"Gripping, Touching And Funny"TLS
The War Raged Across The Galaxy Billions Had Died, Billions More Were Doomed Moons, Planets, The Very Stars Themselves, Faced Destruction, Coldb."/> "Gripping, Touching And Funny"TLS
The War Raged Across The Galaxy Billions Had Died, Billions More Were Doomed Moons, Planets, The Very Stars Themselves, Faced Destruction, Coldb." /> ❰Read❯ ➯ Consider Phlebas Author Iain M. Banks – Motyourdrive.co.uk

❰Read❯ ➯ Consider Phlebas Author Iain M. Banks – Motyourdrive.co.uk


    "Gripping, Touching And Funny"TLS
    The War Raged Across The Galaxy Billions Had Died, Billions More Were Doomed Moons, Planets, The Very Stars Themselves, Faced Destruction, Coldblooded, Brutal, And Wo"/>
  • ebook
  • Consider Phlebas
  • Iain M. Banks
  • 14 June 2019

10 thoughts on “Consider Phlebas

  1. says:

    Welcome to another edition of 'Notable Genre Author Fails to Impress Some Guy on the Internet', I'll be your host: some guy.

    Like so many highly-lauded authors featured here, Banks has been haunting my shelf for quite some time now. Countless are the times I have passed this book before bed, letting my eyes linger longingly on the spine, relishing the notion that I will actually read this book, some day. There have even been those occasions where I thumbed it down, peering at the cover, carefully comparing it to others, knowing that I must be the final arbiter of posterity--to choose one, eschewing all others to a cruel and unknown future.

    As always I was prepared to be impressed, or even blown-away, and to tell the truth, it started off with some promise. The prose is fairly solid, and that title, it's a doozy. Unfortunately, the title's suggestion of literary intertextuality soon wilted on the vine, so I dialed-back my expectation to 'amusing, rollicking adventure'. Now, I would be lying if I suggested that there wasn't some breed of rip-snorting adventure in here, but unfortunately, it's all smothered beneath the cold, damp pillow of Too Much Explanation.

    It is a lamentable condition which affects nearly four quarters of all science fiction authors, and in many cases, proves uncurable. I can understand the temptation: you create this big, crazy world, and you want to share all of it with the reader, all the time! But what sci fi authors make up for in enthusiasm, they lack in structure, plot, and character.

    We are given long asides about the world, the politics, the war, and the characters' thoughts--the onmiscient narrator going on excitedly about tangents and small points to the detriment of the plot. Truly, there is no insight too small to be explicitly stated; even things we already know, like the fact that taking in an enemy and keeping them around is dangerous, or that the decision whether or not to shoot someone has two outcomes, one with shooting, the other with somewhat less shooting.

    People have described this book as an 'intellectual Space Opera', but when I picture an intellectually engaging book, it's not one that tells me that kissing is nice, that people with guns are scary, or that losing loved ones is sad. It's like the 'adverb problem' many writers suffer from; in the sentence:

    "What did you say?" John asked, questioningly.

    We have a redundant description (questioningly) that adds nothing to the story but needless length. A good writer doesn't tell the reader things they already know; and they certainly don't tell them the same things over and over.

    I found the repetition particularly inexplicable. On one page, we're told that the character won't die of thirst because he's floating on a freshwater ocean. We are told it again on the following page, from the same character's internal monologue, on the same day. It just felt like bad editing at that point.

    But the worst thing about these kinds of overt explanations is that they make books dull and tedious. All characters go through similar struggles, and for the most part, react to them in similar ways: people like pleasurable things, they try to avoid pain, and they're afraid of the unknown. What gives characters personality is how they experience these common reactions. It's in the little details. The more you take advantage of these little details, the more personality your characters will have.

    And it actually works the same with the plot: the way you reveal events and information, the way things unfold, the little details of writing create the tone. When an author wants to demonstrate something--a character's personality, the progression of a relationship, some point of politics or philosophy--he designs a scene to illustrate this point. So, if you want to show that your character is afraid of snakes, you might set up a scene where he sees a rubber snake and freaks out and maybe he feels embarrassed and holds a grudge over being fooled. It not only reveals the fear, it also reveals other aspects of the character: their pride and capacity for resentment.

    It's the old writer's adage about 'showing instead of telling'. When you show what a character does, you're demonstrating a distinct personality; when you tell us 'he's afraid of snakes' you're just describing a generic trait. Remove the need to show how characters react and you lose the best way to make them unique and intriguing.

