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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
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Book Name: Consider Phlebas
Author: Iain M. Banks
Publisher(s): Macmillan
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Space Opera
Release Date: 1987

If ever there was a case to be made for not judging a book by its cover, this is it. The cover sat before me shows the face of a planet in hues of blue. The only thing it’s safe for you to deduce is that the novel is set in space. To be honest, was this book not recommended to me, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second look. The title also does nothing to give the game away. Phlebas? What on earth is a phlebas? I still don’t know, though research suggests it, along with other titles from Banks, comes from the 434-line poem by T S Eliot, The Waste Land.

Consider Phlebas is the first book in The Culture series, featuring a race called, yep, the Culture; artificial intelligence. It’s one of several we’re introduced to, thoroughly planned and successfully created by Banks, within Consider Phlebas. It would of course have been far too easy to create just one race, but we’re treated to a menagerie of different lifeforms, roaming the very wide and seemingly unending galaxy.

Occurring in the midst of the Idiran-Culture war, the pace of the book is immediately set when we’re dropped at the end of protagonist Horza’s failed infiltration behind enemy lines. Horza is from the Changer race, a bipedal human-like form that can alter their appearance. Aligned with the Idirans because he disapproves of the Culture’s non-spiritual way of life, he’s quickly rescued as the Idirans have a task for him.

Forming part of the Culture, Minds are a super intelligent sub-race. One of these flees a ship as it self-destructs and becomes a refugee hidden on Schar’s World. Knowing that Horza has been allowed on Schar’s World before, the Idirans use this to their advantage and hope that he will stand a unique chance of being able to retrieve the Mind for them.

Consider Phlebas follows Horza as he manipulates his situations in a way that only a Changer could, weighing up the pros and cons of various relationships with those he meets, measured by how they can help progress his journey. He finds himself reflecting on a past relationship with a fellow Changer on Schar’s World and, like so many of us, appears to forget the details that led to the breakdown of the relationship in the first place. He finds himself guiltily torn between pursuing a new relationship with crew-mate Yalson, and thoughts of re-kindling a romance with his fellow Changer, adding further to the space opera element.

Horza wheedles his way out of various tricky situations which, in some cases, are life or death, tirelessly and stoically pushing forward with his goal. Eventually, he reaches Schar’s World and faces the final hurdles in retrieving the Mind.

One of the final scenes in the book details Horza’s party closing in on the rogue Mind. Banks cleverly uses distinct paragraphs of varying lengths set from different viewpoints to build tension and pace, escalating towards the dramatic events that unfold. Getting those different viewpoints creates awareness that something big is going to happen, and each new paragraph from the switched voice adds to it. I was well and truly captivated right up to the very last sentence, which left me mentally screaming. It’s been a very long time since I’d had such a reaction to an ending of a book. It knocked me off my feet. The buildup and the climax was unexpected but rewarding.

*Spoilers*

On reflection, after the reaction to the final sentence had passed, I noticed the key assumptions and stereotypes applied by Horza that had changed in the final chapter. His allegiance to the Idirans, setting him against the drone Unaha-Closp and Special Circumstances agent Balveda who he ends up travelling with, could have been his downfall. Both had been in positions where they could have assisted in his demise. Contrary to Horza’s beliefs, both actually act in the opposite manner to how their characters are portrayed through him, and both attempt to help, not hinder, him. Sadly, the weight of this revelation is lost on Horza, who’s left without the time to draw the same conclusions.

*End Spoilers*

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that they had snapped up the rights for a series based on Consider Phlebas. I’ll be progressing through the rest of the series, waiting nervously to see how well the adaptation fares in the hands of Amazon.

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3 Comments

  1. kevin gaughan says:

    Banks was a superb writer and I adore all of the Culture series but new readers should be warned that Banks put some really nasty twisted stuff into just about every book he wrote. I came to Phlebas shortly after reading the Wasp Factory so I was prepared going in but even so the Cannibal Island scene was the stuff of nightmares.

  2. graham says:

    I read this a year or two ago and really enjoyed it. The only irksome part was it felt vaguely forced and episodic, which though I thought it spoiled the flow of the book, it may well stand it in good stead for the streaming series.
    Yes, the cannibal Island is a bit awkward as it comes out of nowhere really.

  3. Nowhere near the best of the Culture novels, but a decent book. He got much better, and by the time it gets to books like Excession, it’s unsurpassable, IMO.

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