Review: Consider Phlebas

by Tom Ingram

Iain M. Banks’s first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, opens on a forceful, mythic note. An intelligent warship flees its pursuers and, at great risk, jettisons its Mind, an unfathomable super-intelligent computer, to a protected planet. Across the galaxy, a shapeshifting Changer is being executed by the Gerontocracy of Sorpen in their unique way: they lock him in a septic tank and hold a massive banquet. This sounds funny, but it doesn’t read that way at all. The first thirty pages or so are some of the most intense science fiction I have ever read.

During this stretch, the principal factions are introduced. There are the Changers, a minor species of humans, all but extinct, with the ability to shapeshift and a host of weaponized body parts such as poisoned nails and acid sweat. The hero is the aforementioned drowning Changer, Bora Horza Gobuchul. The Changers are allied with the Idirans, which are a good approximation of what an actual race of warrior-aliens would look like. The Idirans are at war with the Culture, an advanced post-Singularity human society whose driving force is the need to feel useful. The series that grew from this novel focuses on the Culture, and with good reason. They are a fascinating creation, a society where humanity is largely superseded by super-intelligent machines and is now free to live in hedonism, but great feats are still accomplished out of simple boredom.

Horza is rescued by the Idirans and hired to go to the protected planet and retrieve the Mind, which would be a military and intelligence coup for the marginally less advanced species against the Culture. The book takes a strange turn shortly after all this, however. Horza gets into some shenanigans involving space mercenaries, and the story’s momentum never quite recovers. At first it is Foundation streamlined and blown up, but it develops into reheated Firefly.

During Horza’s time among the space mercenaries, he travels the galaxy and sees some impressive sights. Banks rivals Douglas Adams for his ability to populate an infinite universe with pockets of unique and innovative depravity. There is a cult of cannibalistic coprophages ruled by a disgustingly obese prophet living on a remote island on a Vegas-like orbital. There is a card game that is ust like Texas Hold’em except for the emotional distortion fields and the people who are euthanized for every player who loses in the showdown. Despite everything, there are some good moments throughout the book.

But in addition to the marked shift in tone, there is also uneven prose. It is in some places poignant and almost poetic, and at others, typically the parts that involve people moving around and doing things, shockingly cacophonous. Banks’s action scenes are not much to speak of, and if he has Adams’s eye for colourful iniquity, he does not have his ear for humour. The characters, oddly, seem to get less and less well-developed over time.

Consider Phlebas flags in the middle and has a disappointing ending. It is still very entertaining, but it fails to live up to the promise of its opening pages. I look forward to reading more mature efforts by this author.