Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Sally Ann Melia

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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read all of Iain M Banks books, and I read Consider Phlebas the year after it was first published in 1988, and it has stayed with me ever since.

This is a Culture book. In fact more than that it is the first Culture book. It is interesting to speculate that when Iain M Banks wrote this story he definitely was not thinking about a series or a trilogy, but as a stand alone novel.

To recap The ten books of the Culture are: Consider Phlebas, 1987; The Player of Games,1988; Use of Weapons, 1990; The State of the Art, 1991; Excession, 1996; Inversions, 1998; Look to Windward,2000; Matter,2008; Surface Detail, 2010; The Hydrogen Sonata, 2012.

The story of Consider Phlebas, is not the tale of Phlebas. But it is the story of a hero. The hero in question is Horza the Changer. He is a shape shifter who has been caught up in a war between Culture and Idirans. Because both sides found their shape shifting capabilities useful, both sides have in turn used them, then exterminated them. Now only Horza is left.

Horza was once an Idirian spy, and is an implacable enemy of the Culture. His story is a tragedy, because amidst their war strategies, The Culture have dispatched one of their agents to try and save Horza, as they pity him the last of his species. I won't say much about the story, but it is 600 pages of deeply plotted, intensively complicated war, betrayal, stupidity, cupidity, death and destruction.

I think it is quite hard to grasp until one has dipped into this book, how much colour depth and complexity Iain M Banks puts into what is a very traditional Space Opera. In retrospect it is easy to say: Oh yes that always going to be a series, but that's not what the author thought when he wrote it, and there is a finality a completeness to this story which ranks it head and shoulders many other science fiction worlds.

I think is a really hard book, and although it is the first Culture Novel, I rarely recommend it as your first Culture book, Look to Windward and The Player of Games to me are much more accessible.

However this is one of the great works of the 20th century, and every science fiction fan should have read and enjoyed this book.
 

The Judge

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I enjoyed it. I thought the writing was very good, as was the characterisation and depth of imagination. I didn't find it difficult to read, and certainly not complicated to understand, in case the thought of that puts anyone off.

For me, though, it wasn't wholly satisfying as a novel, since the big set-piece action scenes seemed to be shoved in there almost to pad the book out with some exciting stuff rather than be a necessary part of an organic whole. Great swathes of the book eg the attack on the temple, eg aboard the cruise ship, eg the Eaters, eg the game of Damage, could be removed without affecting the actual plot to any great extent. For my taste it was less an integrated whole, where every step is important and every decision leads inexorably to the next scene/plot twist, than the novel of a TV mini-series, where something different and exciting happens every week that isn't, or is only loosely, connected with the main story arc. At least that's how it felt to me, with the caveat I have only read it the once.

I also rather lost sympathy with Horza at the end as he consistently did the wrong thing in the tunnels, and was therefore responsible for everything that happened there.

Again, with the proviso I've only read it the once so may have missed something, I certainly didn't see the Culture as trying to rescue Horza, nor was he the last of his kind -- I thought there were other Changers, though the postscript confirms they were all eventually wiped out. Although Balveda personally admires and pities him, she would kill him if she had to do so in order to get the Mind. And surely if the Culture truly wanted him saved, wouldn't she have rescued him at the very beginning when he's about to be killed? Instead of which she's the one who actually denounced/betrayed him so as to bring about his near-execution.
 

Rodders

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Nice review, Sally Ann Melia.

Consider Phlebas was my third foray into Banks' universe and while it was a good novel, it was the one that i enjoyed the least. (The other two was Use of Weapons and The Player of Games.)

Perhaps because Horza was such an unsympathetic character. Perhaps because he was so firmly against the Culture and i couldn't understand why.

I really struggled with the chapter concerning "the Eaters". Not too sure why it was in as it had no relevance to the story or the book from what i could see.
 

J-Sun

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But it is the story of a hero.
Anti-hero.

I think it is quite hard to grasp until one has dipped into this book, how much colour depth and complexity Iain M Banks puts into what is a very traditional Space Opera.
I don't think it's traditional at all and traditional space opera has a great deal of color and, often, complexity, but I definitely agree that one of Banks' best characteristics was the vividness and "stick in the mind's eye"ness of his writing.

