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The Culture (1): Consider Phlebas by Iain M.…

The Culture (1): Consider Phlebas (original 1987; edition 1987)

by Iain M. Banks

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4,734130991 (3.77)1 / 274
sturlington's review
The Culture and the Idiran Empire are at war in a galaxy-spanning conflict.

I definitely had mixed feelings about this novel, the first in Banks' Culture series. I was fascinated by the universe Banks has created, particularly the utopian-dystopian society of the Culture and its technological marvels, such as the ring-shaped Orbital completely covered by an ocean and cruised by gigantic mega-ships. Some of the sequences, such as the destruction of that Orbital, were wonderfully written. However, I had a hard time connecting to the characters, and I thought some sections were overwritten, such as the gross-out sequence involving a cannibalistic cult or the climactic action-packed ending, which should have been tense and suspenseful but dragged on for too long. I will probably try again with one of Banks' later and more highly recommended Culture novels.

Titles and their origins always interest me, and this is a particularly interesting one. Here is a quote I found from Banks about why he chose the title Consider Phlebas:

“Phlebas is the drowned Phoenician sailor in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land which is my favourite poem, if you exclude Shakespeare. Not that I like what Eliot stood for, but he was a genius and The Waste Land is his masterpiece. Well, his and Pound’s, also of iffy political leanings. I just always like the words, ‘Consider Phlebas’. They looked good, they sounded good. They just looked like a title somehow. I tried all sorts of titles for the story before I settled on Consider Phlebas, but they all sounded too much like Star Wars. I knew it was a weird title but I thought well, if it works it’ll just become right for the book.”

Banks has acknowledged the similarities to the poem in that the main character in Consider Phlebas is drowning and later undergoes a ’sea-change’ – this being a motif running through The Waste Land – but that is far as it goes.

Read because I like the author (2011). ( )
  sturlington | Oct 11, 2011 |
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More linear that I was expecting, but (at least the first two-thirds) very immersive nonetheless. The final third on Schar's World was very slow in comparison with the rest of the book and could have done with some cutting. ( )
  rlangston | Jun 25, 2014 |
Had never read any Iain M. Banks before, so decided to try the first book of his Culture stories
after reading a site about recommended sci-fi series.

Set against the backdrop of a galaxy ranging war between the Culture and the Idirans, the main protagonists
and their objectives are quickly established but just as quickly forgotten, as the book takes the
main character on a seemingly never ending detour.

I kept reading chapter after chapter in the middle section wondering when it was going to get back on track.

And this is my problem. The whole middle section, to me, serves no purpose. With more judicial editing, the
book could have flowed better and delivered a more satisfying experience.

As an introduction to the Culture, it served its purpose and I may look at some of the other books in the
series, but Consider Phlebas was, for me, entertaining but forgettable. ( )
  LustyRebel | Jun 1, 2014 |
The first of Banks' "Culture" novels, a galaxy-spanning a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia shepherded by benevolent "Minds", A.I.s so much smarter than human-level beings they are somewhat godlike - although mostly they use their intellect for sarcasm and meddling with less advanced societies. In this book, the focus is on a war between the leisurely, seemingly decadent Culture and a self-described more vibrant opposing empire which has maintained the primacy of biological beings. Told from the perspective of a band of privateers who haplessly bounce between the two sides, who are really being manipulated by opposing spies intent on finding a galactic Maguffin - a stranded Culture Mind. This simple plot is set in an incredible universe (which is more fully rendered with each subsequent book) that explores complex ideas on society, economics, and morality.
Banks died in 2013; every book in this series can stand shoulder to shoulder with almost anything else in science fiction.
  Clevermonkey | May 29, 2014 |
My first Iain M Banks novel and the one that hooked me. This is the only book not told from the perspective of the "Culture" and as such some people don't recommend it as the first one to try. I didn't have that advice and so didn't do so and I feel fine with that. It's an excellent novel and chronologocally occurs fairly early on with respect to the other Culture novels, giving some background to the war with the Idirans which is referenced often in later novels. ( )
  ub1707 | May 5, 2014 |
I saw this on the shelves of my local Oxfam shop and thinking how wonderful I had found so many of Banks's 'conventional' (i.e. not science fiction) books, and also remembering my own fondness for classic sci-fi as a youth, I snatched this up with great glee.

Sadly the glee evaporated very quickly. This was not the book for me. I found it totally impenetrable, and I am utterly bemused that the author of a novel simultaneously as enchanting, amusing, sensitive and mysterious as 'The Crow Road' could also have written this.

I have decided to re-read an old favourite by P G Wodehouse next to cleanse my palette. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Apr 7, 2014 |
I read this book first on release, and I was shocked, on picking it up again, to see that it is now 25 years old. But I wanted to re-read the Culture novels in light of Ian Banks' appallingly early death. I'm pleased I have started down this road.