    It makes it hard to connect with characters when they are mainly a list of traits--and it's even worse if the author doesn't actually have them demonstrate those traits. If a character is constantly described as being 'strong-willed', but is never shown actually behaving that way, then the author has failed to write the character they intended. If you show the audience something that looks, feels, smells, and tastes like an apple, they aren't going to believe it's a banana, no matter how many times you tell them it is. Because of this conflict between how the characters were described and how they actually behaved, they never developed into real personalities, and their actions rarely made sense--except that they facilitated the plot.

    At one point, we are told at length how much the character is worrying about some friends of his, if only he could get to them. The moment he gains the ability to reach them, he forgets about them and goes off to check something else out. Then, a bit later, this character--who has been shown as deliberate, conniving, and calculating throughout--suddenly behaves erratically and does a bunch of short-sighted, stupid things for no apparent reason, except that it lets the author put in his Big Chase Scene.

    Unfortunately, since the characters were shallow and undeveloped, the reason for the chase a sudden bout of stupidity, and the stakes for the chase unclear, it made the whole thing tedious, when it should have been a high point. Many authors (and summer movie directors) seem to assume that pure action and explosions are exciting, but without purpose and pacing to back them up, they are just filling space.

    But then, the whole book had flawed pacing; and not just because it was chock-full of tangents and redundancies. Mostly, the problem was a common one: the 'back-loaded McGuffin'. A 'McGuffin' is just a generic thing that moves the plot along, usually something a character wants. Some common examples are: the diamonds, the plans, the one ring, the magic sword, the launch codes. In general, it doesn't matter what the thing actually is, they're mostly interchangeable.

    Banks tries a few times to make his McGuffin more pertinent to the plot, but it's a pretty standard 'the thing'. When I talk about a 'back-loaded' plot, I mean one where all the action is constantly focused on the final conclusion. Now it's good for a story to progress toward this conclusion, but you've got to put smaller arcs and motivations along the way. Really, there should be a fairly clear goal for each distinct scene, otherwise, all of the build-up, all the tension, all the motivation is pointing at one spot--all loaded on the back, which that doesn't make for a very balanced story. Plus, no conclusion will ever be good enough to live up to four hundred pages of 'wait for it!'.

    What's worse is when the climax is already pretty clearly outlined and the author keeps stalling. If the reader can see what the conflict is, where it's going to take place, and more-or-less how it's going to play out, stalling is only going to annoy them. Sure, you can take a minute to have everyone watch the game-winning hit with fear and apprehension, you can even do it in slow mo with the outfielder running to the wall hoping to catch it. But if you keep cutting back to the wide-eyed faces, the outfielder running, the ball soaring, the faces again, the ball, the crowd, the ball--well, it all starts to get pretty stupid.

    That was how I felt as the book 'neared' the climax. It was pretty clear how it was going to play out, because we could see the stuff that needed to happen before we could move on, but Banks spends a hundred pages stalled out at roughly the same moment, going from the team, to the bad guy, to the team, to a guy thinking, to the bad guy, just showing us incrementally smaller bits of the same stuff back and forth over and over. He seemed to be trying to build tension, but there really wasn't much tension to build. A half-pat of butter will not spread over a whole loaf of bread, no matter hold long you rake it with the knife.

    At this point, since he's constantly returning to the characters sitting around and talking, waiting for something to happen, he actually begins to develop some personalities for them, but I quickly began to suspect that he was only doing this so he could shoe in some emotional connections before killing some off in the climax in an attempt to make their deaths more poignant. Unfortunately, that just just meant that the emotional action was telegraphing the plot--if a character is suddenly revealed to be interesting, makes a connection to the protagonist, and then finds peace with life, you can be sure they're about to bite it.

    Banks also telegraphs the plot when he tries to increase tension, because he will tell the reader (through exposition) about future possibilities. He'll talk about how, if the prisoner escapes and gets a gun, it won't be good for the main characters--as if that were some kind of revelation--but in every case, these are just red herrings, so it becomes easy to predict the outcomes of the book by assuming that anything the characters worry about won't happen.

