Published by Orbit
When Iain Banks added an “M.” to his name and published Consider Phlebas back in 1987, few could have guessed that one of the longest running, most popular, and critically acclaimed Science Fiction/Space Opera sagas was being launched – The Culture. It is a Utopic society in many ways, with oversight by highly advanced Artificial Intelligences known as Minds and the books in the series cover hundreds of years. The plot of Consider Phlebas centers on the search and recovery of a damaged Mind on a Planet of the Dead (a Forbidden planet to both the Culture and the Idirans) at the during the years-spanning Idiran-Culture War.
Although this novel is set within a very wide galactic milieu, one of the first things that comes to light is how much this novel can be considered a character journey. For all the grandeur of space opera, Banks uses a very familiar plot – the heist. Our point character through the majority of the novel is the Changer Bora Horza Gobuchul, referred to as Horza through most scenes. As the name implies, Horza can alter his appearance and essentially his whole physical identity and is also something of a mercenary. Horza is something of an antihero, not really caring about hurting people or much of anything except himself and his mission. Horza’s is tasked by his Idirian Empire employers with trying to find a Culture Mind, an entity which is seen as an abomination by the religiously fanatical Idirans.
Once Horza is on his way, he falls in with a rag-tag group of space pirates led by Kraiklyn who then gets the ship, Clear Air Turbulence or CAT caught in a disastrous gun fight and crash lands on a planet in a vast ocean. This is just the first of many mini-adventures on which Horza finds himself in his quest to get to the Mind on the Planet of the Dead.
With the heist plot and the space pirates, you’ve got some very fast moving scenes that hop through different parts of the galaxy showing how diverse the universe of The Culture truly is. Things go from bad to worse as Horza is separated from most of the crew and taken captive by a cannibalistic tribe after crashing, who prop him up as a divine piece of food for their leader. In these scenes, Banks’s rather black sense of humor shows very well and throws a nice bit of wackiness into the story and universe he is laying out.
Other touches, such as the lesser artificial intelligences – deadpan droids, further add to the enjoyment of the story. Damage – a card game with the highest stakes of all, life. The massively gigantic space ships, the Minds themselves and the hints that Consider Plebas is set in one small era of a larger story. Granted, that is easy to say now nearly two decades later with a total of eight Culture novels to his name, but the little touches I’ve mentioned really show you that Banks has something big going on in this universe.
Consider Phlebas is a terrific novel, a great opening novel to a larger series and most importantly a very engaging and page-turning read. Orbit US re-realeased the first three Culture books in support of Matter, the eight Culture novel last year (2008), let’s hope they continue to roll out the remaining books. Anybody feeling a bit of a let down now that Battlestar Galactica has concluded its television run or fans of Joss Whedon’s Serenity/Firefly would be more than well served to pick up this book. Regardless, Consider Phlebas is highly recommended.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford