Most helpful critical review
Interesting if a little difficult to get through
on 11 October 2014
Bora Horza Gobuchul was an interesting main character. The plot follows him from a questionable mission impersonating a man someone had presumably killed, to a mission to capture and presumably ‘kill’ (as much as it was possible) an artificially intelligent computer Mind. The actual motivation for any of this was ever unclear. Horza was on the side of the Idirians in a war with the Culture: two (literally) galactic empires fighting for reasons that never became clear. Neither do Horza’s obvious attachment to the Idirians become clear. In fact, if anything, it became murkier as the novel went on.
It was a book that spoke to me mostly about blurred lines, rash decisions and irrational hatred. It was a book about humanity. Which is odd, considering the main topic for debate within the book itself and between its characters, was all focused around the machines that ran the Culture. The artificial intelligence got on with all the hefting, carrying, thinking, making and doing – leaving the humans in the Culture to live life without worries, cares or any kind of capitalism. Our hero, Horza is very much against this AI controlled anarchist haven. Why, we never find out.
Banks said in interviews that he hoped Consider Plebas would offer an alternative to the lone warrior trope in Sci Fi where one man can effect massive change. Without giving spoilers, he does this well.
All this is very interesting, but unfortunately, my retrospective enjoyment of what Banks was trying to do does not quite make up for the slog it was to get through some part of Consider Phlebas. There were times, like the excessive game of Damage, a card game played at the end of a world, and the frankly bizarre section about a group of insane millenarians where I was at a complete loss to know where the book was going.
There were elements that were utterly brilliant, and others that were honestly naff and cliched. This was paralleled in the characterisation. Horza and the Culture agent Balveda were very well drawn characters that were understandable if unlikable. The rest of the cast were less so. Even Yalson, the closest thing to a love interest in the book, began well, but petered off towards the end.
The world of the Culture and the Idirians was interesting. Although the variety of humans but lack of many other alien races was slightly confusing, I enjoyed the world building. The sheer size of the galaxy (whilst obvious) was explicitly discussed, and added to the sense of complexity and individual futility. And despite a rather suffocating amount of detail, there was very little excessive explaining of the way the cultures differed from our own: lots of showing and little telling.