I picked up Consider Phlebas after I got it recommended to me on a list of great sci-fi books that I saw on reddit. Shortly after I noticed it on the list, it came up as a special on the Kindle store, and I picked it up immediately. I had heard some good things about these books, and I was looking for a good fiction book after reading a lot of YA fiction in the last year or so. I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed.
Bora Horza Gobachul is the protagonist of this book, and a pretty good one as well. Set up as a Changer, the reader slips into the eyes of someone who can change their appearance pretty easily. Also, the book starts with action and stays there for a quite long while, not stopping for a breather until you’re well into the book.
Horza seems to jump from one predicament to the next, each being small enough to be bite-sized, but every one illuminating more about the characters that continue to reappear and we gain more insight into throughout the book. The first part introduces Horza and Balveda, which are parts of two opposing sides but both not completely entrenched into their beliefs too much. Unfortunately, Horza is being executed quite unpleasantly at the start.
Someone saves our hero though, and we’re thrown into the Culture-Iridan war. Consider Phlebas is part of a larger universe that Ian M. Banks has laid out in a number of books, with Phlebas being the first published, but not the first chronologically in the universe. The entire backdrop of most of the books revolves around the Culture, which is a set of humans who have put a bunch of their faith into sentient machines. This of course has made them very technologically advanced, and make some very large ships and stations.
The Culture is really a quite deep society, and we really only scratch the surface of it in this book, seeing it as we do throughout the eyes of the adventurers that we look into. Horza is opposed to them on philosophical grounds, which I find refreshing. There aren’t a lot of really cut and dry villains and heroes in this book, or in the larger universe in general, and that gives a realistic bent to the writing which I really like. I can see upsides to both of the sides of this battle, or rather, I can see the reasons that people would be for or against the Culture as a concept.
Technology isn’t really fawned over in Phlebas that much, with Banks opting to take us on a roller-coaster ride through a bunch of tough situations. Horza doesn’t really get his footing until about two-thirds through the book, jumping from one seemingly untenable situation to another for a while. Through all of these situations, we start learning bit by bit about the technology that makes up the daily lives of the people in whatever universe that we are peeping into, from the Anti-Gravity to the Warp drives, and even peeking into mysterious sub-ethers of the grid without really explaining it.
Some would consider this meandering start to be a downside, but I really enjoyed it for the most part. Horza ends up being picked up by what could only be called a band of adventurers, really more like con-men or thieves. It has a somewhat Firefly vibe to it, which doesn’t do it bad in my eyes. Not everyone gets along, and lots of things go wrong in the little missions that they head out on, just like you would expect. Unfortunately, Banks’s universe which can be somewhat forgiving to, for example, being executed or wounded, can be particularly harsh as well, and many of the characters don’t survive through some of the missions.
There are a lot of really great scenes here, but eventually everything gets settled down and the main plot, which has been started and was somewhat kept going through little interludes throughout the book where the first-person perspective changes to other characters briefly, starts taking over. The final third of the book really shows how gritty and harsh reality can be in the world.
Overall, I really enjoyed diving into the Culture and liked the way that Banks took us through, introducing things in a way which wasn’t overwhelming but also made it very certain that we are sure that there is a lot of depth that we don’t really see, things that have been thought out. While some could argue that there are stories at the beginning of the book which could have been left out completely with no story changes, I think that they just serve to make our entry into this complex situation that much less of a brain-dump. I rate it a A-, only because of those criticisms, which are founded. I will be looking for another of the Culture books, and probably reading them just as quickly as this one.