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Thomas Harte

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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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