    Now, there are some smaller arcs in the book too, so it's not all back-loaded, and some of them were okay, but they suffered from the same structural problems as the rest of the book. Many of these scenes were gory, which some people found compelling, but I didn't feel were particularly disturbing. Sure, there was violence, unpleasant people, cannibals, shit-drowning, cracked carapaces, snapped limbs, laser wounds, shrapnel, and all that stuff, but it was just flash. It might not have been pleasant but it didn't open up any unsettling psychological implications. As with personality and tone, it's not the bare fact of violence that is disturbing, but its specific treatment, its implications. Just as explosions don't equal an exciting plot, slasher gore doesn't equal tension.

    The weirdly effusive voice of a nominally neutral omniscient narrator was only one part of a rather silly tone in the book. I found most of the ship names quite cleverly funny, but in general, the jokey tone was a poor match for a brooding book of life-or-death consequences. The whole epilogue actually hinges on a tacked-on punchline, which made me wonder if this book wasn't just the longest Shaggy Dog Joke I've ever read.

    This book also hit another genre trend: the protagonist collecting women. You can always spot it when a woman walks in the room and gets a description several times as long as any male character. Often, this description will be repeated or echoed every time that female character reenters the room, while many male characters will persist throughout the book in a vague, featureless haze.

    These women always start off cool and distant, but keep coming to the protagonist, bantering with him adversarially, but playfully--there's never any real conflict between them, just enough tension to sweeten the pot. I found the central romance particularly disappointing because it comes out of nowhere. I actually appreciated at first how the characters seemed to take a nonchalant, almost awkward approach--it made sense considering all the other things they had on their mind--but then, suddenly, it's all lovey-dovey and everyone is spouting awkward platitudes:

    "What she did not know about him was only what he did not know about himself (but that, he told himself, was quite a lot still). Perhaps she even knew him better than he knew himself."

    There is never anything resembling real thoughts or emotions in the entire relationship, and it rather reminded me of Scriptshadow's observation about the film Aliens: namely, that love stories don't fit into every scenario, particularly not tense, difficult ones where characters are thrown together, under constant stress, and plot takes a backseat to worldbuilding. In such a case, an attempt to add a love story is always going to feel like an extra shovelful of clutter tossed on the pile.

    I said earlier that the prose wasn't bad, but the figurative language smacks of trying too hard; it's not a natural part of the authorial voice but an intrusion of forced poetics:

    " . . . a thousand-kilometer peninsula sticking out into a frozen sea like some monstrous fractured limb set in plaster."

    A lot of the figurative language is written weakly, without confidence, as the 'like some' above indicates--whenever you see 'like some kind of' or 'it almost seemed as if', you know an author was struggling with their voice. Unlike William Gibson's direct, assertive style, Banks' metaphors are often vague. Metaphors are intended to provide the reader with a more clear and physical comprehension of the world, not with a cloudy possibility of 'some' resemblance. We also have:

    "He put his head back to her chest, nestling it between her breasts like a huge, delicate egg."

    and a couple pages later, of a different woman (same protagonist):

    " . . . taking his hand and bringing it to her mouth, kissing it, stroking it as thought it were a small, defenseless animal."

    So in one fell stroke we have redundant repetition, awkward metaphors, and cheesy romance.

    Not only are the emotions flat (due to the expositional method of characterization), they're also surprisingly modern and staid, especially for a story about alien cultures. Love, gender, pride, religion, and most other traits are played fairly straight. We do have a noble warrior race in there, but that's hardly less cliche, just being the sci fi version of the 'Noble Savage'. Banks will sometimes talk about purported differences in personality, but as usual, these are never actually demonstrated by the characters themselves. This isn't necessarily a problem if you're writing a light, accessible Space Opera story, but it's detrimental to a ponderous, meandering book that relies on a more complex, unusual setting.

    The actual science elements are also rather unremarkable, even for the period. Much of the plot relies on a strict delineation between robots and humans, focused mainly on a false dichotomy of emotion vs. logic. I've always found this silly, not just because emotions are logical (you can't have logical thought if the emotional center of the brain is damaged), but also because there is no reason that humans won't progress along with robots as technology increases. In all likelihood, humans and robots will progress toward one another as time goes on until there is no functional definition which separates one from the other.

    Now some of this is meant to be overplayed in the book; we're not supposed to fall entirely for this point of view, which is nice, I appreciate the ambiguity. Yet, Banks doesn't have any new insights about the similarities and differences between robots and humans, either.