For me, though, it wasn't wholly satisfying as a novel, since the big set-piece action scenes seemed to be shoved in there almost to pad the book out with some exciting stuff rather than be a necessary part of an organic whole. Great swathes of the book eg the attack on the temple, eg aboard the cruise ship, eg the Eaters, eg the game of Damage, could be removed without affecting the actual plot to any great extent.
I really struggled with the chapter concerning "the Eaters". Not too sure why it was in as it had no relevance to the story or the book from what i could see.
Completely agree there. The biggest offender for excessively drawn-out action set piece was the "flying through the death star" scene. (I actually liked the "cruise ship" scene but agree that it's the same in principle.) And I went from a very very mildly euphoric enjoyment to stunned disgust and nearly quit reading at the Eaters chapter. I soldiered through and the rest of the book more or less picked up where it had been so rudely interrupted but that was a major mistake.

Perhaps because Horza was such an unsympathetic character. Perhaps because he was so firmly against the Culture and i couldn't understand why.
I thought it was explained a great deal - he was opposed to the mechanistic socialistic tyranny that is the Great Satan of the Culture. This is what a lot of fans of Banks point to as another of his strengths and I agree - he handles ambiguity and opposed viewpoints very well. The Culture is not utopia or dystopia - it's a system or organization that is utopian and dystopian depending on who you are and what you believe. Banks was very bold in making Horza the protagonist but I thought it worked great and - spoiler if you haven't read the book and if that's relevant in this thread -
made Horza a great tragic character - doomed to fail by being on the wrong side of history but history isn't necessarily "right"
.

Anyway - this was the first Banks I read, followed by Games, Weapons, and Excession. I'm actually not a big Banks fan and, unlike everyone else in the universe, didn't like Games. Or Excession, either. Weapons was at least interesting, but I did very much like Phlebas overall.
 

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Strangely this was one of the last of the Culture books that I read (I do still have a couple to go that I'm saving up!). My reading order of the Culture was pretty much random!

It's not one of my favourite culture books but neither is it my least favourite; I'm afraid Inversions takes that prize although I still preferred that to The State of the Art; I really don't think Banks excelled at the short story form. I did like the Horza character, if not actually liking the man himself. Maybe I found it better with already having a strong Culture background. I'm with SAM in that I certainly wouldn't recommend it as a first Culture read.
 

VALIS13

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Consider Phlebas was my first Banks novel and as Sally says, it reads like a standalone novel with no thought of how the Culture would be fleshed out as a civilisation in later books. Although it's not my favourite Banks' piece, it's still a rip-roaring read with bombastic set-pieces that may not necessarily contribute to the overall story arc but are still entertaining in themselves (even the Eaters, nom nom nom!)

Horza is a great character - a small person with a small (ish) role in a large conflict (rather than an emperor or a general for example), with his own priorities, ethics and objectives, and ambitions for the outcome of the war rather than his own personal ambitions.

As such he is relatable, he has foibles and weaknesses and skeletons in his closet.
 

Sally Ann Melia

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Hi Guy,

Thanks for all your comments, I would just like to talk a little about whether Horza was a hero or an anti-Hero.

Iain M Banks always dropped political ideas into a story, and in this case, Horza hates the Culture because he was trained as a special agent by the Idirans. So he was trained to hate the Culture.

What is a little strange he carries on hating the Culture even after the Idirans have finished their war and are trying to patch things up.

This is a bit like hating Barack Obama because you hated George W Bush. And the simile here is easily made, since I think it was US Imperialism that Iain M Banks and more specifically Iain Banks use to comment on normally in a slightly skewed way.

So Horza is 'old school', the man that goes on hating after everyone else has stopped 'hating'. Its not such an uncommon position, and in a way, Horza remains to the end true to himself, and ultimately dies for it.
 

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I'd understood it that Horza chose to help the Idirans because of his beliefs, not that they warped his judgement after they enlisted him. But most certainly the war isn't ended when Horza is active, and the Idirans certainly aren't interested in patching things up or suing for peace, far from it, and even when years later their main ally eventually stops helping them they continue the war. The Culture AIs calculate that they should -- will -- eventually win, so the war is all but a foregone conclusion when Horza is active, but many, many years pass and millions die before all the killing is ended.

