Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Published in 1987
Genre: Science fiction, space opera
“The ship didn’t even have a name.”
Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks, begins with this nameless vessel on the run in the middle of a galactic war because of what it carries on-board. The cargo, however, is part of the ship itself; this ship with no name is controlled by a sentient, artificial consciousness known as a Mind, and in order for it to survive it must take refuge on the barren wasteland of Schar’s World. The Culture, an inter-galactic conglomerate of many species and races, created this Mind and wants to recover it before their enemies, the tri-pedal Idirans. Loyalties are tested, heavy casualties are sustained, and the question of who can really be good in such an insidious war is asked, but perhaps goes unanswered.
The protagonist of Consider Phlebas is Bora Horza; he is a Changer and has the ability to alter his physical shape as he so wishes. He also can build up venom in his spittle and his nails to use as weapons for self-defense (because why not, right?). Horza works alongside the Idirans in the war and he is tasked with recovering the Mind that has been marooned on Schar’s World; a dead planet that is surrounded by a barrier that keeps anyone involved in the war away out. The Idirans believe that Horza should be able to access the world and recover the Mind since he once lived there.
Horza is jettisoned from the Idiran ship during an attack and is picked up by mercenaries. He is forced to fight for a place aboard the ship and does so successfully, joining Kraiklyn’s Free Company aboard the Clear Air Turbulence or CAT. Horza intends to commandeer the CAT and take the mercenaries with him on his mission, though this is only the beginning of his journey.
Horza is not a clear-cut hero; he is willing to deceive, and kill if need be, to attain his goal. He is torn by his conscience and doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing bad things; however, he sees them as a means to an end and will do what he deems necessary even if it leads to others being hurt or killed. This isn’t to say that he is entirely selfish or unfeeling; there are many instances where he shows empathy and care for others, but they are often overshadowed by the lengths he will go to in order to succeed in his mission.
Religion has an integral part in the narrative and themes of Consider Phlebas; there are different versions explored throughout the novel. At one point in the story, Horza is marooned and captured by a cannibalistic cult of fanatics called Eaters who worship the sky and sea; this is but a microcosm of the holy war that spans the galaxy. The monotheism of the Idirans, three legged giant alien warriors who believe in a central religion, is contrasted by the Culture’s secular civilization that gives artificial intelligence to machines. Though Horza has aligned himself with the Idirans, he doesn’t necessarily believe in their god; it is his hate of the Culture and what they stand for that determines which side of the war he has chosen; he believe they have lost their freedom because they created sentient machines that he thinks are the real minds behind the Culture.
This novel is filled with harrowing escapes and well-built tension; the sharp turns in the story are logical and don’t seem overly far-fetched. What surprised me was the amount of cursing and graphic violence that happen throughout; used appropriately depending upon the situation, this created a grittier and more realistic version of a space opera than the mental image that the genre often evokes.
Pinning down the exact genre of Consider Phlebas is more difficult than it appears; it is a tragedy in the classical sense where few survive and those who do are affected deeply. However, it is also a space opera because the story takes place on a grand scale, spanning many planets across the galaxy. Banks builds his worlds with logic and plenty of explanation to create believable and realistic settings. There is a bit of hard sci-fi in here with the explanations of spacecraft, space stations, and weaponry, but they don’t bog down the story or leave the reader to drown in jargon.
The novel reiterates the scale of the story and its place within such a large war through a section at the end which includes an epilogue and quasi-appendices. There are reasons given for the motivations of both the Culture and the Idirans during the war, as well as follow up explanations of what happened to the characters who survived after the events of the book (think of it like the ending of Animal House (1978), but with aliens).
I must admit that I had a difficult time taking notes while reading this book because it took effort to pull myself out of the story to do so; I’m not a huge fan of the cliché of being “unable to put a book down,” but this was certainly the case. Though I typically look forward to the time I set aside for reading, I would find myself thinking about the story and characters of Consider Phlebas during other parts of the day. Banks hooks the reader with his first words and pulls them into the story; he leaves no room for second guessing or thoughts of turning back. This novel is the the first novel of a series and I highly encourage any fans of science fiction to try this book; I am already looking forward to reading the next book.
Verdict: 5 stellar space operas out of 5
Recommended for: Die-hard fans of science fiction, sticklers for realistic portrayals of lasers (you can’t see them, unlike in the Star Wars movies), those who prefer a realistic ending to a happy one, and you!
Not recommended for: Children, live-easy enemies of science fiction, people with short attention spans, people who dislike realistic science fiction, people who will point out that the previous recommendation is a bit of an oxymoron (“realistic” science fiction), or people who like happy endings.