Book Review: Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas cover

I’ve heard about Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels for quite a while.  They’d frequently be referenced in various Science Fiction conversations. When I’d see his books, though, they looked like these huge tomes, like the Sci-Fi equivalent of George R.R. Martin or something.  Not my bag. As I’ve said many times before, my general rule of thumb when picking books to read is “if you can’t say it in 250 pages, you’re probably not saying it right, and if you can’t say it in 500 pages, you’re definitely not saying it right.”  It’s not a perfect rule, but it’s a solid guideline. Someone once referred to Robert Jordan, and a lot of the Fantasy writers that were coming out in his wake, as “Death of Trees” writers, writers who produced long series of 500-1000 page novels filled with too many characters and bloated prose.  Not my thing. All this is to say, it took me a long, long time to get around to reading Banks. I’m glad I finally did.

Consider Phlebas is not at all what I expected.  It’s very contemporary, while still feeling rooted in Golden Age Science Fiction.  It’s got a Hard Science Fiction setting with a Space Opera heart. There is an epicness to some of the events, and the general backdrop of Idiran-Culture War, but the story is fairly intimate.  The action often has a big, bold, glitzy, Star Trek feel, but then once in a while it descends into almost Cronenberg levels of visceral ugliness.  The whole sequence with the ‘golden pyramid’…Yeesh.

The book is filled with colorful characters and surprising twists.  Life is tough and sometimes cheap in galaxy spanning conflicts. Horza is a pretty cool protagonist and viewpoint character.  He’s relatable, though strange in his own way. I find his relationship with the Clear Air Turbulence to be fascinating.  That ship is almost like the anti-Serenity.

There are some fairly bugnuts action sequences that are pretty cool if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.  And Banks is one of those authors that loves to throw huge obstacles in the path of his characters. Things almost never go as planned, and usually go much, much worse.

If I have a complaint about the book, it’s the ending.  I don’t want to go into it too much, but the ‘postscript’ is perhaps a bit too heavy, too heartless, too grim.  It’s not totally out of place in the book, but it still feels a bit mean.

I’ll be revisiting Iain M. Banks and his Culture stories at some point.  I’m a little bummed, because I don’t find the blurb for the second novel to be interesting at all, but I’ll give it a go.  Banks was clearly a good author and I’m sure he’s told a good story in The Player of Games.  If you’re a fan of Science Fiction (Hard or Space Opera), definitely check out Consider Phlebas.  It’s good stuff.


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