As for the GWB/BO analogy, you've lost me. Horza always and only hates the Culture, ie only the one side (though I don't think he's actually fond of the Idirans, just fights for them because his enemy's enemy is his friend). So surely it's more akin to hating George Bush snr because you really hate Sarah Palin, ie you can't accept the moderate aspects of right wing politics (the good aspects of Culture) because of the extremist elements (the we-know-best duplicity/lack of real free will aspects of AI control)?
 

Sally Ann Melia

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Some of the earlier comments said that Horza was unlikeable.

I think the point I was trying to make is that he was set in his ways. He hated The Culture. As fans of Iain M Banks writing and thus of the Culture (if you are a fan) then you find it difficult to sympathise with Horza.

I think this is a very clever book, in the Iain M Banks at the very start of the Culture journey builds this incredible civilisation and yet the first hero to inhabit this space hates it.

And we see the same in The Player of Games, Gurgeh has an issue - Ok we have all this stuff - but we're the fun and adventure in that.
 

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I am currently reading it right now as one of my in-progress novels. So far I am mostly enjoying it, though I will take a break from space opera after this one. It is not only my first Culture novel, but my first Banks novel.
 

Michael Colton

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Hi Sodice, it is one of the hardest of the Culture novels. It was Iain M Banks break out work.

Player of Games or Look to Windward are easier to read.

Enjoy your Culture journey.

Sally
I am sure I will enjoy them. I purchased the first three in a box set together, so I will at least get that far at some point. I am currently reading three fiction books in addition to some non-fiction, so the progress is slow. Nothing in Consider Phlebus has put me off yet, though I have a ways to go in it.
 

Anthony G Williams

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This is my take on it, from my SFF blog: http://sciencefictionfantasy.blogspot.co.uk/

Surface Detail, Banks's penultimate Culture novel, was reviewed here only a few weeks ago, so when the Classic SF discussion group chose for a monthly read the very first one, Consider Phlebas, published in 1987, I thought it would be good to refresh my memory of this work. I say "refresh my memory" because I was certain that I had read this book, but on reading it again after a gap of over 25 years I found that nothing in it sparked any recollections whatsoever, so perhaps I hadn't.

The story is set during the Idiran-Culture War, a far-future galactic conflict which lasted for almost half a century. As summarised in one of several brief appendices (usefully including the perspective of both sides in the war), this was an existential conflict between two opposed sets of principles: the cultural unanimity and religious certainty of the Idirans, who were engaged in a relentless and limitless programme of conflict and expansion, and the relaxed and tolerant Culture, concerned to bring the benefits of civilisation to as much of the galaxy as possible. Some readers might note certain parallels with present-day attitudes in different parts of this world. As the Idirans were on a permanent war footing, the conflict had first gone their way, but the technologically more advanced and less tradition-bound Culture gradually got itself organised and began to fight back.

Despite the grand scope of the war, Consider Phlebas is not about vast space fleets engaged in system-wide battles. The focus is on the small scale, and particularly on a few individuals and their relationships – a microcosm of the greater conflict. The chief representative of the humanoid Culture is Special Circumstances Agent Perosteck Balveda, an appealing young woman as well as a capable operator. The main Indiran characters – massive tripedal beings who are formidable in battle – are Xoralundra, a naval captain, and Xoxarle, a warrior. In between the warring sides come some neutral freelancers, piratical humanoids who try to profit from the war; in particular Kraiklyn, the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence and his crew, most importantly Yalson, a young woman. However, the principal character, through whose eyes we see most of the action, is Bora Horza Gobuchul – a Changer, a rare type of humanoid able to gradually change their appearance to match anyone else. The Changers' home is in Idiran space and Horza supports their cause against the Culture, which he despises.

So given that the Culture represents a marvellous future, the kind which most westerners would gladly grab with both hands and every other part of their anatomy if offered it, it is strange that the principal character in the book is on the "wrong" side. Despite this, we gradually develop some sympathy with Horza as he struggles to survive and carry out the Indirans' commands.

