pieces. Through Fal we get an idea of what makes The Culture tick and there is something genuinely interesting about a society that’s been able to create, on the surface, a workable utopia. But like the rest of the novel, her ‘story’ gets bogged down in Bank’s need to speak from the pulpit.

What I found interesting was how many reviewers found Consider Phlebas to be fast paced.****** And I think this comes down to how you approach Hollywood-type blockbuster moments, such as the collapse of the Mega-ship, or Horza’s escape from the massive Vavatch orbital. There’s no doubt these are ‘jaw dropping’ ideas against a massive backdrop. But Banks’ reduces these moments to the dull and mundane through over description and by milking as much as he can from each scene. It’s a CGI overload, just in prose.

All the negatives aside, I can see why this novel would have captured the imagination of those SF fans in 1987 who had graduated from E.E Doc Smith. Banks is quite smart in retaining the signifiers of space opera – the laser guns, the galaxy spanning wars, the massive space-ships, while also adding meat and gristle to the universe. The cannibal scene, as much as I hated it, is there both as a contrast to the smiley face cleanliness of The Culture*******, and to show that Space Opera has grown up.

This won’t be the last Culture novel I read. I’m aware that novels such as Player of Games and Use of Weapons are considered to be the better novels. But I can’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed with my first taste of the Culture-verse.

* You can read the full post here – but really you should be reading the blog.

** The same can be said for about 1,500 unread books that now live in my garage in four bookcases. It’s amazing what you find when you’re unpacking boxes.

*** A theme from their earlier Coode Street episodes that while their might be a canon, that doesn’t mean you need to read it to be considered a well read fan.

**** Yes, I know the book was written by Banks in 1984 and then heavily re-worked for its publication in 1987. But the book does jump around which makes it feel like a bunch of short stories that have been woven together.

***** Christ that section is shit and a bit racist. You could lose it all and the novel would be 15 times better. That’s a precise calculation by the way.

****** Have a look here and here

******* Who I haven’t really discussed at any length in this review, but that maybe because The Culture itself becomes background noise to everything else in the novel.

2 comments

  1. James Davis Nicoll

    Please consider numbering your footnotes.

    1. Mondyboy

      Noted. It did cross my mind as I was writing this post as 7 little asterisks gets silly. So I shall in the future.

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