    Lack of insight was a general problem. There were very few moments where I felt surprised or spurred to thought by Banks' story. Everything was laid out in front of me, explained, repeated, and followed the basic rules of the genre without introducing any new innovation. Yes, the narrator was morally ambiguous, but I would have appreciated that more if it didn't merely seem to be a symptom of ambiguity in general.

    In some ways ways, it resembles The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but without the humor. It has the big set pieces, characters hopping all over, a rather silly, self-aware tone, and a lot of asides about the universe--but lacked the style and satirical insight that made that series such a delight. Unfortunately, the most interesting and intellectual part of Consider Phlebas is the title, and the rest never manages to live up to that promise.

    As far as Space Operas are concerned, Hitchhiker's Guide is earlier, more intelligent, and more fun, with better pacing and writing. This book had about 230 pages of plot, character, and world buried in 500 pages of redundant explanations, appendices, exposition, explosions, gore, gross outs, and digressions. I wasn't wowed by speculative insight, intrigued by unpredictability, or amused by an exciting story. I found much of the book dull and overwrought, which may have made for a quick read, but not a particularly enjoyable one.


  2. says:

    description

    And today, mine is going to be unpopular. But remember the advice from 9th grade Advanced English teacher Mrs. Muench about metaphors. Or maybe I mean false equivalency. Regardless: you are not what you like. If I dislike something you love, I am not disliking you. But you may not want to read my review, friends who love this book.

    Consider Phlebas is classic sci-fi that I missed while growing up. Periodically, I try to exercise my genre core, and it was with a bit of ‘read-harder’ spirit that I picked it up. Initially intrigued, I gradually lost interest as the main character, Horza, ended up in one disastrous situation after another. Horza’s a Changer, a shape-shifting species that is extremely rare throughout the galaxy. He voluntarily works for the Idiran race in an ongoing war between the Idirans and the Culture. Disaster seems to sharpen Horza’s philosophical skills, because as he attempts to save himself from (da-dum) Certain Doom when we first meet him, he takes a little bit of time to compare and contrast the structured and AI-dominant Culture with that of the religious and militant Idirans.

    I’ll take ‘C,’ none of the above.

    Honestly, I ended up bored, and there’s no way that should happen when you are a) in a torture chamber filling with liquid waste, b) in a deep space shoot-out, c) captured by space pirates, d) attacking a monastery for a priceless artifact, e) involved in a mega-colony ship crash, f) about to be eaten by cannibal cultists, g) playing a card game to the death, or h) making a daring spaceship escape, which is where I last set the book down.

    One of my favorite teachers always insisted that 'boredom' was due to not asking enough questions or invoking enough curiosity (on behalf of the students, naturally). I’m willing to accept some responsibility here, but frankly, this story feels padded with filler. Though Horza is approached with a job for the Idirans that involves returning to a planet and people from Horza’s earlier life, very early in the book, he doesn’t actually start that particular task until close to 3/5 through, having to get through the aforementioned adventures to get close to his objective. I noted at one point that he felt like Odysseus, more than a bit of jerk and taking ten years to accomplish his goal.

    So, the plot is somewhat meandering. Maybe the characters are interesting? Well, not really; Horza is hard to enjoy. While he is resourceful and confident, and occasionally even affable, he truly connects with only one person. He shares very little of his past, so despite reading three hundred pages or so, I can’t really tell you much about Changer culture, his childhood, his family, etc. Although he states Changer families are close-knit, his parents are dead and he’s the only one in his ‘clan,’ so one presumes he’s been isolated by circumstance. His feelings towards other beings is largely dispassionate, strategical over emotional.

    The writing failed to grab me as well, with a fair amount of description that doesn’t really advance the story or the world-building. For instance, when on the pirate ship:

    “During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew. He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn’t. Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his roommate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet, and, when not eating or working, usually asleep. The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn’t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.

    Dorlow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson. She was plump, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks. She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice, which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot. Her movements were fluttery and nervous.”

    It goes on like that for another three pages for the rest of the crew, and this is on page 67, mind you, of people who quite possibly may be killed. The descriptions aren’t even particularly interesting; different cultures/races represented and we get that the voice was high and her eyes watered? No dialogue on discovering this? I remember reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and being intrigued by interaction with the crew members, the details that made their race/personality come alive. Banks doesn’t even have the courtesy of character preservation, so that my effort in learning these almost faceless blobs’ names might be entirely wasted.

