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Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

Title: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Narrator: Thomas Harte
Year: 1987

Reading the works of an author in reverse chronological order sometimes has a certain merit. For instance, I think it’s safe to say that, as time goes by, the average writer learns from his or her mistakes and develops into a more skilled craftsman. Of course, the author might also change style or develop in ways not at all interesting to a given reader, but that at least is certainly not the case with Iain Banks. On the contrary, I feel lucky to have started with fairly late books such as Look to Windward, because if I would have started with Consider Phlebas, the likelihood is that I would never have learnt that Iain M. Banks at his best is a truly brilliant author.

Consider Phlebas tells the story of the of the mercenery Horza, currently employed by the Idirians, who is at war with the Culture (which of course is the focus of many of the author’s later novels). His mission is to find and destroy a Culture Mind (i.e. the artificial intelligence that once resided in a Culture ship). The problem is that it has hidden itself on Schar’s World, which is inaccesible to both the Culture and the Idirians. On his way, he joins up with the crew of a mercenery craft and manages to use them to achieve his own goals. Of course, the Culture also has an agent sent out to stop him.

Compared to other novels, this setup doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t. But before I go into why I don’t like Consider Phlebas, I’ll try to explain that even though this is fairly mediocre space opera, Banks still manages to add his own touch. Throughout the novel can be glimpsed what only comes in later books: intriguing plots, entertaining character portraits and, most important of all, a display of a vivid and out-of-the-box imagination.

However, these are merely glimpses of the brilliance of other Culture novels, and not enough to illuminate the rest. The biggest problem is that Banks isn’t very good at space opera (compare with Lois McMaster Bujold, for instance) and that makes the mission of turning the story of Consider Phlebas interesting almost impossible. This feels like a first try where the author hasn’t yet found his style, but on the other hand, The Player of Games was published the year after, even though I don’t know how publication dates relate to actual writing here (not to mention The Wasp Factory, which was published before Consider Phlebas, but shouldn’t be counted because it’s very distant from space opera).

To end on a slightly more positive note, the author absolutely finds his style later and even though I didn’t enjoy this book, I look forward to reading any other of his novels. He is also fairly active (Matter was published last year, and the reason I don’t think it’s brilliant might be because I compare it to greater works). To sum things up, Iain Banks is a great author, but in 1987 he hadn’t yet developed his talent enough to make Consider Phlebas worthwhile.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    Consider Phlebas, if I remember correctly, was written after the drafts to Player of Games and Use of Weapons, though published before – so he already had some firm culture ideas in place before he wrote this book. That might be why he invariably presents the culture as so sympathetic in this book – he already had his mind set on it and didn’t really care to give the opposition equal time.
    I do think that the idea for this novel is brilliant, the execution is what’s wrong :(

    Another ‘danger’ with reading authors of fiction who focus mainly on one theme/thing/country/genre is that as time goes by, their books get watered down and they only do the same thing over and over again. This is not true with Banks (and I expressed my surprise with this while reading Matter, which I think just a little more highly of than you do, but that’s probably only because I like the outset a little bit more – I really enjoyed Inversions for similar reasons to Matter too, for example), and I find it sort of funny that Consider Phlebas is so boring because of this – compared to many other authors that might develop in skill but water down their ideas so much their books become worse as time flies, starting out boring and then building up both skill, ideas and composition makes an interesting contrast.

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    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Interesting. But remember that The Player of Games isn’t set in the culture and doesn’t contain much information about it, so I think it would be wrong to say that he had a firm grasp because of that. Perhaps it’s just that Consider Phlebas isn’t as good an idea as The Player of Games? What did you think about it, by the way? Two snails is pretty low, I mean.

      I agree with what you say about Banks’ development. I enjoy his books more and more and I’m sure his future books will be even better. I forgot to mention it in the review, but this book was published in 2007 and I wouldn’t complain if he kept on writing novels of such high quality. It’s also an interesting contrast between his non-science-fiction books and his Culture stuff.

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      1. Xhakhal’s avatar

        The Player of Games revolves around a Culture citizen and contains a whole lot of information on the mind of the Culture, and how things are generally done (and -not- done – the alien civilisation is contrasted with what Gurgeh is used to) inside it – I think it contains more information on how the Culture works than for example Look to Windward, which is set completely within the Culture (with the exception of Eugene’s adventures and Quinlan’s flashbacks) but seen through non-culture eyes.
        I’m merely saying that Banks seem to have made up his mind very firmly on the basic Culture functions, even if certain specific details are revealed/thought of first in later books, and that I think it’s a bit sad that he couldn’t pretend to be (just a little bit) objective in his narration – the fact that we only have Horza’s opinions to base a different view of the Culture on, and that his opinions seem merely idiotic in light of everything else the narrator tells us seems a bit unfair, and takes away a lot from how good the book could have done, seeing as it deals with Culture enemies. Now I know that the Culture itself is Banks’ personal utopia, so maybe painting a more grey-scaled picture wasn’t in his interest, but I still think it would have made for a more interesting book.
        (One could also argue that it’s difficult to be fair since the Idirians are so unsympathetic, and sure, but then I think it would have made for a much more interesting conflict if the Culture Enemies had been something other than standard bad guy material – in short: It’s too black and white, too simple, than the story deserves and the author could have written).

        Oh yeah, I almost said something about his non sci-fi books too, but it merely consisted of ‘his non sci-fi seems unintereting at a first glance so I don’t know where to start’ so I didn’t… but now it does seem worth mentioning. I had forgotten you’d read more of his non sci-fi than ‘the wasp factory’… but that one does seem worth looking a bit closer at. But it was read by the same narrator as Wasp Factory, or was that another book?

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        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          I understand what you mean, but in this case I didn’t consider the mindset or the attitude of Culture citizens to be the important thing (becaues that’s very simple and easy to define; I’m sure he had that well thought-out long before he wrote any of these books). Instead, I meant the Culture as a civilisation, as an empire. However, with that kind of reasoning, Consider Phlebas isn’t very much about the Culture either, because even though the orbital is a Culture world, most of the characters aren’t (only Balveda is, and she isn’t super important), so I just think I’m confused. I wanted this book to be better than it is and I can’t find a good reason why he didn’t write better. :)

          As for his non-sf stuff, you should read The Wasp Factory first, I think. It’s not the same narrator as for any of his other books, I think. However, all books I’ve ever listened to by Banks have been professionally produced with good narrators, so I don’t think you need to worry much about that.

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          1. Xhakhal’s avatar

            I didn’t say this book is about the culture – I was talking about the parts in the book that are about the culture, and how the Idirians and the Culture are contrasted outside of Horza’s mind.

            I -have- read the Wasp Factory, and I also remember you telling me that you listened to a book narrated by the same guy, and told me how expertly he handled female characters – something I hadn’t had the time to experience, since there were practically none in the Wasp Factory.

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            1. Olle Linge’s avatar

              Hm… that’s actually true, now that you mention it. I must be getting old or something. I’ll check it out, but I think you’re right., it must have been The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I remember the main character’s female relatives were pretty entertaining (two old ladies, a bit like the actresses in Coraline). And sorry for not remembering that you had already read it. :(

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