Consider Phlebas is the first novel in Iain M. Banks’s highly-regarded “Culture” series. I’ve been meaning to jump into these books for a while but when you look at them all stacked up next to each other the book store, all those thousands of pages, it can be daunting. Banks is known not only for his science fiction but for some edgy-but-mainstream books (which he differentiates by going as Iain Banks, without the middle initial), and the writing here is at a high level. This is definitely not a case of a “literary” writer slumming in sci-fi and just throwing a few spaceships and alien planets into the mix. There are sections that seem less adeptly written than others, which makes sense given that this is an earlier work by Banks re-written into publishable form after his first novel was released. Most of the book exhibits the confidence and polish of Bank’s more recent work, and overall the story keeps the reader swept along.
The story has quite a bit of action and violence, and covers a very broad swath of space. In the “Culture” series, at least at the beginning, there’s a war between The Culture (a very advanced race, or collective of races, who rely on powerful artificial minds to make live in the Culture one of utopic leisure) and the Idirans, which are a strange race of very large, shell-covered, three-legged beings who don’t age (but can be killed). The war arose due to the Idirans expansion or empire-building (driven by religious fanatacism), which the Culture determined to stop. Banks leaves no question which side he considers morally justified, and his dislike for religion comes through pretty clearly as well. Interestingly, though, the main character (a member of a shape-changing race) is actually working for the Idirans on an agent in their efforts against the Culture.
The novel has a few flat spots, and there were times I set it down and didn’t pick it back up for several weeks. Overall, though, the story’s world is compelling and its scope is truly impressive. I look forward to taking the next several steps in this series, especially as I understand the second Culture book, Use of Weapons, to be considered the best installment. The whole concept of the Culture spread across vast areas of space, creating utopic living environments free from poverty and disease, is intriguing and well-executed. I look forward to reading future Culture novels that focus more on the Culture and less on the Changers and Idirans.
Avid readers always hope every time they pick up a book by a writer new to them, they’ll be discovering a voice and a creative mind that will grab hold of them and make them want to read through everything the writer’s ever written. Consider Phlebas worked exactly that way for me, and I look forward to reading the entire “Culture” series (I’ve already purchased the next four books), as well as other works by Banks.