Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks

ConsiderPhlebasIainBanksConsider Phlebas is a plot driven, action-filled, science-fiction novel that ultimately shrugs its galactic shoulders at the plot by the end of the book. To set the stage, there are two warring civilizations. On one side, we have the Culture, who are pretty much human beings in a post-singularity existence. Their spaceships are equipped with “minds,” and sentient robots permeate their lives. The Culture’s existence is also post-scarcity. There is no need for money. Everything is provided. But humans have ceded control to technology.

Facing off against the Culture are the Idrians, an expansionist, militaristic species with blind faith in their own supremacy. Banks creates aliens that are rich in detail and description. The Idrians size, appendages, internal organs and external view are distinctly non-human and well-developed. No one has ever defeated the Idrians and the technologically-enhanced Culture are proving tougher than expected.

Set in the middle of this war, we have the protagonist, Horza, who is a shapeshifter working for the Idrians. He sides with them, because they represent biological life. Commonalities end there, but Horza’s fear of the Culture’s technology-driven civilization causes him to overlook all the differences he has with the Idrians. The novel opens with Horza in prison and a Culture ship/Mind escaping annihilation. The plot of the novel has Horza skipping around the galaxy as he must recover the Culture’s ship/Mind for the Idrians. The action propels the reader at times, but becomes rather stale. How many car chases can one watch in movies and still find them interesting? We know Horza will get to the planet where the Mind is, but the pages are filled with action for action’s sake. Interspersed are chapters describing the Culture from another character’s point-of-view and through dialogue between Horza and his shipmates. These descriptions are important, but Banks overshadows them with such a focus on plot. Horza must get to the planet and capture the Mind before the Culture does!

At the end of the novel though, the focus shifts away from Horza and the plot. Are the things he’s done important? What are the effects? What does it matter? The answers to those questions may be unknown, because the viewpoint zooms out. At the end, there is the Culture. There is still the war. Horza’s story is one story of a vast war. The war and the Culture will continue.

Tim Lepczyk

Writer, Technologist, and Librarian.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Bryan Alexander

    Is this your first Culture book?

    I remember enjoying the wild action years ago, but had a hard time recalling any of it afterwards.

    1. Tim Lepczyk

      It is my first Culture book. I really got sucked into the action at first and quickly read the book. But then, the action felt like action for action’s sake and ultimately, not part of the larger Culture narrative. It’s strange. I’m not sure if it ends up detracting from or enhancing the book.

      Have you read The Magicians series by Lev Grossman? That’s next on my list.

      1. Bryan Alexander

        I’d recommend Player of Games, which is very suspenseful, but more focused on a couple of concepts.
        Or Use of Weapons, probably my favorite: nicely complex narrative, good worlding, actual emotion.

        I read the first 1/2 of Magicians and enjoyed it.

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