    It just didn’t work for me. Explanatory and expositionary; full of telling, a main character that was a challenge to connect to, and a rather arbitrary division between religious extremism and A.I. regulation couched in yawning philosophical dichotomies meant this was a struggle all the way through.

    Sorry, friends! Always a downer when someone doesn’t love the book that you do.

    description


  3. says:

    Many discerning readers, even ones who like SF, will reflexively sneer if you say the dreaded words "space opera". One need only think of E.E. Doc Smith, for a long time the unquestioned king of this particular sub-genre. I read Galactic Patrol when I was at primary school; like innumerable other geeky nine year olds, I adored it, and particularly loved the "Helmuth speaking for Boskone" tagline. I also remember how, aged 12 or 13, I picked it up to see if the magic was still there. Oh dear! It was maybe the first time I felt embarrassed at ever having liked a book, and wondered how I could have had such poor taste. You will gather that he really isn't terribly good.

    None the less, if you love a book when you're nine, it probably has something to recommend it; what's great about space opera is the sense of wonder it inspires, as you are taken outside our little planet and shown how huge and strange the larger Universe is. As people like Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss have argued, the roots of this kind of literature go back to imaginative, ostensibly mainstream authors like Dante and Milton, but the project somehow got hijacked in the early 20th century. In the 1980s, Iain Banks conceived the ambitious idea of redeeming the space opera, and started writing the Culture series. Consider Phlebas is the first one. The title --- a quotation from The Waste Land, no less! --- lets you know at once that something important has been fixed. (The author presumably wanted to increase the number of people who'd get as far as even opening the book). Instead of Smith's dreadful prose, Banks writes elegant, literary English. By the time you've got a dozen pages into it, you're convinced that this will, at the very least, be pleasant to read at the sentence level. After a while, you find out that he's also addressed most of the other standard problems.

    Banks has given interviews about the Culture novels, and one aspect he likes to focus on is the politics. He said he found it distasteful that galactic empires always had to be right-wing military hierarchies; I didn't realize it when I was nine, but the basic plot in Smith is one bunch of Nazis fighting another. The Culture is a more interesting beast: a decentralized, anarchic society, which consists of a loose federation of humans and intelligent machines, spread out over many worlds. The humans use their advanced technology to support a relaxed, hedonistic life-style, with a lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. A nice detail is that they are genetically engineered so that their bodies can synthesize their own drugs. Not so far-fetched: our own society has plenty of endorphin junkies, to mention just one hormone we regularly enjoy.

    The machines are very well done. Most space operas never really consider the fact that machines will eventually be smarter than people, but Banks confronts this head-on. You see the Culture both from the inside and from the outside; its critics tend to say that it's really run by the AIs, with the people having little influence. The smartest Culture machines, the "Minds", are indeed enormously more intelligent than any person could be, and have almost godlike powers. I see the relationship between machines and people in the Culture as being rather like the relationship between a person and their genes. You're far smarter than your genes. However, the genes built you to take care of them, and you often do what they tell you. Just as a person can get into a relationship that they know makes no logical sense, because their genes like the idea, Banks's godlike machines also let their human partners make important decisions for them on emotional grounds. Although his main purpose is to tell a story, Banks is saying some quite interesting things here about the future of technology.

    Well, that's a lightning tour of the Culture universe, and Consider Phlebas makes good use of it. There's a war on between the Culture and the Idirans, and the book is about one tiny incident in that war. Neither side is presented as intrinsically good or bad; the main character, Horza, is a spy working for the Idirans, who has been assigned the job of retrieving a Mind that has been accidentally stranded on a remote planet. Horza is opposed by a Culture agent; there is again no attempt to show that he is morally superior, and in fact she comes across in many ways as a better person. We see acts of treachery and heroism on both sides, and one of the things I liked is that some of the bravest and most heroic acts later turn out to have been utterly misconceived. The story at first seems to be meandering around, but as Horza gets closer to the Mind it tightens up more and more; the ending is absolutely terrific, and left me with an adrenaline rush and a head full of startling, nightmare images. I enjoyed this book as much as my nine year old self enjoyed Galactic Patrol.


