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Consider Phlebas (Culture) Paperback – March 26, 2008
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From Library Journal
In the midst of a war between two galactic empires, a shapechanging agent of the Iridans undertakes a clandestine mission to a forbidden planet in search of an intelligent, fugitive machine whose actions could alter the course of the conflict. Banks ( Walking on Glass ) demonstrates a talent for suspense in a new wave sf novel that should appeal to fans of space adventure. For large sf collections. JC
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
Poetic, humourous, baffling, terrifying, sexy - the books of Iain M. Banks are all these things and more * NME * There is now no British SF writer to whose work I look forward with greater keenness * THE TIMES * Banks is a phenomenon: the wildly successful, fearlessly creative author of brilliant and disturbing non-genre novels, he's equally at home writing pure science fiction of a perculiarly gnarly energy and elegance * William Gibson * --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.
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Let's start with The Culture: Extremely advanced utopian conglomeration of pan-humans, aliens, and machines enjoying all life has to offer facilitated by the most advanced AI's in the galaxy. There's many goings-on.
Consider Phlebas is the first of the Culture series, and I feel the most experimental. Banks shows us the peace-loving Culture at what they subsequently consider the worst part of their history, during a galactic war with aliens who are bent on domination. This book shows you the Culture through the eyes of an outsider, which is why this review is titled "An appetizer..." as the Culture is much broader than is stated in this novel. The main character has their own agenda and doesn't like the Culture very much. This causes some friction.
This book is not the best one of the series in my opinion, however it gives you an introduction to the Culture and the events which shape discussion throughout the rest of the series. There's many interesting plot points and situations that the main character gets into, of different varieties. One feature I appreciated about this book, is how it takes place in the far future, however does not alienate the reader with unexplained strange terms or technologies. In addition, people still behave like people, have human thought-processes, and are relatable. This is not to say there isn't unique, interesting, and enjoyable strangeness. Some will tell you to skip this book, or start with another. I'd say read them in published order for an interesting experience. Before beginning this series, I had no idea what to expect, however the rave reviews from fellow Sci-Fi fans brought a copy to my door, and led to reading all 10 books in succession (or Excession??).
Next up is the second book, "The Player of Games" which really starts getting into the Culture, its wonders, and a smaller than galactic-scale but still interestingly thorny issue.
After a brief prologue, we were immediately introduced to the main character, an alien agent who finds himself in a very sticky situation, and his Culture nemesis. Through a James Bond like series of events, the agent escapes and a galactic scale quest began. So far, so good - a likable character set into a series of adventures in the line of duty that put him in far flung, exotic locations with interesting companions and mysterious enemies. This promised to be an entertaining story. But as the story moved forward, the situations became more and more improbable and the solutions became more and more ludicrous. Instead of having a well considered plan of action, our main character, (who I was never quite sure was the actual hero of the book) seemed to blunder from one situation to the next, relying on guile, brute force or sheer dumb luck. Even more perplexing was the notion that his band of galaxy-wise compatriots - thrown in with him mostly by trickery and happenstance - would bow to or continue to follow his leadership.
The environments that Banks created were diverse and fascinating; from intergalactic war ships to luxury ocean cruisers, a massive man-made ring world complete with tropical islands and mini-continent sized icebergs, to an isolated icy world where the mission ultimately led. The backdrop for the story is a massive galaxy wide war in which it was difficult to decide who the good guys really were. The characters ranged from highly partisan to fiercely neutral, which makes for some interesting dynamics. Despite some flaws and the overall randomness, the story was well paced and never less than entertaining - though sometimes in a train wreck sort of way.
While I was expecting a hard science fiction tome - with the density, depth and complexity of a John Le Carre novel, the actual story was more of an Indiana Jones in deep space. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I enjoyed the book for what it was and I'll look forward to reading more of Banks' Culture novels.
“Hmm,” Xoxarle rumbled. “Their name...” The Idiran pondered. “...I believe they were called the...the Fanch.”
“Never heard of them,” Aviger said.
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Xoxarle purred. “We annihilated them.***
My favourite of the Culture novels, Consider Phlebas is a standalone novel requiring nothing but an inquiring mind and a taste for the weird.
A great war has erupted between two ideologically opposed civilizations - but our concern is with the mission of a shapeshifting humanoid and a fanatical soldier both attempting to acquire a stranded AI on an off-limits planet.
What I enjoyed about Consider Phlebas was the interplay of opposing ideologies, the shifting scenes of conflict, the clever dialogue and plotting (from the opening rescue scene to the main characters' final confrontation)
Don't miss the bittersweet melancholic epilogue!