Everyone seems to love this book. Iain M. Banks, who "slums" with that middle initial when he's writing science fiction and is otherwise known as literary
author Iain Banks, is indeed a fine writer, but Consider Phlebas
, the first book in his Culture series, and his first SF novel, just did not kindle the love in me that it seems to for others. It's a decent enough book, but basically it read as your fairly typical space opera written by a better-than-average writer. "Look folks, I can do that sci-fi gig, but I've got mad skillz with words and I've got ideas
Alastair Reynolds does this too, and like Banks, he left me a bit cold.
Now, maybe this is just my dissatisfaction with space operas in general in recent years. It takes more than big ideas and big words to impress me.Consider Phlebas
is, at heart, your basic heist story about a scruffy gang of malcontents trying to get a little somethin' somethin' in the middle of a raging space war between the Culture and the Idirans. The Culture is mostly made up of humans, and is a peaceful, post-scarcity society that provides its' citizens with their every need, except meaningfulness, which is why the Culture is also a peacefully meddling "imperialist" power that spreads throughout the stars, bringing its benevolence to less advanced civilizations whether they asked for it or not. They don't conquer, they don't invade, they don't even take over governments, they just... meddle. Subtly manipulating things to turn less fortunate species away from war and resource shortages and irrational beliefs and towards enlightened, secular, techno-materialism... i.e. to become like the Culture. The Culture is like a reverse-Federation, their Prime Directive being to always interfere when they decide some other planet needs to be interfered with.
And from one perspective, it's hard to argue with their methods: they are ending wars and deprivation and bringing peace and plenty, generally without firing a shot or deposing anyone.
However, unsurprisingly, the Culture's neighbors are not so keen on this expansion by whatever means, and the Idirans, a giant, tripodal race with a militaristic religious bent, goes to war with them. The Idirans initially assume it will be a cake walk; the Culture hasn't fought a war in thousands of years. But they do not reckon with the cunning and superhuman intelligence of their foes, because the real
minds behind the Culture are its Minds, artificial super-intelligences descended from the first human-built AIs.
There are, as I say, shades of Alastair Reynolds here, as well as Peter Hamilton and Dan Simmons. Banks has a way with words, and his action sequences are particularly good. It's hard nowadays to describe a space battle in a way that doesn't bore me or strike me as very derivative, but Banks conveys a nice sense of wonder with the planetary scales of his worlds and ships.
That said, I never cared about any of his characters. He describes them, their backgrounds, and their psychologies, in a very believable manner. There is a Changer, a human subspecies capable of limited shapeshifting, who for his own complicated reasons has decided to side with the Idirans against the Culture, even though he doesn't really like the Idirans. He works for the xenophobic aliens as a spy, and so winds up in a series of misadventures, raids, and narrow escapes before finding himself on a quest for an escaped Culture Mind on a dead planet, the leader of a ragtag crew of mercenaries, a shanghaied robot who is not
happy about being there (the drone Unaha-Closp was one of the best characters), a captured Culture agent, and later, an Idiran prisoner of war who is equally interesting in his limited role. Banks does a good job of presenting an enemy alien race who, despite being somewhat monolithic in their role within the story, still comes off as a race of individuals, not an indistinguishable horde of space-orcs.
So, they are all interesting as characters, but I didn't care about any of them. They were just characters moving through a story, and even when Banks tries to engage our sympathy (such as by revealing that the Changer Horza's lover is pregnant, or showing how the Culture agent Balveda is unwillingly starting to empathize with her captors), I still didn't care. Thus, the rocks fall, everyone dies ending just made me say "Eh, oh well."
Well-crafted space opera and I'll probably try another Culture novel at some point, but this book took me months to finish because I just never had that "got to keep reading" feeling and I would put it down for days at a time and not really feel an urge to pick it up again.