  4. says:

    Consider Iain M. Banks. an unsentimental, often ruthless writer. his characters are provided robust emotional lives and richly detailed backgrounds... all the better to punish the reader when those characters meet their often bleak fates. his narratives are ornate affairs, elaborately designed, full of small & meaningful moments as well as huge, wide-scale world-building... all the better to deliver a sucker punch directly to the reader's gut when those narratives turn out to be ironic, predetermined mousetraps. yet despite the cruelly intelligent design of his novels, a strong case can be made that Banks is a fiery humanist - if the idea of "humanism" is expanded to include all forms of consciousness, including the psychologically aberrant, including artificial minds. is there a genre specialist who is a more passionate yet clear-eyed (even cold-eyed) partisan for the right of all conscious beings to pursue their own individual desires, dreams, and destinies - while not fucking up the lives of other beings? even his utopic, galaxy-spanning civilization The Culture has its own major achilles' heel in their theoretically positive desire to improve the self-determination of other cultures.

    Consider Consider Phlebas. now this is a SPACE OPERA. it has it all. multiple alien cultures in a race against time and each other. sentient machines. piratical mercenaries. world-hopping. the destruction of 'orbitals' and entire cities. a graveyard world overseen by a transcended being. an incredibly advanced, liberal, permissive society in conflict with barbaric, right-wing, militaristic religious fanatics. a shape-shifting spy for a protagonist (a very canny choice in regards to providing an outsider perspective on The Culture). it is filled to the brim with so many things, including a handful of long digressions in the first half of the novel, chapters that are pretty much only side-adventures (some of which seem like trial runs for ideas expanded upon in Player of Games and the non-Culture Algebraist). despite the length of the novel, despite wide-ranging adventures and misadventures, the blood & vengeance, the extreme presentations of eating & defecating, despite the in-depth detail present in all that running-about in the tunnels of Graveyard World, despite the whole sturm und drang of it all... this is an intimate novel. intimate in its character work and almost peculiarly intimate in the way that Banks allows his ethical concerns, his - one could say - almost rigid moralism to dominate the proceedings. this is not a tale of crazy adventures that eventually finds its way to a punchy end; this is a novel of rigorously political ideas (and, perhaps, ideals). those ideas are carefully encapsulated within each sequence, by the grand conflict at hand, and by the eventual fates of each one of its major characters.

    the choice of the title is wonderful. how fitting! i was also reminded of another well-known passage:

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Banks is not a depressing writer. he can have a light touch. his novels are full of life, full of wit and love and laughter and bravery and mindboggling invention. and yet they are often a rather depressing experience. i can see why some folks avoid him. i can understand why some dislike Consider Phlebas and its often uncomfortable combination of digressive high adventure and stark, moralistic political analogies. hey, the world can be an awfully shitty place and so why immerse yourself in more of the same? although he is easy to read, Banks certainly doesn't make things easy on readers and their various sentimental attachments. he chooses discomfort and tragedy at nearly every turn.

    well who ever said that utopian ideals are an easy thing? striving for utopia should be hard! it should be long and difficult and heartbreaking and full of intensely uncomfortable ambiguity. it should make you want to cry, little baby.

    scary


  5. says:

    I can't really say much, other than Iain Banks has become my #1 favorite Sci-Fi author. I love the way he fleshes out flawed, believable characters in a Space Opera setting. I'm always surprised by his writing, and that keeps me coming back for more. If you're not into the genre, but want to give it a try, pick up this book. You will not regret it!


  6. says:

    Posted at Heradas

    In my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another. In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives. It went way over my head the first time I read it. I think I didn’t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was. Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me. It’s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it. Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.

    The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his "honor". It's a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.

    After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre: a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures. However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes. Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a much more nuanced story. The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a “picaroon” (rogue or untrustworthy anti-hero) rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives. By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics. When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in a more literary minded, left leaning, progressive direction. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F. Hamilton continued the change forward from there. There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A. Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition.

    Iain Banks

    Historically, space opera has been a simplistic genre. In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term “space opera” was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama. Think: soap opera. Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader. In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively-in-the-wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade-esqe holy war against the Culture, a post-scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds. The Culture are arguable the “good guys”. For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it “Special Circumstances” goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture’s way of thinking. Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can’t help but adopt them as their own. Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for. He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past. He doesn’t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on “the side of life”. The enemy of his enemy is his friend.

    “Gentile or Jew
    O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
    Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you (319-321).”
    - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land




    I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre. There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book. The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S. Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation. The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran/Culture war. I’ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months. They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary. Excellent sources for these between-the-lines details are Simone Caroti's "The Culture series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction" as well as Paul Kincaid’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks”. These are books I’ll be recommending frequently. Both Caroti's and Kincaid’s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.

    Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series. The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from the more interesting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means. It handles a huge amount of world-building, and is multilayered and complex. It's one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits. It isn't the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.

    Personally, I think it's a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it. It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building ~80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood. I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it’s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.

    My favorite sections of the book are the short "state of play" interlude chapters, with the character Fal 'Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture. Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from the more adventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative. Fal 'Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles. She's able to comment on the story as it's happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels. She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book. She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself. She's able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza's perspective. She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they’re watertight.

    "We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short-sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas... "

    "...We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused. And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran."

    The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks' style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing. He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos. This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it's large and exciting.

    The Player of Games

    All that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series. If you're not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point. Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you've read some others without missing anything particularly crucial. However, if you're a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it's better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.

    Up next: The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we’ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture: Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc… and of course the empire and game of Azad.


  7. says:

    Two stars is about right.

    Voltaire said something like "the best is the enemy of the good" (okay, he actually said le mieux est l'ennemi du bien). But what is really annoying is that the coulda-been-good is more disappointing than the meh.

    Banks clearly has a great deal of imagination. If he was able to discipline himself, he'd have some four-star stuff going on here, easily — maybe better.

    But he fritters away his energy on irrelevant grotesquerries, like a schoolboy scrawling naughty pictures inside his textbooks, or sneaking fart jokes into the Wikipedia page for the Sistine Chapel. Because naughtiness is its own reward.

    Consider Phlebas opens with a character drowning in a room full of shit. Why? Because he's failed at an espionage mission, and the rulers are nasty enough to want to degrade him as they kill him. Does this have anything to do with the larger story arc of Consider Phlebas? Well, no: it has no bearing whatsoever, other than being a memorably gross entrance for the major character.

    Later this same fellow will encounter a band of starving religious cannibals led by a grotesquely (yes, there's that word again) obese prophet. Does this interlude have any bearing on the larger story arc? Again, no. Those are just the most glaring flaws, but the book is pervaded with haphazard storytelling.

    There is actually a story, and if it weren't for all the ill-considered byzantine dross, it would probably be pretty good. There are two or three characters that are well developed enough that one might actually care what happens to them, and a depth of context and mythos that is very alluring. Sometimes the story is smooth and very well told for several pages at a time.

    But it really isn't enough.

    And the reason I first heard about the Culture Universe isn't dealt with well, either. The Culture is an amalgam of human and machine intelligence, with the latter forming the functional backbone and the humans being mostly decorative. The question of how humanity will deal with (or survive, or whatever) the Singularity should be a philosophically engrossing aspect to any book that touches on the subject, but Banks really doesn't seem to want to stretch himself reaching for the tough stuff when his febrile imagination can spin off so much vomit-flavored cotton candy.

    Too bad.

    Oh — if you are looking for a much better space opera, may I recommend Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space ? Reynolds doesn't promise as much as Banks, but he actually delivers on the promise, and then some.
    ­


  8. says:

    This is the second Culture book I read but the first one Iain M. Banks wrote. One of us did something wrong, because I liked The Player of Games a lot more, and yet my reasons for not liking Consider Phlebas are almost all about what the book isn't.

    It isn't about the Culture, for one thing. Sort of. Not really. The other books in the series are from the perspective of a citizen of the Culture, which is difficult to define succinctly so I will just say, imagine if you lived in a universe where you were practically immortal and super-smart robots took care of pretty much everything, leaving you free to live your own life to the fullest existential extent (do you want to be an artist? a writer? do you like orgies?).

    The main character in Consider Phlebas is Horza, a rare shape-shifting dude who haaates the Culture, which he considers hedonistic and base and godless &c. Partly he objects to the Culture's policy of interfering with other civilizations, whether to "uplift" them (not to mix my sci-fi metaphors) or to eliminate them if they pose a threat to the Culture's, well, culture. This is basically the opposite of Star Trek: TNG's vaulted Prime Directive, which I, as a reader, don't really have a problem with. Personally, if benevolent artificial intelligences want to pop by an offer a few helpful corrective suggestions that will put a stop to, oh, take your pick or check out whatever is on the front page today, I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. Just as long as they don't start using humans for batteries or anything.

