We have been talking about a lot of great new releases recently, so let’s take a step back and talk about a classic I just got around to reading: Consider Phlebas, by Iain Banks. Everyone has a number of classics that they mean to get around to reading. For me, one of the big ones is Banks’ beloved Culture series. Ten books following a benevolent super race that sends agents to tinker and manipulate other fledgling starfaring people into following their way of life. If I am being completely honest, my main drive to read Consider Phlebas was to get through it so I could read the second book in the series, Player of Games, which I have constantly been recommended. Despite the fact that the Culture series could probably be read out of order, I have a weird need to adhere to publication order when reading. However, despite my dubious motivations – once I was inside Phlebas I found a book that had a lot to talk about.
So far as I can tell, Consider Phlebas is a bit of the black sheep in the Culture series. While most of the novels tell self-contained stories about Culture agents working in foreign space empires, Phlebas tells the story of the Culture’s origin and the war it fought for its existence as it established itself in the galaxy. The first book follows a mercenary shapeshifter named Horza fighting for the Iridians, the Culture’s enemy, and his attempts to recover a stranded Culture “mind” (one of the artificial intelligences that lead the Culture) in order to turn the direction of the war. Spoilers from the back cover of the book: he doesn’t, and Phlebas is about his grand spectacle of a failure. The book follows Horza from one location to another, as he slowly makes his way to where the mind is stranded and tries to steal it.
The plot of the book is honestly not very important and is what dragged down the novel for me. The book feels like an overly complicated set up in order to deliver backstory and world building on the Culture in a short amount of time. The storyflow feels artificial and hollow, and I can’t remember half of it only a few weeks later. However, those are all the negative points about the book I have and there are a huge number of positives to balance it out.
While the story is uneventful, the narration is incredible. The choice to introduce readers to the Culture from the POV of their mortal enemies is frankly brilliant, and works to naturally establish the strengths and weaknesses of the Culture. The Iridian POV helps explain the beliefs and tenets of Culture society while also playing devil’s advocate to their ethos – a recurring theme that has continued through both the second and third books I have read so far. Despite being a fairly forgettable tale, Consider Phlebas succeeds in spades setting up the future Culture novels and helping you go into Player of Games with all the tools you need to really connect with it.
In addition, if you look at Phlebas as an independent book outside its series, you will find it also has two enormous strengths: the characters and it’s immersiveness. One major take away I got from Phlebas is that Banks is a writer of incredible skill. His characters do an incredible job in their roles. The characters who are supposed to be similar to us and our way of thinking feel real and deeply relatable and the characters who are supposed to be aliens with foreign ways feel strange and different. It is rare to find an author who can do both of these things so well as Bank’s does with every single character in the story. I could write an entire post about how he handles AI in the series, but for now I will just say it is an original and engrossing take on sentience that made me want to read the entire rest of the series instantly. As to the aforementioned immersiveness – Banks has an unbelievable skill as a writer to make you feel like you are in his book. There are so many vivid and terrifying events in this book that I felt like I lived through. His attention to detail and word choices sucked me in to several death defying scenes that left me surging with adrenaline and needing to lay down as I finished them. Even if the rest of the book was awful, I would still keep reading Banks for this quality alone – it is truly one of a kind.
In the end, Phlebas felt like it both failed and succeeded as a book. I do not think it works as a self-contained novel, which is always how I judge books in a large series. It almost feels more like a series aide than the first novel in the sequence. That being said, it does an incredible job of making you want to pick up Player of Games, the second book that I liked much more (review coming soon), so in that sense Phlebas is a huge success. Despite my middling score, Consider Phlebas is a book that I would recommend to everyone but I encourage you to be aware of its pitfalls.
Rating: Consider Phlebas – 6.5/10