on 5 April 2013
In the light of the news of the author's terminal cancer, I wanted to say something that could maybe express my condolences to him and thank him for creating a collection of stories that have, quite simply, outshone anything else I have read in my 46 years.
The Culture series have formed the bedrock of my reading for the last 24 years, since I first picked up Consider Phlebas. Subsequent novels have expanded and complicated the Culture universe, but for me this first book is the best. The final section set in the underground tunnels is so evocatively written it gives me goosebumps to this day just thinking about it. Beautifully paced and pitched, devastatingly emotional in the juxtaposition of the close-up personal tragedies it describes and the ultimately futile, almost unnoticed effect of the episode on the war itself. I have re-read Consider Phlebas many times and I am in awe of the man who could dream up such fantasy and tease out so many emotions in the reader by the manner in which he writes. Thankyou Iain for the legacy of your talents. I am (selfishly) bereft that there will be no more Culture novels, but that pales next to the news you gave us two days ago. You are the writer that gave me the gift of reading, and for that I will be ever grateful.
on 7 September 2011
I don't usually read science fiction but I picked this up just to try something different. The title, the list of contents and the small font all gave me the feeling that this was not going to be an easy read. I was wrong! One's interest is captured early on and empathy with the main character stays with you through to the end. That does not mean that Horza is a nice character or a good character - it is just that you sympathise with his plight.
The characters develop well as the story unfolds and the outcome is always in doubt. Much is left unresolved at the end but the end is not an unsatisfying one. For all the adventures and achievements of one person in a war, ultimately they count for little in the scale of things.
Whether an author's fantasy is founded in fact or is just pure imagination, science fiction allows the author to get away with the most ridiculous nonsense which is why I tend to dislike the genre. Banks clearly lets his imagination run riot and has some fun with it but the reason this book works is that this imagination is not the core of the book. Rather it is a vessel in which to play out a morality tale of someone caught between two sides in a conflict and his attitudes to and relationships with those on either side or none.
Banks never lets the absurdity of the imagined worlds and behaviours over-power the moral dilemmas and relationships at the heart of the story and as a result one keeps turning the pages. Despite the fears this was a genuinely enjoyable read.
on 23 April 2008
This is my first Iain Banks Novel and proved to be an absorbing and thrilling read. (Thks Mark). The plot (set in the backdrop of a Galatic war between the Idirans and the Culture) moves along at a nice pace and develops characters to a degree that you quickly sympathise with them even when they're diametrically opposed.
Bank's imagination is un-surpassed as you experience orbitals, GSV's, quirky robots,a life threatening game of poker called damage and much more..
The ending is a little disappointing but serves to emphasise that you have just read about the experiences of a small band of mercenaries, caught up in huge conflict played out over unimaginable distances spanning many years. (Also liked the small appendices at the back of the book detailing the reasons for the war)
On the whole this is a good introduction to Ian Banks and I would not hesitate in recommending this book to anyone.
Below is the very briefest of outlines, or a snap shot if you will, of this very excellent Science Fiction novel by Ian Banks.
The book begins with a Culture factory spaceship trying to a fashion a rudimentary space craft to carry an AI (as in Artificial Intelligence) to safety, with what materials it has at its disposal. The narrative next moves onto a humanoid by the name of Horza (an assassin/gun for hire) who has some unique biological make up that makes him a “changeling” of sorts, as his narrative begins we find he has been caught and is scheduled for execution by drowning in the worsted way imaginable. However, Horza is rescued from drowning - at the 11th hour he is rescued - by his compatriots the Idirans; he is tasked by his rescuer with the retrieval of the AI core of a Culture vessel, the very same AI that the Culture factory ship was trying to save. This vessel made a daring escape from an Idiran attack and hid itself on Schar's World, a neutral and heavily protected planet. On trying to fulfil his mission is dumped into space in the middle of a space battle, captured by pirates, ambushed while trying to steal from a temple, captured by cannibals, caught in the crush to escape a soon-to-be-destroyed giant orbital platform, and forced to punch his way through a gigantic spaceship in order to escape the Culture's clutches; in the form of a female humanoid agent and her knife missile companion (is it other way round? - is it the knife missile and its' humanoid companion, as Horza states it's hard to know who's the junior companion) lastly he finds the time begin a romantic attachment.
