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.
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 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 9 February 2009
Consider Phlebas isn't the best book Iain Banks has written, but it isn't the worst. It follows one story against the backdrop of the destructive Culture-Idiran War, involving our hero's (or antihero's depending on your viewpoint) search to capture a Culture Mind. There are lots of good bits and lots of exciting bits. However there are also lots of long boring bits. In particular, the ending is too drawn out and far-fetched. Some of the scenes are particularly filthy (pun intended - Banks would be proud of me) and put me off my dinner. However, the odd one-or-two unsavoury scenes or chapters are Banks's trademark and you get used to them in his books. I'd prefer not to have to read them but that's my problem.
What is interesting are the questions raised about the Culture's correctness: the book investigates the Culture's other side - its underlying and somewhat sinister nature.
So, three stars. Ok but not great. If you want to read better Culture books I recommend The Player of Games, Excession and Look to Windward. Start with the Player of Games, it's fantastic.
on 3 March 2016
It was my first introduction to Iain M Banks about 8 years ago in paperback. After reading this on the kindle app I think I'll be re-reading all his material. The sheer breadth of the playing field is great.
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.
on 18 November 1998
Hollywood claims to have a monopoly on big, action packed, eye-popping event movies. Nothing, they say, can match the excitement and adventure that the latest SFX-heavy film can offer. Step forward, Mr. Banks. Put simply, no film in the world can offer the scope, vision, and sheer adrenaline rush of Consider Phlebas. It is one of the prime examples of the sub-genre Brian Aldiss calls "Widescreen Baroque", a shockingly thrilling movie in your head with an infinite budget and a director who knows exactly what you want to see and how to portray it. Consider Phlebas is not the most cerebral of Bank's work (although being a Banks book, it's still devilishly clever), but it is certainly the most fun. Read it- and pray someone's bought the film rights. Someone with a lot of talent.
I read Consider Phlebas slightly out of order, having read the second book in the Culture series first. As such, I'm not entirely well placed to comment on how it works as a first taste of the series. It's, as you might expect from Banks, a very well written book with lots of beautifully evocative writing. As an introduction to a sci-fi universe it's also very ambitious bringing with it a depth and breadth that promises considerably more than it can be reasonably expected to deliver. In that respect, it lives up to expectations.
For me, the key failing of the book is that it left me frustrated. It would drop a hint of something here, a passing mention of another thing there, offer a brief glimpse into a fascinating concept elsewhere, and then it would just dance on without developing it further. On one hand, this offers plenty of scope for the Culture series to evolve. On the other, I still felt lit-teased and so it doesn't help very much in terms of enjoying this one specific book. I suppose it does keep the plot moving at a fair old clip in a way that extended world building wouldn't, but for me the plot wasn't really as interesting as it could have been without that world building. It's hard to get an appropriate feel for the stakes when you can't properly judge the extent to which the things happening actually *matter*.
I don't think I'd recommend this as someone's first encounter with the Culture. Player of Games, which is an extraordinarily good novel, is both better than Consider Phlebas as a first *and* second book. However, I would recommend swinging back to Consider Phlebas relatively early. It's by no means a bad book, as the four star rating will show. It's just that I think you need a better grounding in the mythos of the universe before the events described within really demonstrate their full significance. In that sense, as a stand-alone book it suffers considerably from over-reach. However, in general I much prefer a book that over-reaches rather than under-reaches.
 A six star book in a five star system.
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.