Cannonball Read IV: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.-T.S. Elliot
Part action packed space opera and part philosophical treatise on the pointlessness of war, Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a hell of a good book. I tend to stay away from so called “hard” science fiction novels because I find them impenetrable. I’ve tried reading Dune and ended up giving up after the first 50 pages. Same goes for Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series. I really like Simmons’ other non sci-fi books, but I was unable to get more than a couple of chapters in to Hyperion. I have the same problem with most fantasy novels. I can get behind a certain amount of made up terminology and bizarre names but when it is paragraph after paragraph of techno babble and unpronounceable words I just give up. What I found most refreshing about Consider Phlebas is that Banks creates a unique and well described universe for the novel without forcing the reader to consult a terms list in the back of the book every 30 seconds.
Consider Phlebas is the first of Banks’ long running “Culture” series. I bought it on a whim for my Kindle when it was priced at $0.99 for a special promotion celebrating Banks’ newest Culture novel, Surface Details. I’m glad I took the gamble, because I’m planning to continue reading the series.
Bora Horza Gobuchul (Horza for short) has not been having a good week. After narrowly escaping execution for espionage he has now been given the task of retrieving a super powerful Mind from the dead planet Schar’s World. En route to the planet his vessel is attacked and Horza is left floating in space. Luckily, he is picked up by the mercenary ship Clear Air Turbulence and after a brief get-to-know-you interview that requires Horza to kill one of the crew in hand to hand combat, Horza joins the crew and immediately begins making plans to take over the ship.
Horza is a Changer, a near extinct race of humans that are able to take the form of other humans. He is armed with venomous teeth, and poisonous nails and the ability to turn off pain signals. This is not a guy you want on your bad side. Horza has been working for the Indirans, a religious warrior race of 8 foot tall armored aliens, in their ongoing war against the Culture. The Culture is basically a collective of human worlds that depends on machines to take care of anything unpleasant in their life so they can concentrate on fulfilling whatever their hedonistic little hearts desire. The Mind that Horza is tasked with recovering is the core of a destroyed Culture ship. If the Indirans can recover it before the Culture, they may be able to extract information from it to help with the war effort.
The best way to describe Consider Phlebas is it takes Firefly, Mass Effect, the works of Isaac Asimov, and Star Wars and shake them all up. It is a tremendously entertaining novel that moves from one action sequence to the next as Horza pushes to overcome setback after setback in his race to recover the Mind. Interspersed with the action are chapters that almost function as interludes. These chapters switch the perspective to a human Culture operative named Fal N’Geestra. Fal is in charge of planning the Culture operation to recover the mind and hinder Horza in his pursuit of it. She is deeply philosophical and her chapters are filled with ruminations on the point of war as well as the Culture’s place in the universe. It is these chapters that take Consider Phlebas outside of the realm of space opera and into something more thoughtful. These contemplative chapters seem to be at odds with the rest of the novel until the epilogue. It is a sobering ending that seems to be asking the reader directly, “After everything that happened was it worth it?”
Consider Phlebas is a gritty, moving, violent and, in one incredibly memorable chapter, horrifying novel that is never boring and always wildly inventive. It is a very fast paced story that unfolds like the best blockbuster science fiction story not yet filmed. If, like me, you are put off by dense impenetrable science fiction, I think you will be very surprised by just how quickly you will be 100% on board for the ride in Consider Phlebas.
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