This review is from: Consider Phlebas: A Culture Novel (The Culture) (Paperback)
Consider Phlebas was Iain Bank's first science fiction novel, which introduced the world to 'the Culture'.
A quarter of a century after its publication, this is a book that still feels fresh and convincing.
Obstentatiously, Consider Phlebas is a story set during a future war between two galactic civilisations - the warlike Iridians and the sophisticated but mysterious Culture - and the narrative concerns an Iridian spy sent to kidnap a Culture artificial intelligence that is hiding on a forbidden planet.
The background is largely irrelevant; this is the story of a traveller moving through a series of fantastic worlds, each more extraordinary and perilous than the last. I think Banks is at his best when he dropping his characters into dramatic situations. He has a real talent for creating tense, uneasy, and damn-right terrifying scenes, and then directing the action in the opposite direction to whatever is expected. Consider Phlebas has some fantastically imaginative scenarios. A prisoner slowly drowning in his captors urine. An initiation test for a new space recruit which involves murdering one of the existing crew. A lethal game of high stakes poker on a planet that is about to be demolished. It is thrilling and unsettling.
Banks is not so successful in arranging the scenes into a strong narrative. I kept wondering if he pieced together Consider Phlebas from a collection of short stories. It would explain why the overall narrative doesn't really makes sense. Horza, the protagonist, has the ability to alter his DNA, and assume other people's identities, so Banks doesn't need to worry much about continuity or character development. The chapters feel like short stories (in a good way), and each ends in a sudden twist. With a little editing, the order of most of the chapters could be rearranged, without damaging the story.
The characters are probably the weakest aspect of the novel. Horza tries to explain several times why he was risking his life to help his Iridian masters, but I didn't really buy it. His personality is a blank canvas, onto which the reader has to project something.
Banks also has a penchant for neologism, which you will either love or hate.
Do these weaknesses matter? Not really. I enjoyed reading Consider Phlebas. It is a bold and imaginative science fiction story that should satisfy anyone that wants to be transported into the world of the fantastic.