In short this is a thrilling space opera with a fantastic backdrops and thrilling characters. When I read Ian Banks' Culture books it's for tapestry of flavour, colour textures, or side occurrences or conversational snippets and turns of phrase - for that extra detail, which in turn gives that extra punch in reading entertainment. For example the Culture Spaceship and their peculiar naming are good 20 percent of my reading enjoyment - on occasion I have burst out laughing on my daily commute, while reading a culture novel, which in turn earns me rather grim stares, nonetheless these are the risks you take when reading some of Ian Banks books in public. For a good overview of who and what the Culture Universe is there is great Wikipedia piece on them on the internet.
A very good debut Science Fiction novel (as of 1987) and very highly recommended - I might add there a number of Culture and non-Culture based SF books, which are all very good in my opinion. It is very sad that Ian Banks passed away in 2013 he had such an amazing imagination – all I can say is thank you for sharing them with us Ian.
on 2 July 2012
My first exposure to Iain M. Banks was through his standalone novel 'The Algebraist'. Interested by his scope and ideas for space opera, I found myself buying this and 'The Player of Games', the other introductory novel to the Culture series.
With this series, Banks creates a rather epic setting. The driving force in this book is the galactic war threatening the Culture and a species known as the Idirans. Almost uniquely in my experience, the main character in this novel is on the wrong side of this war. The Culture is shown to be almost as perfect as a civilization can be, whilst the Idirans are portrayed as rather crude by comparison.
Banks' sheer skill at creating worlds draws you into it. The characters are engaging and distinctly different from each other, with exotic technology and settings providing the backdrop. However, this can not be said to be a pleasant book. Depressing in parts and sickening in others, this is not a book for the faint hearted. Overall, however, this is a brilliant book and, in my own opinion, the best introduction to the Culture.
on 4 January 2004
Just as Iain Banks' first novel "The Wasp Factory" was a calling-card for his somewhat twisted world-view, so "Consider Phlebas", his first SF novel as Iain M, gives you a pretty clear idea of what to expect in his subsequent SF. Extraordinary as it may seem to anyone who has read much of his other work, this book takes first prize for scope of ideas and - most particularly - inventive emotional brutality. This is emphatically not an easy read. Yes, it's space opera. Yes, it's a gung-ho adventure story. No, it's not like any of the other 5 million books in this genre. For its sheer skill at leaving horrible images in your mind as a result of really quite limited violent episodes the only comparison which springs to mind is Julian May's "Intervention".
The story sees a man - well, not exactly a man - caught on the wrong side (defined as the one which is going to lose) in a galaxy-wide conflict. His efforts to assist his alien allies lead him into a spiral of death and destruction where even his identity is gradually stripped away. The pointlessness of his desperate struggle is finally confirmed in the appendix, where in a couple of lines Banks creates the final, overwhelming message of the book as a whole. Of course, he gave it away in the title.
on 23 August 2007
Consider Phlebas is an intricately woven novel, set against a sci-fi backdrop.
Although the sci- part sometimes gets a bit too intricate for its own good, the main characters are well-developed to have a depth of personality allowing the reader to like, dislike, be ambivalent about and empathise with them. This is as well as a depth of context which allows the reader to wallow in the fictional history of the characters and their various cultures.
The novel is set within an inter-galactic war of opposing ideologies, and charts the main character's mission. He travels through various adventures with the novel exploring the customs of the sci-fi civilisations created by Banks, which is where the combination of sci- and fi- really becomes potent.
The plot is fairly quick-moving and cohesive and although as with other Banks' novels I've read, is not particularly memorable, what is memorable and makes the book worth reading are the imaginary world and cultures created by Banks.
on 1 February 2016
I greatly enjoyed this novel. It was engaging and thrilling. I found the pace just right and couldn't wait to pick it up again after putting it down.
The universe Iain M. Banks creates and the technologies in it are fantastic and really get you thinking. I found each chapter quite different from previous ones, with a significant change in scenery and feel, which kept it feeling fresh and allowed a lot of different concepts to be introduced. It culminates in an exciting and claustrophobic finale that left me wanting more. However, the epilogue then pretty much kills any chance of that, but I certainly intend to read more books in the Culture series now.
