Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Iain M. Banks - Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas was the first published Science Fiction novel of Iain M. Banks. The massive scale and thematically-conscious plotlines that mark Banks's style are both present here, but the novel is still a far less mature work than next year's Player of Games, and it is littered with structural and pacing problems.

The plot focuses on a war between the Culture and the militant and theocratic Idirans. Our viewpoint is actually an enemy of the Culture, a shifter agent named Bora Horza Gobuchul. He's sent to retrieve a Culture mind that was forced to crash land, but the Culture, too, is coming. And yet none of that takes up even close to a majority of the novel's page count. I've said before that Banks is more about the journey than the destination, but Consider Phlebas takes that to new, digressive levels. In his later novels, Banks is a master of structure – which is why it's so surprising to see the structural mess that this book is. The main plot is forgotten about for chapters on end while Horza falls in and out with mercenaries and gallivants around an unrelated Orbital.

Consider Phlebas tries to hold itself together with theme – Horza being exposed to various elements of both the Culture and the universe and their implications – but the themes aren't carried through. The text is built on the ideological struggle between the Culture's arrogant utopia and the rest of the world living as is, but the resolution is an inherently human one. The thematic elements aren't wrapped up, because there's no real way to handily do so and the side that Banks favors is obvious throughout. A character-focused resolution after so much attention to theme leaves the reader feeling like huge tracts of the book were bloat, simply getting between the opening and the ending so that Banks could play tour guide for a while longer. The book's ultimate conclusion is the difficulty of one man in making a difference, in the titanic, inevitable and perhaps irrelevant nature of war and grand change, but those elements are diluted by the book's other explorations and vica versa.

Shortly after joining Kraiklyn's "free company," Horza and the other mercenaries raid a temple to try and take the treasure. The firefight is tense, the twist unpredictable, and Banks builds the entire confrontation into an interesting metaphor for the war by the end of the subplot. But the whole thing is ultimately and utterly unnecessary. The raid has no effect on the book's overall plot. It's an inventive whim embarked upon and concluded without altering the book's main arc in any way shape or form. One or two such diversions are, of course, fine, but Consider Phlebas is practically constructed from them.

Some of the individual sections, too, are not as thematically persuasive as Banks no doubt intended them to be. There is a lengthy section where Horza is captive on a desert island staffed with religiously fervent cannibals, forcing Horza to confront the brutality that the Culture opposes. It's not a convincing section, however, because the cannibals are simply silly. They're pushed to such an extreme that they feel more like something that should be found in Gulliver's Travels, and comparing them to the brutality of some of the books other sections is beyond jarring.

When it comes to high octane, super sized plot, Banks still displays skill, though his abilities are, again, more scattershot here. There are several gripping action sequences in which Horza and other characters defy expectation again and again, but there are also several drawn out set pieces that don't feel nearly as exciting as one would hope, more ponderous than monolithic.

The characters are expected to give us continuity throughout the whole affair, but they, too, aren't a complete success. Horza is a sympathetic narrator, and credit must be given to Banks for allowing his views to feel just as convincing as the other sides. Horza's main opponent, Culture agent Perosteck Balveda, is also well done. She's not a particularly deep character, but her beliefs and travails humanize her. The rest of the cast is a far weaker. Horza's love interest matters to the reader because she matters to Horza, but she's never developed, and the rest of the crew is a list of names, some of which are given a characteristic to help us distinguish them, some not.

Banks' prose has never been flashy, but his writing in his later books is assured and descriptive, humorous and evocative. It's obvious here that he tries for some of the same heights, but for the most part his writing is simply there, neither a positive or negative. The main missing element is the humor that comes to so characterizes much of Banks' style later. Consider Phlebas isn't a dry book, but it does go for an unrelenting seriousness that leaves what levity there is muted and often hard to spot till it's dropping out of sight.

Consider Phlebas is an interesting book, but it's far from Banks' best and is plagued with odd decisions, lacks the stylistic and structural flair that defines much of Banks' catalog, and has several sections that simply do not work. Once you know something about the Culture, this book will give further depth to those ideas, but I'd not recommend starting here.


  1. I need to see what all the fuss is about with Banks. Have yet to read his stuff, but it sounds like my kind of thing.

  2. Minds are also important protagonists. That's why the Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/anarchy_in_a_world_of_machines/