09 May, 2011

Review: Consider Phlebas, by Iain [M] Banks

Consider Phlebas [US][UK] is the first installment in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. The book is set in a far distant future amid a conflict between two advanced races, namely the Culture and the Idrians. The former is a post-scarcity galaxy spanning civilization in which humans and sentient AIs, or Minds, coexist. This is Space Opera at its finest ladies and gentlemen, so buckle down and enjoy.

The Culture is a meddling civilization. It interferes in the development of others to steer them on the ‘right’ path. Far from being a moral imperative, the Culture’s interference is based principally on statistical analyses of other civilizations development. If you do X, there is a 97% probability that your society will destroy yourself within the next thousand years. That kind of thing.

The humanoids and Minds that belong to that branch of the Culture responsible for contact with developmentally challenged civilizations are creatively named Contact. Within Contact there is a highly secretive group called Special Circumstances. Feared and revered, they are the sharp edge of the sword when it comes to civilization ‘meddling’.

With all that background now behind us, let us delve into Consider Phlebas in all of its glorious detail. Our protagonist is a Changer, a species able to completely change itself to mimic others. Hired by the Idrians to impersonate a high ranking government official on a target world, the novel opens with Bora Horza Gobuchol, our protagonist, dying a slow and humiliating death.

The manner of his death requires a little explanation as it most assuredly ranks in the top 10 sci-fi deaths in terms of creativity. Horza is tied, standing up, in a small room in the basement of the royal palace. A room slowly filling with water that, wait for it, comes from flushed toilets throughout the building. Yep, death by royal sewage. Good times.

Horza is rescued at the last minute by his Idrian handler for a very special mission. A Culture Mind has crashed on a planet guarded by a post-physical being that allows none but a select few onto the planet. Since the Changers, of which Horza is one, are allowed an outpost on the planet, it is thought the he might be able to capture the mind and bring it back to the Idrians.

Much adventure ensues, which I will not spoil for you. But, before I leave you to run to the bookstore, a few more general thoughts on the novel and the Culture series as a whole.

First, Mr. Banks goes to great lengths to get the details right. From descriptions of new cultures to hyper advanced technology, the reader is allowed to suspend disbelief with such mastery that even Space Opera virgins will be sucked into the narrative, never to return. But there is bleakness and sadness in the Culture universe, which serves to temper the limitlessness of possibility in a hyper-advanced post-scarcity universe.

To delve a little deeper, what I mean, and what I think Mr. Banks was trying to convey, is that our flawed humanity will forever be a part of us. And while technology can serve to temper and moderate, it simultaneously accentuates and encourages our darker temperaments.

All in all a stunning debut to a truly memorable series.

This review is brought to you by me, as part of my ongoing (re)read of the Culture novels


David North said...

Very nice synopsis. I just began reading it and it is truly one of the "great" scifi universes to be created in a story.

Excellent writing by the author and a really interesting story.

Thanks much for "no spoilers" here and I highly recommend this if you are looking for a great book to read.

Upcoming4.me said...

Brilliant series!
New Culture novel has just been announced!

New Iain Banks Culture novel coming out Upcoming4.me