Iain Banks had already published three mainstream novels by the time Consider Phlebas was published in 1987. When his publishers suggested using a pseudonym to make it easier to distinguish between his SF and mainstream work, Banks decided to adopt the impenetrable alias 'Iain M. Banks' for his SF and leave his mainstream work under the name 'Iain Banks', a tradition he maintains to this day.
Consider Phlebas introduces the Culture. A vast, utopian society of trillions of humanoids populating planets, Dyson Spheres, Niven-esque Rings and Orbitals and vast sentient starships, the Culture is the ultimate civilised society where the people have given over the running of their civilisation wholly to machines - the Minds - so they can chill out and have a good time. Of course, this leads other species to view them as weak, indolent and decadent. Suspicious of the steadily expanding sphere of Culture influence in the Galaxy, the fanatically religious Idirans decide to take action and declare war against the Culture. Soon, the Culture is retreating on every front as the aggressive Idirans sweep towards the Culture homeworlds, and the Galaxy anticipates a quick end to the war with a negotiated settlement.
Four years into the war, the Culture is still holding out, to the bemusement of the Galaxy at large. Whilst warships fight across mind-boggling distances, Idiran and Culture agents are also battling for influence on various neutral worlds. During one such clandestine operation, the Changer operative Horza (leasing his services to the Idirans) runs afoul of a Culture Special Circumstances agent and is arrested. Managing to escape under the cover of an Idiran planetary assault, he finds himself shanghaied into the crew of a mercenary ship and then dragged halfway around the Galaxy before he can undertake his next Idiran mission, namely the recovery of a Culture Mind that jettisoned from its ship and crashed on a planet sealed off from the rest of the Galaxy by an ultra-powerful 'ascended' species.
Consider Phlebas wasn't Banks' first SF novel: he had written several others previously (including the ones later published, after much revision, as Player of Games and Use of Weapons). This experience shows in a book which is highly polished and thoroughly readable. The storyline is gripping and, thanks to Banks' black humour, highly enjoyable with some decidedly Douglas Adams-esque moments of humour (the increasingly exasperated Culture drones are particularly amusing). Horza makes for a fascinating protagonist, a sympathetic guy (despite doing some very bad things) whose problems and arguments with the Culture are understandable. By introducing the Culture in this way - by making it almost the 'bad' guy from Horza's point of view - Banks allows for much greater analysis of the society and the way it works (not to mention some excellently subtle worldbuilding) rather than having a Culture hero telling us how great it is.
The result is a book that is fast-paced, overflowing with ideas (the Orbital Vavatch, its Megaships, the Culture ships and the Command System are all genuinely impressive SF concepts) and is genuinely funny in places, although still with a thoughtful, wry ending. An excellent introduction to Iain Banks' work. The prose isn't quite as polished as his later works, but is still of impressive quality.
Consider Phlebas (****½) is available now from Orbit in the UK and USA.
There are several superlative things about this novel, one good, one bad and two according to taste
Good: It has three or four outstanding episodes. Banks at his best finds interesting science fiction themes and exploits them with brilliant imagination and wit. I won't spoil it by saying anything specific about them.
Taste: Most of the book comprises people killing each other, trying to kill each other, or some kind of threat or suspense leading to further killing. The number of times laser, plasma or other superpowered weapons are fired is remarkable. Given how these advanced beings scorn something as puny as an AK47, it is also remarkable how often their amazing weapons hurt people without killing them.
Taste: There is very little characterisation. The culture agent is smooth and intelligent. The guy who pilots the rocket gets excited about the prospect of driving a train. The alien warrior considers it honourable to die fighting and hardly cares who the enemy is. It doesn't get much deeper than that.
Bad: The last quarter of the book went seriously downhill. It was predictable, unconvincing and pointless. I will give a couple of small examples that won't be spoilers. A robot was damaged and interrupted someone by talking gibberish. The first time it was funny, the second unnecessary. By the tenth time, I was positively wincing.
A train is travelling for what feels like about half an hour, during which the narrative switches an interminable number of times between the main characters and the driver so that we can hear what he is thinking (which varies between nothing and the same thing that he was thinking last time). Why spin it out so far? It doesn't make sense - we know the journey can't have taken more than a few seconds since some people have just walked that route and we are told the train is travelling at 190 kph.
If I had stopped half way through I would have given it 4-5 stars but overall I can't give it more than 3 for "ok".