One significant difference from the later books is that we hear virtually nothing from the Minds; the great AIs who run the Culture and mainly inhabit their giant spacecraft. They exist – in fact the main plot driver and the climax of the story is the race to find and secure a lost Mind on a hostile planet – but they don't contribute much. We are not entirely bereft of AIs, though, as one of the main characters and the source of most of the humour is Unaha-Closp, a small robot.

If you like happily-ever-after endings then don't read this book – or any of Banks's other novels, come to that. One of the appendices describes what happened next to the survivors, in a rather poignant finale.

Consider Phlebas received rave reviews, and it is easy to see why. It isn't quite as polished and well-constructed as Banks's late novels; for example, there are occasional scenes – such as a lengthy and decidedly gruesome one set on an island on an Orbital which is about to be destroyed – which add little or nothing to the plot and just seem to be slotted in to fill up the space. However, this is still a good introduction to the Culture stories, one of the finest collections of novels in modern science fiction.
 

Vertigo

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Great review Anthony. I am feeling myself gradually gearing up to a complete re-read of all the Culture novels.
 

NewbieH

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Hi Sodice, it is one of the hardest of the Culture novels. It was Iain M Banks break out work.

Player of Games or Look to Windward are easier to read.

Enjoy your Culture journey.

Sally
Hi Sally
Hoping you're still on here! You gave a fab and detailed review of Consider Phlebas. I wondered if you thought the book is ok for a 9 year old to read? He's a mature reader, loves SF and History. He's just picked up Consider and I haven't read it - only Iain Banks books no Iain M. Banks. Some comments on the forum make me wonder if the violence is too graphic, too much for a child - regardless of his understanding of Stars Wars v Real Life. Hoping you can help!
 

Vertigo

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Hi Sally
Hoping you're still on here! You gave a fab and detailed review of Consider Phlebas. I wondered if you thought the book is ok for a 9 year old to read? He's a mature reader, loves SF and History. He's just picked up Consider and I haven't read it - only Iain Banks books no Iain M. Banks. Some comments on the forum make me wonder if the violence is too graphic, too much for a child - regardless of his understanding of Stars Wars v Real Life. Hoping you can help!
I'm not sure Sally's still around; I haven't seen anything from her for quite a while.

With regards to Consider Phlebas I don't remember there being anything specifically inappropriate for a young reader (Banks doesn't really do that kind of writing) but it is very dark (Banks definitely does dark!) and probably more violent than most (though not all) of his other SF work and in that sense I'm not sure how appropriate it would be. The opening scenes are also pretty unpleasant as I recall. I would definitely say that Player of Games would be the best intro to Banks' Culture universe, particularly for the younger reader.

And I certainly wouldn't recommend his non SF stuff for so young a reader, but as you've read some of that I'm sure you are well aware of that.
 

Vertigo

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First book in my reread of Banks's SF.

Before starting it is worth noting that Consider Phlebas was Banks’s first science fiction novel written around three years after his first (infamous) novel The Wasp Factory. So, at least within the SF genre, this is a debut. It is also a reread for me after previously reading all the Culture books in a fairly random order.

The main protagonist Horza is a ‘Changer,’ a race of genetically modified humans that can alter their appearance to mimic that of another. This is not trivial, requiring time and considerable energy and once done still requires considerable expertise to mimic voice, gait, mannerisms etc. Also for people like Hoza who do this a lot it introduces some significant issues around personal identity. Horza also hates the Culture believing a society ruled by computers to be a soulless blasphemy against life. The story is set during the Idiran war and Horza has been commissioned by the Idirans, the enemies of the Culture, to capture a stranded Culture Mind.

It is interesting that this, Banks’s first Culture novel in a series in which that Culture and its Minds are generally the good guys, is presented almost exclusively from the point of view of a man who hates them, and so largely focuses on the worst aspects of that civilisation. It is also possibly one of the grimmer books in that series (though I certainly wouldn’t say the grimmest).

Only three years since Banks’s first book, his prose is here already showing the literary excellence that he is so well known for, and his characters are well rounded with lots of depth. All in all a very good book but far from Banks’s best. I’ve given it four stars but it’s really more like three and half (and is unchanged from my original rating). However had I started with this book as my first Banks I most certainly would have continued and I still feel it is better than many other acclaimed SF works out there from other authors but then I am an unrepentant Banks fan!

4/5 stars
 
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