Review of “Consider Phlebas”, by Ian M. Banks

•March 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Consider Phlebas

I discovered Ian M. Banks entirely by accident, in the library, while seeking an L.A. Banks book for my wife. I saw the library’s “Sci Fi” sticker on the binding… and then the cover intrigued me. (Don’t judge a book by its cover, you say… but I do. You can tell a lot about a novel, perhaps especially a genre novel, by the choice of cover art.) I read a page or two, and was still intrigued.

I am glad I read that book, “Matter” – it introduced me to a SF writer unlike any other. He has more mastery of story and more elegance of prose than any other SF writer I can think of. He has a wonderful flair for pulling you into a story in which many of the important elements are hidden from you, in which the story’s universe itself is a mystery, and unveiling pieces of the mystery bit by bit. His books are incredibly well <i>constructed</i>.

It happens that “Matter” is Ian M. Banks’ latest book, so I started at the end of his series of Culture novels, and have been haphazardly working my way backwards: “Excession”, “Use of Weapons”. I decided finally that I should start at the beginning: Banks’ first Culture novel, “Consider Phlebas”.

The Culture novels are not a series, per se: Banks has written books that can stand entirely alone, though they live in a common universe. It is not necessary to read “Consider Phlebas” to understand his later books. I found that this book added only a small amount to my understanding of the universe in which Banks’ Culture novels are set. The same themes exist, though they feel less urgent, less sharp, than in his later books. I would not necessarily recommend this book to the general SF reader: his later books are better constructed, more layered and nuanced, and mostly do away with the over-long, somewhat pointless action sequences that pepper this book. And yet… as a fan of the Culture novels, I am glad I read it.

Banks has a vast and detailed imagination, appropriate to a writer of “space opera”. However, I find him to be different from other writers of space opera: his writing has more “class”, he seems to be trying less hard to impress the reader with his imagined universe, he creates a vivid and otherworldly setting in a way that seems surprisingly natural or organic. Perhaps it is that he keeps everything grounded in characters who are entirely believable, which therefore lends a sense of familiarity to the unfamiliar. Perhaps it is also that he does not focus overmuch on technical gadgetry, and that parts of the stories always seem to take place in environments that seem more like something out of our past than our future.

Bank’s central theme here – as in his other Culture novels – seems to be war: its brutality, its inevitability, its central role in history. War as a result of something basic to humans (and to the other species that populate his universe). In reading his books, you get to see war from many perspectives: from a distance, as a historical necessity or curiosity; at scales so enormous, it is impossible to process; and very close up, as it affects characters you care about. Against this, he sets the Culture: a civilization that has managed to grow beyond war, beyond poverty or need, beyond money. A civilization of live-and-let-live hedonists with an unimaginable array of life choices: they can change gender (and change back), they can live for hundreds of years, they can live as a shrub for a while if they like. And yet, for all this power… they show restraint just where it is most important. How do they do this? How do they manage to take what is best of being human, and dispense with the worst? The answer, at least in large part, seems to be their reliance on machine minds, artificial intelligences so vast that they are no mere “AIs”. They are called “Minds”, and they enjoy equality as sentient beings within the Culture. More than that, they in fact appear to do most of the important assessment and decision-making that guides the Culture. In Banks’ universe, the secret to making a society that is not vicious, judgmental, and war-mongering is to cede a large amount of power to machines…

In “Consider Phlebas”, these ideas are less clear than in his later novels. One might almost be forgiven for missing them altogether. The book is less focused, less constructed and seems to waste a lot of time on prolonged battle scenes that could have been left out altogether without affecting the story. Also, this book is much more linear than his later books: each chapter follows from where the previous chapter left off. In his later books, the chapters tend to keep jumping from one set of characters to another, even from one time frame to another. This can be disconcerting and challenging, but it is also very involving, and it always has a purpose. What that purpose is, you may not discover for a long time – but I have found that this construction of his books is part of what drives me forward through them: I am curious to understand how all these disparate pieces fit together. “Consider Phlebas” lacks this kind of construction or challenge; having read his later books, I found this disappointing.

“Consider Phlebas” also spends much less time in the Culture than his later books, and the one key Culture character in this novel is not that interesting. I found that I wanted more time with Culture characters, and less time with the somewhat unlikeable main character of this story.

Banks creates vivid and believable and diverse characters, and sets them in a fascinating and detailed universe. He explores themes that I find fascinating. He does these things well in “Consider Phlebas”; but he does it better in later novels. In addition, his later novels add greater fleshing-out of Culture characters, a better focus on story and theme, and more sophistication and challenge in their construction.

“Consider Phlebas” showcases the considerable talents of a writer who had not yet grown into full possession of his powers. Any fan of SF deserves to know about Ian M. Banks, but they won’t miss much by skipping his debut Culture novel. He seems to get better and better with each novel.