Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (1988) 471 p.

I began Banks’ famous Culture series with Look To Windward, about six months ago, and while it wasn’t a fantastic book it was promising enough for me to want to try the rest of the series. Consider Phlebas is the first Culture novel, so I thought I’d start here.

My biggest complaints about Look To Windward were that it felt more like a loose collection of ideas than a tight story, and Consider Phlebas is fortunately better on that front. The novel takes place during a war between the Culture (a post-scarcity utopia controlled by benevolent AIs) and the Idirans (a theocratic military race), but the protagonist is neither of these, instead being a mercenary named Horza who has aligned himself with the Idirans. Horza is also a Changer, a humanoid with the ability to transform his body to perfectly mimic specific people.

The novel revolves around a Mind, one of the Culture’s artificial intelligences, escaping an interstellar firefight by taking refuge in a Planet of the Dead, a deserted world officially off-limits to both sides of the war. Horza is dispatched to capture the Mind, and along the way falls in with a rag-tag group of pirates and mercenaries aboard a ship called the Clear Air Turbulence (which I remembered from Philip Reeve’s novel Predator’s Gold, but that’s from 2002, so the homage was Reeve’s).

Consider Phlebas is therefore a rollicking action-adventure space opera, not an exceptional one. Like Look To Windward, it feels somewhat disjointed, the characterisation is lacking and Banks’ prose is still excessively bloated and florid. His dialogue often feels stilted, and although he loves to put action scenes in, he’s terrible at writing them – waffling on about details rather than making them short and sharp, to capture the moment. (This was most notable when the Clear Air Turbulence flees from an orbital ring.) The climax in particular is excruciatingly slow and tedious, with an elaborate set-piece in an underground train system and lots of dull examinations of the final thoughts of dying characters whom we’ve only just been introduced to and therefore don’t care about.

Having said all that, I did enjoy this book and appreciate it for the light space opera it was. It’s quite readable, at least up until the climax, and I did enjoy it slightly more than Look To Windward. And it is, after all, the very first novel in the series and can’t be expected to be the best. General opinion seems to be that the best book in the Culture series is Player of Games, which, fortunately, is the next in line.

Consider Phlebas at The Book Depository