This was Banks' first sf novel, and indeed is based around a novel he wrote quite some time earlier. And yet there is so much of the Culture already worked out but unstated in the book. The very first line made my jaw drop open when I re-read it: "The ship didn't even have a name." It meant little to me when I read this as a new book from a fairly new writer: but now, knowing what we do about Culture ships, the powerful machine intelligences that run them, and the utterly gonzo names ships choose for themselves, that sentence becomes a chilling statement showing that the situation is desperate.

We are rapidly thrust into an interstellar war, and again we are somewhat confounded, because the story is told from the point of view of a character working as a spy for the side we would not assume Banks would be rooting for. The Culture is painted for big segments of this book as the villains; only as we get closer to the end (and the appendices) do we realise that Banks is taking the big view here.

The Idirans, the religious race opposing the Culture, are painted a bit as central casting warriors - all big, Brian Blessed voices and 'today is a good day to die'. Yet the Idiran characters are also drawn with reasonable sympathy. And whilst the main character, Horza, has a series of adventures that could be out of any "space pirate/mercenary" story, the characters in the rag-tag band he allies with, are equally well-drawn. It's true to say that the cast of characters contracts rather towards the end of the book, and as the cast list gets smaller, the remaining characters get better described. And that includes the mechanicals. Banks has intelligent machines in his Culture universe, and they are characterised as well as the biologicals. The drone in this story, Unaha-Closp, comers over a slightly peevish and irritable, but essentially a solid character who delivers when the chips are down.

The protagonist's nemesis, the Culture agent Balveda Perosteck, seems to be playing the femme fatale at the beginning of the book; later, when she is taken prisoner, she begins to display Munchhausen-like symptoms as the situation changes around the band of protagonists.

This book came out in the general renaissance of space opera that took place in British sf during the 1980s and 1990s, and it has its share of what Brian Aldiss called "wide-screen baroque" set-pieces. These are carried off with cinematic relish. There is also some of the Banksian grand guignol that he was renowned for from his first novel, 'The Wasp Factory'. Those of a squeamish disposition and vivid imagination might be advised to look elsewhere. And the humour is specifically Ian Banks' own, as well. It's a particularly Scots wit, and none the worse for all that.

On reflection, as I have read Banks' later Culture novels, I've come to think that the problem some people have with this book is rooted precisely in its place in Banks' writing career. 'Consider Phlebas' is a straight space opera: admittedly one with a fantastic imagination for detail churning away under the surface, and a great precursor to what was to come; but at root it is a science fiction adventure story, written with an eye to selling it to a publisher as a solid entry in an sf catalogue. With this introduction to the Culture out of the way, Banks' later explorations of this universe are very different in pace and plotting.

The novel ends with something of a whimper rather than a neat conclusion (and with a 'Rosebud' moment). But isn't that what life's like, the big difference between reality and novels? Real life doesn't often have neat endings with all the loose ends tied up, and neither does this novel. But above all, the book is an introduction to the Culture universe, a rich and fascinating playground that Banks never finished exploring. Later novels may well have been deeper and may well have had more literary complexity; but when I first read this book, I was blown away and wanted to read more. And in the years that followed, I was duly rewarded. What more can you ask? ( )
3 vote RobertDay | Mar 28, 2014 |
Culture Series is a Science Fiction series written by Iain M. Banks, famed author of The Wasp Factory, which he wrote under the name Iain Banks (less the initial of his middle name "M", which he adopts only while writing Science Fiction). Consider Phlebas, the first book of the Culture Series, however became my unlikely first encounter with Banks, now that I am reading it for the year long Culture read. Among other things peculiar about this book, to which I shall return shortly, I would never have guessed, even after reading the book, the significance of the seeming random title of the book, until I actually googled for it!

In a typical first book of a 10 book series, one would expect a lot of world building, introduction to few of the key characters, and a few skirmishes. Not so in Consider Phlebas. This one is being like thrown into the deep end of a pool to figure out All of the Above, while gasping for breath. There is a protagonist, Horza, a changer, a humanoid species, about which not much is known, other than bits and pieces here and there over the course of the book. Then there are the two warring factions about whose idealogical differences we are equally clueless about, other than some vague philosophising by the protagonist when he tries to explain why he chose one side over the other. I, for one, randomly chose the side of the protagonist for most part of the book and kind of switched sides near the end. It is only while reading the epilogue that things become somewhat more clear.

Surprisingly, for a book concerned with a super-war between two super-species, we meet not more than 3 characters each from each of those two factions, the rest of the cast being or should have been miscellaneous characters. Then there is a whole lot of action, not all pleasant, not all palatable. There are also passages where the book becomes an absolute drag, readers would be able to identify "the eaters" being one such passage. Also, there is a whole lot of idiocy and stupidity among characters, (mostly on "the planet") which can sometimes be very grating on the nerves.

