After perusing some reviews of Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks I'm glad that I went into the book with an open mind and no expectations. Many people are polarized in their opinion of Banks and this book, and I feel that is unfair. It was an incredibly fun book and I enjoyed reading it.
Consider Phlebas is a book written in Banks' Culture universe, where the Culture society is dominated by a blend of organic and machine life. They are at war with a race called the Idirans who hold a fervent religious belief and proselytize by force. At the beginning a Culture warship, led by the advanced AI called the Mind, escapes to one of the dead worlds of the universe in fantastic fashion.
In the meantime, an agent of the Idirans, named Horza, with the ability to change his body at will is tasked with chasing down this Mind. Following an ambush by the Culture he finds himself with a motley crew of mercenaries. Through little choice of his own he is forced to kill and trick his way to the top so he can achieve his mission.
Banks has created an interesting world and placed an action packed fast moving story in the middle of this world. I would hesitate to say this world is very deep, but I haven't read any of the other Culture books also. Suffice it to say, its a pretty simple world. On one side are the machine loving Culture, the other has life worshipping and aggressive Idirans.
It's this lack of depth that has caused so much dissatisfaction with Banks' work. I think people were looking for something deeper like a Heinlein or Asimov (and it doesn't help that a lot of book jackets and the like compare Banks to such luminaries). At the end of the day this book wasn't very deep, but it didn't bother me.
It's a fun book, some of the parts were a bit grotesque (a bizarre feeding ritual comes to mind), but it was entertaining throughout. The action came fast and was intense, but it kept me entertained through to the last page.
The characters all had decent personalities, and I came to care for them as I read more of their exploits. Even characters I didn't like at first started to grow on me (the main character Horza, for example). I wasn't moved to tears by them, but I didn't hate them either.
As I've said, this is the only Culture book that I have read, so I'm hoping that it becomes deeper as the books go on. That being said, there is plenty to work with in a war between, essentially, technology vs. religion. Frankly, I'm more than willing to read more Culture books in the future, and if that isn't a good enough endorsement, I don't know what is.
This book is the sort of book you just read for fun. Don't try and take it too seriously. If you don't I imagine you will come away satisfied with the outcome.
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About the reviewer
Ian Peterson (scifireader)
I write a Science Fiction culture blog called SciFiReaders.
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.