Thursday, April 08, 2010

_Consider Phlebas_ by Iain Banks

I've been trying to get hold of some Iain Banks "Culture" books for a while. This is the first one I was able to get from the library. I'd read one other book of his, The Algebraist, a year and a half ago.

I enjoyed this book, but it was quite different than I expected. It was less about the Culture and more about a fellow who hates it. And it was a fairly straightforward adventure romp. It had a great action opening and the action rarely let up after that.

Before I go into a list of problems I found with the novel, I should say that I still recommend it. In a way it feels like a noir Star Wars: it manages to put a highly adventurous protagonist into a flamboyant galaxy of robots and weird worlds, but instead of the adventurer striding into the crux of the galaxies problems and solving them, he's a tiny part of the big picture and he does not manage to win significance for himself. Banks has said he was writing in reaction to a lone protagonist cliche in science fiction.

Now, start with, I thought the title was quite useless. It's apparently taken from a line in T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. I felt misled. Given what I knew about the Culture, which I understood to be a highly principled and advanced society, and the philosophical sound of the title, I expected a gentle philosophical novel, whereas this was a fast-moving action movie.

The plot was a little odd in that it jumps around James Bond only with planets instead of that the antagonists from early on can't really recur later. I wanted something more like a slow build over the whole course of the novel. But I think the external conflicts were less important than what was going on inside the main character's head. And there is a character who tracks the main character throughout. This could have been developed more. There's even a character who never directly encounters the main character, analyzing him from afar, and that plot sideline was never developed enough for me to see what it was there for.

My other main complaint would be that the main character's hatred of the Culture isn't well explained or supported. It's a given in the man's personality. But the character is well drawn nonetheless, and I was fully involved in his problems by the book's end. He stuck with a mission far past its importance, though, and that never quite made sense to me.

So that's a litany of complaints, and I have to say that they don't matter much. It's a fun book and it makes you think and it takes you on a wild ride through Banks' future galaxy, and it manages to be poignant and realistic while delivering, on occasion, Mission Impossible-style action.

I'm trying out Blogger's new Amazon Associates features. Signing up as an associate makes it ridiculously easy to add links and images of products to a blog posting, so that makes book blogging simpler. 


  1. First off, nice review. I found the novel rather disjointed in terms of its plot as well. It seemed more like an excuse to drop this character into a bunch of set-pieces. I was more interested in the nature of the conflict between the Culture and the Idirans than in Horza's grudge. I really enjoyed Inversions, Look to Windward, and Matter, however. Haven't read Inversions yet.

  2. Second, when you get a chance, shoot me an email or something about this Amazon Associates feature, since I review a fair number of books.