Consider Phlebas

January 15, 2014
Iain M. Banks

The first book in Iain M. Banks' masterful series about the Culture, a high-tech, anarchist, gender egalitarian, sexually liberated, queer-positive, inclusive, transhumanist, hedonistic post-scarcity utopia where everybody has everything they want, ranging from designer living arrangements to on-demand genetic and surgical modification. Oh, and it's all run by Minds; artificial intelligences with intellectual prowess far above anything mere meat-brain primates can match. The Minds are a total inversion of the classic "AI overlord" trope: They're genuinely concerned with the well-being of the Culture citizens, regard their citizens not as means to an end but as an end in themselves, and handle the political and administrative duties in the Culture so humans won't need to trouble themselves with it. They, incidentally, happen to be much, much better at it than humans, too. Drudge work in the Culture is handled by nonsentient machines; even their sentient robots are full citizens with full civil rights.

Apart from short stories, this book was the first glimpse readers got into the universe inhabited by the Culture.

Unfortunately, it's also a rather mediocre story.

The POV character, Horza, is an enemy of the Culture. He despises it as a society run by machines, in which the living citizens are spoiled and pampered - but deprived of true meaning in their lives. Life, Horza argues, is a messy, chaotic affair, and the Culture - a society of absolute plenty, ruled by machines - leads to stagnation and is therefore fundamentally anti-life. And - while Banks himself is obviously partial to the Culture - this is not an entirely unreasonable view. The book tells the story of a particular misadventure during his involvement in the war between the Culture and the Idirans (a species of militaristic religious fanatics), where he fights as a mercenary on the Idiran side. He's a Changer; an artificially created species designed for work as spies - for which they have a number of very useful natural abilities, not the least of which is the ability to (given some time) perfectly assume the form of other humans. The misadventure itself pits Idiran and Culture agents against each other in a rush to recover a crashed Mind from a planet watched over by a near-omnipotent alien intelligence that even the Culture is afraid of.

However, I found the episodic and disjointed plot rather annoying; many side plots are opened without being properly closed, and the many episodes and incidents sometimes barely tie together. It reads more like a collection of (all good, mind you) short stories strung hastily together into a novel. I didn't like Horza - he came across as a surprisingly bland and one-dimensional character (an impressive feat for a shape-changing fanatic mercenary from a dying species), and I was annoyed by his large collection of special abilities that suddenly come into play when needed; his Changer biology often seemed like a rather lazy deus ex machina (although all his abilities are explained in-depth and well, when he uses them). In fact, the characters generally seemed entirely uninteresting - with the sole exception of the Culture drone Unaha-Closp, who I found the only really enjoyable character in the book.

Ultimately, the bland characterization and the disjointed narrative made it hard for me to care. I love the setting, the humour, the events themselves. But unfortunately, reading Consider Phlebas ended up feeling a bit like a chore. I finished it slightly over a year ago, and didn't return to the Culture universe until I decided to read the second book in that cycle (The Player of Games) recently.

Consider Phlebas is not a bad book by any means, and I still recommend reading it, if only because it's what started out the Culture cycle.

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