Book Reviews Consider Phlebas

Published on October 16th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley

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Iain M. Banks & Consider Phlebas

The death of revered author Iain M. Banks earlier this year, marked the beginning of the end for a brief era which resurrected the popularity of Sci-fi and his passing has sadly and inevitably left a wealth of creativity unrealised.

As a writer of both mainstream and Science-Fiction, his most popular and well-known novel is The Wasp Factory, his debut fiction from 1984, which depicted a young teenager who is reflecting on his life. Banks was known to write as Iain Banks when publishing his modern fiction and Iain M. Banks when doing Sci-Fi, a distinction which was comically noted for Bill Bailey’s dualistic character in Hot Fuzz which is shown reading both sides of Banks’ work.

Touted as one of the founders of the New Space Opera; sci-fi works that excels as fine literature and incorporates strong depth of characters and relationship developments, Banks’ first science fiction work was Consider Phlebas, a sharp and thrilling novel that is a beginning set-piece to the spanning Culture novels of which he is known for.

Published in 1987, it was originally started around the time of The Wasp Factory and took many revisions to perfect, the name of the novel is based on a line from T.S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land which share few themes, being mostly chosen as it sounded euphonious and was his favourite of Eliot’s work.

Consider Phlebas is the first Culture novel, a set of sci-fi novels featuring The Culture, a society of humans who are intellectually and financially esteemed and whose beliefs and practices appear to frequently put them at odds to the other races and peoples of the interstellar galaxy. This novel’s backdrop is the suburbs of the Idiran-Culture war, a large war (in our terms but not quite so in story terms) between the Culture and Idirans, a race of warrior non-humanoids, whose faith and lifestyles greatly differ from the Culture, whose atheistic and utopian ideals were becoming too suffocating.

Consider Phlebas book coverThe main protagonist is Bora Horza Gobuchul, neatly shortened to Horza in the book, he is a spy/mercenary for the Idirans whose contempt of the Culture’s symbiotic relationship with computerised machines he shares.
He is a Changer, a human who over the period of many generations has been genetically enhanced to visually imitate that of others, this ability allows him to slip into enemy ships in disguise of its inhabitants unnoticed.

He has just returned from a botched mission in which his identity was discovered and subsequently imprisoned when he is luckily saved by the Idirans who sent him out. During a briefing however, there is a sudden military emergency which ends up leaving him stranded in space, not too dissimilarly to in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is saved by a pirate vessel which arrived to vulture some of the supplies which may have been abandoned by the fleeing Idiran ship.

During his stay on the ship, Horza decides it would be best to keep his being a Changer a secret as the knowledge might lead them to suspect him as the race has implicative natures of espionage, the novel covers his adventures with the crew while still attempting to carry out his Idiran mission.

As the majority of the novel covers Horza, it is interesting to note that despite this being one of many novels concerning the Culture, the main protagonist is an enemy of them, which throws bad light on to some of their ways, while conversely, the close-mindedness of the Idirans and the morally compromised Horza also mean that the Culture isn’t necessarily an all encompassing evil that is safe to hate. Before being forcibly evacced from the ship, Horza was charged with returning an important Culture Mind; an artificial intelligence which is usually harboured in larger Culture vessels.

At times the novel focuses on two other characters and scenarios, that of the Culture Mind for whom Horza is searching and a Culture official named Fal ‘Ngeestra, whose intelligence rivals that of the Culture minds, she is employed to help with the direction of the war, but often her thoughts come back to the plight regarding the lost Culture Mind and the people after it, the other “character” is the Culture Mind itself, which after a narrow miss with an Idiran ship, managed to eject itself safely and travel to a nearby planet.

Unfortunately the Mind is now housed on a “Planet of the Dead” named Schar’s World, and is one of many which is owned by a mysterious race called the Dra’ Azon, a group of sentient yet immaterial beings with Godlike powers. Schar’s world is an ode to futility as it was previously occupied by a race which wiped themselves out, the Dra’ Azon have comandeered it for sentimental purposes and do not wish for it to be disturbed. Both the Culture and Idirans are aware of the catastrophic dangers that interfering directly with the planet can cause and the situation has become rather difficult for everyone.

Consider Phlebas beach coverThe novel features a lot of action and violence, as well as handling taboo subjects such as cannibalism, rape and… well it’s only one part of the book that has most of these bits, so if you can imagine a couple of chapters of some of the most shocking things to occur, then that basically happens. The rest of the novel handles the main character and his actions as he faces most situations, not often are we privy to his thought processes but much seems to be able to be worked out from the results.

Overall the characters are enjoyable and there is a surprisingly good representation of women without becoming overly dramatic or sexualised as so often is the case with this genre, the technology and culture of the various races and the integrity of the story’s setting were solid, enjoyable and immersive.

For a first go, it’s very admirable, the action makes it a good entry for beginner sci-fi readers and the Dune-esque characters help ease in Sci-Fi fans, it’s hard to say where the Culture series goes from here, but I am looking forward to it.

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