Monday 27 January 2014

Consider Phlebas

(January 2014)

And so the Culture re-read begins. It’s got to have been at least a decade since I read the earlier ones and in going through this I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it I’d forgotten. Obviously certain key facts about the ending remain, which made it a slightly difference experience from the first time, but the actual details were happily and surprisingly fresh.

Relatively speaking at least, because now I’ve got a bit more mileage under my belt what’s striking about Consider Phlebas is just how traditional it is, at least in terms of overarching plot and structure. We have a generally reasonable but occasionally morally ambiguous protagonist who, albeit somewhat accidentally, assembles a motley crew of desperadoes to head off on one last Macguffin hunt. Oh there are twists and turns, but the action is pretty episodic and revolves around a series of discrete set-pieces. Banks’ Powers of description were* majestic and his imagination was awesome: the sheer scale of the GSV in the escape sequence and the subsequent destruction of the orbital are so breathtaking as to be worth the cover price almost on their own.

This is good, because some of the preceding sections (the island of the Eaters, the Damage game) come dangerously close to, whisper it, dragging. You get the distinct feeling that they could have been significantly reduced and it wouldn’t have impacted upon the story at all. And, conveniently enough, this is one of the key themes of the book: The Macguffin in question is a Culture Mind, the recovery of which is considered paramount by both the Culture and the Idirans (with whom the Culture are at war). And yet the Culture’s strategists admit that the rescue of the Mind would affect the outcome of a conflict predicted to last for decades by just a few months either way. If the Culture get it, they’ll win a little sooner, if they don’t it’ll take a wee bit longer. The absolute futility of war and individual actions is written through this book like ‘Welcome to Blackpool’ through a stick of rock.

It really picks up pace towards the end though, and remembering that the finale has a certain Hamlet-esque quality to it somehow only serves to heighten the tension as you plough through the last hundred or so pages, as the PoV switches between five or six PoV characters in increasingly rapid succession. You wish this skill with pacing had been evident from the start, really. But then this is an early book, and lots of now quintessentially Banksian touches are conspicuous by their absence, the most obvious of which is, sadly, the humour. God but this is a grim book. Even the drones are more whinging than comedic. I mean this is entirely in keeping with the themes of the book (the main one being that even the most heroic of individuals are utterly insignificant when measured on a galactic scale), but it doesn’t make it any easier to read.

Consider Phlebas has important things to say, and I can see how as a reaction to a cultural overdose of Big Damn Heroes it might have seemed particularly refreshing. However we’ve got grimdark oozing out of our (bloodied, filth-caked) ears right now and, more importantly, the things being said here aren’t said nearly as well as we all know Banks was capable of. This is definitely not the first book you’d recommend to people new to the Culture and I’m kind of glad that I’ve got it out of the way. Onwards and upwards.

*Past tense. Still doesn’t feel right.


  1. I've read them all at least twice except his last one that I haven't bought yet.

    Your opinion of Consider Phlebas is generally spot on. The humour and playfulness in his SF books varied as the Culture series went along. There was always a dark side to them at any rate.

    The Player of Games may be a better place to start, however lots of the books make mention of the Idiran War in the history of The Culture so Consider Phlebas ought to be read earlier rather than later.

    1. Yeah, doing this in order of publication, for no other reason than I'm an unimaginative sod. I think PoG is up next, though I'm really looking forward to Excession.

      You're right about the darker side, though I'd forgotten just how bleak this one was. There's a difference, I think.

  2. I really need to read the Culture series. I don't have any of it in my personal library, but it's a top priority for me to buy sometime in the future.

    1. Yeah, I think it deserves its reputation as a touchstone of the genre, but like RMIlner above, I also think I'd recommend against reading it as your first entry into the Culture. I'll be plodding through the whole series this year, so if you're in no hurry I should be able to offer a definite recommendation by, oh... October. I think ;)