Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas is a big book: literally and in its content. But that shouldn’t put readers of sci-fi off because it is well worth the effort to finish the book. In Consider Phlebas, Banks sets up a galaxy where two empires are locked into a vast war between the Culture, a hedonistic pan-humanoid empire relying heavily on technology and sentient AI, and the Idirans, a massive three-legged species that thrives on war and believes very firmly in a form of aggressive monotheism. Banks’ vast canvas might seem overwhelming, but he carefully weaves a much-more intimate narrative that pulls readers into this world. Consider Phlebas follows Horza and a crew of space mercenaries as they attempt to recover one of the Culture’s Minds for the Idirans. The narrative travels across several worlds, space ships and structures, providing Banks with ample opportunity to outline an intriguing and well-developed alternative world.
In my review of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I talked about how I felt disconnected from and indifferent to the world that he set up. For some reason, I did not have this problem with Consider Phlebas. In the interest of transparency, I should say that a friend of mine was strongly rooting for Banks after he recommended this book, so my expectations were quite high. With Dune, I think I was expecting less, so I may have been more skeptical/critical (however paradoxical that seems). Beyond their classification as space operas, both books follow similar narrative structures where the action of the book is set up in the context of artifacts from the imagined world. Dune is much more up front with framing the narrative as bits and pieces of histories from the Dune universe while it is only at the end that Banks gives encyclopedia entries about the conflict that Horza has been involved in. I think the difference lies in Banks`ability to draw readers into the Culture universe with a personal narrative. Where Dune tended towards the grandiose in its messianic plotline, Horza is much more mundane even though he is from a rare shape-shifting species. Put differently, Dune gets caught up in its own mythology whereas the mythology of Culture is secondary to Horza`s story in Banks`s novel.
What also might be relevant to my reactions to both space operas is the way that Banks eschews writing sequential books. Dune sets up a running narrative of events whereas Banks’ Culture series (as far as I can tell from the Wikipedia page) does not. Most of his science fiction novels are set in this universe, but they are all independent pieces. I think I like this structure better even if the sequential approach of Herbert’s Dune offers a broader canvas and more room to work out theme and motif. I might be out on a limb here, but I get the feeling that the non-sequential approach means that Banks always needs to keep the Culture universe-mythology/elements to a knowable minimum. He can’t assume a reader’s previous knowledge of other books, so he must make his novels more accessible. Or at least his editors might make him do this. Anyways, I think I need to stop philosophizing on sci-fi before it becomes an “academic” interest.
I would highly recommend Consider Phlebas to fans of science fiction as it is very well-written and surprisingly accessible.
Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas. London: Orbit Books, 1987. Print.