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>Consider Phlebas

April 21, 2010

>Iain M. Banks creates worlds that are interestingly detailed and overwhelmingly cruel. I described the first novel I read by him, The Wasp Factory, as repulsive and creepy. The second one I’ve read, Consider Phlebas, is only that way in parts. Identified on the cover as “a Culture novel,” it’s the first of a space opera series centering on a civilization called the Culture that depends upon “machines without illusions which prided themselves on thinking the thinkable to its ultimate extremities.”

In this novel, there’s a war between the Culture and the Idirans, an almost-immortal race of believers. The protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, a changer who can mimic the appearance of others, is fighting on the side of the Idirans. His enemy Balveda, a Culture agent, has the upper hand at the beginning of the book, but that position is reversed with each new adventure.

The novel is exciting, full of interesting planets and creatures, fights to the death, space stations that explode, and spaceship drivers who take crazy chances, like Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid belt in Star Wars. Only imagine seeing Han’s adventures as he and Leia fall in love, finding out that Leia is pregnant, and then seeing her and Han die. That’s pretty much the story arc of this novel. I was so much on Horza’s side by the end that I couldn’t quite accept his death on the last page. I kept reading through the appendices…which is, I think, exactly the right thing to do.

From being immersed in the adventures of war, the appendices bring you through the years to the long view of what was achieved, and what has lasted. The seeming tragedy (from Horza’s point of view) of the Culture’s eventual victory in the war is revealed to be bigger than any one creature could make sense of, and the memory of the hero Horza, whose point of view has been lost, lives on in the infallible memory of the computer-like “mind” of a ship, thousands of years after his death.

Even more than that, the opening of the novel, in which Horza repeats what sounds like the opening of a children’s story (“The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking’s immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season”) even as he is about to meet the same fate as the villain of that story, is revealed to be more important than you might have thought, on first acquaintance.

The novel is well crafted in a way that continually makes readers think the next adventure will be one thing, but then leads them to examine bigger issues in the history of this imagined world. When Horza ends up on a kind of pirate spaceship, the Clear Air Turbulence, he has to fight to the death for his right to continue living, as the captain informs him “I’ve no place on this ship for somebody who hasn’t the taste for a little murder now and again.” But unlike the space pirates on Firefly, these pirates don’t have a complicated ethical take on their place in the universe, and they’re not the best shots in it, either. There’s a lot of turnover in crew, and they do leave crew members behind in life or death situations. At one point when Horza is left for dead and crash-lands on a desert island, he is captured by a group of cannibals and almost eaten alive by their leader after having seen it demonstrated:

“Fwi-Song was lifted and carried on the litter to just in front of the young man; he bared the blade-teeth, then leaned forward and with a quick, nodding motion, bit off one of Twenty-seventh’s toes.
Horza looked away.
In the next half-hour or so of leisurely paced eating, the enormous prophet nibbled at various bits of Twenty-seventh’s body, attacking the extremities and the few remaining fat deposits with his various sets of teeth. The young man gained fresh breath with each new site of butchery.”

As a changer, Horza is armed with poison in parts of his body, so when it’s his turn to be eaten, the eater gets his just desserts. And still, every time Horza wins a battle, he considers whether his ends justify his means, which is a kind of existential crisis for him as a member of a race engineered for pursuing warfare: “killing the immortal, changing to preserve, warring for peace…and embracing utterly what we claimed to have renounced completely, for our own good reasons.”

The cruelty, the death, even the extinction of Horza’s entire species are examples in this novel, of what war is, and what can be its effects on everyone and everything. It’s space opera because it’s big, and it’s loud and beautiful, and you’ll need a hankie by the end.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 2:58 pm

    >This sounds really good! I've read only Banks' non-SF stuff (love, love, love The Crow Road) but clearly should check out a Culture novel. Thanks!

  2. April 21, 2010 3:10 pm

    >Colleen, my friend Elizabeth (kittiesX3) has been urging Banks on me, but she hasn't mentioned The Crow Road specifically; it does look like a good novel.

  3. April 21, 2010 3:25 pm

    >Ha, I had this guy mixed up with Iain Pears, who writes a completely different type of book. In my defense I have never read anything by either of them…

  4. April 21, 2010 3:43 pm

    >I haven't read The Crow Road. I've read most of his mainstream fiction and all of his sci-fi fiction because I really do love his stories and the way he writes.I was nervous reading your review mostly because I knew The Wasp Factory didn't sit well with you. I hoped you would enjoy his sci-fi stuff so now if you will email me your address (because I misplaced it), I will send you Matter.

  5. April 21, 2010 4:07 pm

    >I haven't read any Banks. Like Jenny- I think I confuse him with Pears!This reminds me a bit of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell which I recently read. (Maybe because I have a very limited sci fi experience.) Have you read that?

  6. April 21, 2010 5:50 pm

    >I thought it was the spelling of the first name–Iain–that made me confuse him with Pears at first. But they are nothing alike! I really enjoyed Stone's Fall, speaking of Pears–although admit in my review that it took me a while to get interested in it.Aarti, I have read The Sparrow and loved it. I don't see too many similarities besides the cruelty, and Banks' universe, while no more responsive to cruelty, is ultimately less focused on its effects.Florinda (3Rs) recently got me interested in rereading The Sparrow, so I'll think more about this question then.

  7. April 21, 2010 5:58 pm

    >I think I've been confusing him with Iain Pears, too, which has had me very confused. Although I haven't read anything by either of them. Still.

  8. April 22, 2010 6:15 pm

    >I've never read his scifi- I read a suspense novel of his called COMPLICITY a long time ago- but he is mad brilliant. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. My husband is a big fan of his science fiction as well.

  9. April 23, 2010 1:30 pm

    >I want to try his sci-fi because I think it's more my thing than hiw other books, but after reading your cannibal quote I wonder if it's still too violent for me to enjoy. I know everyone's level of horror tolerance is different, but did you find that terrible images stuck in your head for ages after reading it?

  10. April 23, 2010 1:53 pm

    >Jodie, I quoted the worst part; I don't have much of a tolerance for horror myself.

  11. April 26, 2010 2:54 am

    >I think I heard once that his books under Iain Banks as versus his books under Iain M. Banks were quite different. I have his book Whit sitting here to read and am now scared to read it. LOL!

  12. April 26, 2010 12:54 pm

    >Kristen, I've not heard that about the M. I'm going to continue to read Banks and find out more!

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