Orbit, 1987, 429 pages
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.
If you've been reading my reviews for a while, you know I tend to review space operas and say things like "I used to love space operas but now..." And yet I still read them. So I guess I still love them, or at least I can't quit them.
But most of them are so mediocre. I mean, you've got aliens, and spaceships, and there will be a war over something, and maybe a planet or two gets blown up...
So Iain M. Banks, who is actually Iain Banks, who only adds the "M" when he's writing science fiction, decided back in the 80s that he wanted to do space opera, but since he's a smart literary author he'd do a smart literary space opera.
Consider Phlebas is quite smart, and Banks writes very well, with none of the clunkers or cliches that lately have made me groan at traditional SF. I will also say that he presents males, females, and aliens and robots of indeterminate sexuality as occupying a more or less equal footing both in the story and in the civilizations in which they exist. No Big Deals are made of gender or sexuality.
This is also a big idea story and a space opera on a big scale. There are space fleets of thousands of ships, there are ring worlds and weapons that destroy stars, and civilizations thousands of years old who are the "major powers" in this part of the galaxy and yet they're ultimately small fry being watched with amusement by the really big, old civilizations of the galaxy.
The backdrop of the story is a war between The Culture, a post-scarcity super-communist civilization made up mostly of humans and their super-intelligent AIs who actually run things while pretending to serve, and the Idirans, three-legged saddle-headed chitinous giants who on the surface would appear to be your basic xenocidal warrior race of which no space opera can be lacking. As a culture and on an individual basis, Banks is smart enough to give the Idirans personality and individuality: they are the "bad guys," depending on your point of view, but that's like saying the Mongols or the Aztecs or the Persians were "bad guys" — they're a fully-realized society that is not devoid of internal factions, admirable qualities, and moral debates, and they only seem "bad" to the people they happen to be at war with. By their own lights, they are the good guys.
The main character is Horza Gobuchul, a "Changer" who is descended from human stock, though arguably a different species now. He can alter his body, slowly and with effort, so it's not like he's a Metamorphmagus, but he does have a few other biological tricks up his fingernails. Horza has joined the Idirans against The Culture; while the Idirans are nasty religious bigots, Horza does not like The Culture and their single-minded, peaceful expansion and absorption of all other cultures beneath the benevolent management of their Minds. The Idirans, to Horza's way of thinking, are more honest and more authentic, while The Culture is a sterile, passionless Borg of eternally-contented utopians. Horza in his own way is something of a bigot, as he demonstrates when he meets Unaha-Closp, a Culture drone who insists (loudly, annoyingly, and with a great deal of snark) that it is a thinking sentient being just like him and entitled to equal rights. Horza just keeps calling it "machine."
Horza, having joined the Idirans as a secret agent, finds himself constantly jumping from frying pan to fire throughout the book. The novel opens with him being dipped in shit (literally) and about to be drowned in it after he was caught by people The Culture is trying to woo to their side. This is where he meets Perosteck Balveda, a "Special Circumstances" Agent of the Culture ("Special Circumstances" being the sort of euphemism the Culture uses for people who have to go out and occasionally do underhanded and violent things). Horza and Balveda have a running antagonism throughout the book, each one in turn falling into the power of the other.
After several side trips involving giant ocean liners, ring worlds, a crazy and gruesome cannibal cult, a botched raid on a temple, and a macabre gambling game where the players use the actual lives of people they bring with them as stakes, Horza eventually finds himself the captain of a mercenary vessel, the Clear Air Turbulence, with a mission to go to a dead world and retrieve an escaped Culture Mind for the Idirans. After the way previous missions have ended in high body counts, it should be no surprise that this one goes pear-shaped as well.
Consider Phlebas has everything I should want in a space opera, and the last part of the book runs at a breakneck pace toward an action-packed climax with a very high major character body count. Parts of it reminded me of Star Wars, or a smarter more literary Star Wars. You've got a small band of argumentative heroes (and a sassy droid!) crawling around in a
So why didn't I love it? Well, no matter how well-written, it still just read as more of the same. There are a lot of Culture books which supposedly are mostly stand-alone, so I may try another to see if it was the story or the characters about whom I didn't care that just failed to hook me by the space opera lapels. It was a good book, a fine book, a book I would recommend for space opera fans. But it just failed to excite me.
Verdict: Smarter space opera for people who love space opera. If you like old-school SF with the big ships and space battles and aliens and robots as secondary characters, Consider Phlebas should fit the bill, and Iain M. Banks wins awards because he writes non-SF and he can write real good. But if you are not particularly fanboyish/girlish about space opera, this book probably won't win you over, because underneath that space opera exterior it's space opera through and through. This isn't a bold new revolution in SF, nor was it when it was first published; it's just a high-quality exemplar of its class, with tons of tension and pacing and careful, precise prose and nothing truly original or genre-shaking.
My complete list of book reviews.