The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction - cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender. Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.
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I don't know why I'd never heard of Banks or the Culture before. After finally discovering and consuming what little of the series we've got on offer here at Audible, I've started to see references to it everywhere. Go figure. But if you, like me, are into the kind of science fiction that rewards a thinking and speculative approach, then you'd do well not to let this series pass you by. Iain is deathlessly funny in the blackest of black ways, and the narrator's quick and cunning reading really highlights the flippantly grim nature of the galaxy in which the Culture thrives--seriously, tried listening to some other Culture books with another narrator who tried this whole somber style, really didn't work out.
Consider Phlebas is the story of a war between the hyperliberal semi-transcendental post-human Culture civilization, the quintessential 'good guys' of a near-endpoint technological civilization, and a race of near-immortal warrior-poet types spreading their religion to the galaxy. Yeah, yeah, it sounds preachy, but it ain't. Through three or four intertwined narratives (the Culture books almost always do that Charles Stross thing where stories with unclear connections come together to a harmonious narrative), we get to know the civilizations we're looking into and watch as they breach the territory of a genuinely transcendent godlike mega-species, the Culture to rescue one of its own artificial intelligences, their enemies to capture that same mind for the technology it will offer them. But the plot, elegant though it is, isn't even the best part; it's the beautifully flowering exposition of the society of the galaxy, which Banks pulls off with an impossible grace. You'll wanna go there.
I've listened to two other Iain M Banks novels, Player of Games and Surface Detail, and had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to them. But given his popularity in the SF community and his recent tragic death, I figured I'd give him another try -- maybe I just hadn't picked the right books?
Consider Phlebas is the first entry in the Culture series, so it seemed like a sensible place to go next. And, indeed, reading it gave me a better handle on Banks's vision, which I think is what really attracts people to his Culture books. Here, we get a galaxy that's partly under the sway of The Culture, a giant liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy of a society in which benevolent machine overseers ensure freedom, tolerance, and material well-being for all. However, the Culture is being encroached on by the Idirans, a religious warrior species that rejects what they regard as its empty machine dependence.
The hero of this story, interestingly, is Horza, a man with shape-changing abilities who works as an agent for the Idirans. He does so less out of conviction in their theology, and more out of a sense that life in the Culture is a dead-end state, a pleasant but ultimately hollow existence. Thematically speaking, it's worthwhile stuff.
Banks's storytelling, however, is frustratingly undisciplined. The characters, including Horza, are thinly developed, deriving about as much personality from Peter Kenny's multi-accented audiobook narration as from the actual writing. The plot's ostensibly about a race to retrieve a lost Culture Mind from a dead world, but after a dramatic opening, it wanders off into an aimless, somewhat implausible middle section that seems to be an excuse for battles and set pieces that don't go anywhere and one gross-out scene. At times, I could see where Banks's reputation as a "smart" author comes from; other times, the experience was more like reading a space adventure made up by an imaginative twelve-year-old boy.
Not that these issues necessarily lead me to steer all readers away. He did have a knack for cinematic imagery, inventive machines, sizzling firefights, and things happening on a huge scale. I enjoyed his dark sensibilities, the idea that war, conflict, and predation are a nasty business, not a light-hearted adventure. The final chapters contain a suspenseful confrontation in underground tunnels and an ending whose ambivalence I liked.
In all honesty, I'm not sure that I could recommend this novel to anyone new to Banks, given how half-cooked its execution is. Yet, for those looking to dig deeper into his works, it's definitely of value for putting his Culture universe into perspective, being the book that first set it up. Its rawness is a good counterpoint to his more polished later works.