    But Horza instead throws in his lot with the Idirans, a xenophobic and deeply religious, deeply warlike society that is at major war with the Culture. I don't want to get too into the nitty-gritty of the plot, because it does offer up some nice set-pieces, but basically, he's off on a mission to capture a new breed of "Mind," which is what the Culture-ruling machines refer to themselves as. This Mind is stranded on a hostile world that, conveniently, only Horza has access to, but getting there will require some Ocean's 11-style adventures first.

    So here is my problem: I read this after The Player of Games, which offers you the inside view of the Culture, both the good parts and the bad. It is also a very fun book, despite some dark themes: the smart-ass Culture Drones, even just the mind-boggling concept of sentient, continent-sized worldships that you can have a chat with. Just a lot of cool stuff. Consider Phlebas gave me very little of what I wanted: only one Drone. No talking spaceships (wait, no, there was one, but it was a small one). By necessity, it is a darker, angrier book, and by the end, very nearly an abusive one. I get what Banks was going for thematically, I'm totally on his wavelength, but the ending of this thing just punishes the reader.

    On the other hand, it is still totally crazy, which is, I am starting to suspect, Banks' modus operandi, and so you have a few largely inconsequential narrative pit-stops that are nevertheless awesome, like when Horza gets trapped on an island with a horde of technology-fearing cannibals (you don't even know, it's so gross and intense). Or a high-stakes card game involving telepathy and actual human sacrifice. Both concepts are pretty rad, as is the writing throughout.

    So which one of us messed up? If I had read this first, and hadn't spent most of the book looking for the Culture and not finding it, would I have enjoyed it more? Or was it a bad idea for Banks to start the series with an unbalanced, action-heavy, black-as-tar nihilist downer of a novel?

    Considering he's super rich and probably the most popular sci-fi author in the U.K. today, I'll kindly request that you not answer that.


  9. says:

    There are some motives and ideas that pop up in all of Banks' works. In this, his first culture novel, I want to mention some of them.

    His background in philosophy and psychology enabled him to combine Sci-Fi with really deep criticism regarding the human past, presence and future. No matter if it was the dark medieval time, the presence or any period of the future, he managed to show the flaws, errors and grievances. He even anticipated problems in detail that might once occur.

    The belief in a better life for all humans by giving all important tasks to all-knowing, huge AI construct, called the brain is something many technocrats, transhumanists and futurists may see as the best option. As long as the risk of human error could lead to disaster, it would be reckless to let things like the ones known from history happen again.

    The most important thing to remember, both for groups and for individuals, is that each human consciousness and personality could be described as more or less stable, mentally healthy and normal, but generally rather on the unstable side. Or, as different hidden or obvious grades of insanity. Whoever wants to say that she/he is perfectly normal, just shout out loud, I certainly am not. I have a serious reading problem, I definitively should interact much more with real humans, but I simply don´t have any interest in it what probably motivates each so-called expert to pointing with the ICD 10 Mental and behavioral disorder manual in my direction. Cause I am introverted, cold, analytic, could stay alone for months, see emotions in another way than many people, etc, I could hit many points in the manual. What about you?

    Now, after this short soul strip, back to what happens if many of such naked apes come together, cause they find an ideology sexy, crispy and cool? Yea, repetition of history again. So, apart from the hint that we all are to a certain degree lunatic and insane without even recognizing it, this warning should be considered each time one tends to integrate her/himself in any kind of group process that could run out of control.

    About the book itself: OMG, read it! It´s the foundation of a milestone of Sci-Fi, something that could be used in many classes in high school and college. Religious fanatism, shapeshifter, non-intervention clauses, "special circumstances", insectoids, cannibals, what do you need more, there is no comparable Sci-Fi out there.

    Tropes show how literature is conceived and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
    https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.ph...


  10. says:

    It’s not you, it’s me.

    I’ve got to watch out for space operas. I will either buy in early or … I just won’t. And then I’m staring at 400 pages of … ehh.

    It’s too bad, I really liked the idea and Banks’ writing seemed inspired. There was a cool interstellar culture called … The Culture. The post-scarcity confederacy of different races reminded me of Star Trek and there was also some Dune references.

    But … it just didn’t take. DNF at 30%, life's too short.

    Sorry Iain, I might try again some other time.

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About the Author: Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.

Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.

As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.

In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.

Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.

His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.

Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.

The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.

*The Quarry was published in June 2013.