For all that (and not all the characteristics in the above paragraphs are negatives, they are mostly peculiar), the book is very fast paced, reads like a standalone book, and I am not sure if this book will have any connection to the rest of the series, time will tell. I will continue with the series. ( )
  PiyushC | Feb 16, 2014 |
I'm not sure why I understand this to be considered a classic. I've held off on reading Banks for a number of years, and I don't really see myself going back after reading this novel. I found it dragging, wandering, and an overall meaningless conclusion with characters that didn't matter to the story. ( )
1 vote lgwapnitsky | Feb 6, 2014 |
My edition:1988

Read 1989

This novel was my first introduction to Iain Banks when I read it in 1989. It is the book that prompted me to seek out his “mainstream” work and since then I have read everything Iain has had published. I have just finished re-reading Consider Phlebas and I still find it a great book and, equipped with the experience and knowledge of a quarter of a century, I have found so much more in this book than when I first read it.

In my initial read I was not prone to seek deeper meaning or to seeing parallels and allegories. With the history of the 90s and the 00s behind me the parallels and allegories in Consider Phlebas jump out at me. I am not saying the book if prophetic, but that Iain Banks presented a view of global geo-politics in this novel that has not changed in the intervening time. (I am a strong believer in the idea that thoughtful Science Fiction is about the present, not the future.)

First off, the Idiran/Culture war can be viewed in a couple of ways. It can be:
- Western, secularculture, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual, fighting the more fundamentally religious Eastern countries; or
- Secular philosophies against faiths of any sort; or
- About any armed conflict.


Whatever the excuse for the hostilities the main message is that death comes to everyone (That is the message T.S. Elliot gave to mariners in his work “The Wasteland”, where the title comes from.), no matter what side they fight on.

There are many more themes in Consider Phlebas and at several levels.

Horza, the main character of the book is introduced as a cold, dispassionate spy focused on his mission. He kills without a second thought, but when he discovers he is going to be a father he becomes caring and thoughtful. This transition was carried out smoothly and with reason. It goes to the extent of Horza filling with rage when his partner is killed and charging at the killer in what could have been a suicidal charge.

He also shows professional regard for his enemy counterpart, Balveda. I see this as part of Banks’ way of demonstrating how war impacts everyone in the same way no matter what side they are fighting on. He has principles and he respects Balveda’s working for the other side from a different principled position. Horza’s inclination to kill Balveda once he has captured her is prompted purely from the practicalities of the situation and his job. I could see it leading to one of those killing scenes in which the killer tells the prospective victim, “This is nothing personal. It is just business.” (I know, what is more personal than killing someone… and do not be telling me closing down Meg Ryan’s bookshop in “You’ve Got Mail” is more personal.)

Impact of war on individuals
The Dramatis Personae section at the back of the book gives the details of what happens several of the main individuals after the events in the book and after the war. The main message is that their lives have been changed for ever and that they are never the same.

Meaninglessness and magnitude of war
The reasons behind the war are presented from both the Culture and the Idiran points of view. When one reads these in the context of the extract on the history of the war and the scale of the losses one is left with the question of was it worth it, the strong implication being, there is always a better way.

Duplicity in war
The role of the Homomda, the superior civilization, is interesting. This grouping hedges it bets by giving moral and materiel support to the Idirans while maintaining some trading links with the Culture, and letting the Culture know that they will not enter the war directly as long as their territories are not targeted by the Culture.

The Eaters
This is quite a disgusting chapter, but it is a significant, albeit hyperbolical, awareness heightener of the whacky things some cults can get up to. There are numerous examples from across the world of cults/sects that have adopted strange and bizarre (I know. That is a tautology, but it scans beautifully.) practices, often leading to tragedy.

Internal parallels
During the game of Damage on the Orbital, Horaz is affected by the emotions of Kraiklyn to the extent that he has doubts about his identity, the sequence of thoughts strongly paralleling the thoughts of the missing Mind which is hiding on Schar World. This is reprised when Horaz is injured and being cared for by Balveda in the closing sections of the book, a period when he is close to the Mind.

We never hear the history of the Mind, but we are told that its memories have been hidden and that it had a significant past.

Also, why did the Mind pick the name, Bora Horza Gobuchul when it was not aware of this name throughout the story? Does this indicate that Horza did not die after all, but made the ultimate change of leaping into the Mind? Will we ever know?

Horza’s speciesism towards the drone Unaha-Closp is obviously Iain’s way of showing the existence of prejudice and Unaha’s thoughts and reactions to that prejudice are an attempt to reflect the effects of prejudice on the victims.

The growing disillusionment of Avigar was presented well in my opinion. He started out as a fairly balanced older member of the team, but as more of his colleagues, and ultimately his girlfriend, die on what he must see as Horza’s mission, he becomes more despondent, and I am not surprised at his more than lack-lustre performance as the plot develops.

When I first read this book I was on holiday and looking for a good read. I picked up this book and flew through it enjoying the action and the chase. At the time I knew nothing of Iain Banks, with or without his M. With an older head on my shoulders, and having a knowledge of Iain Banks’ views on politics and religion, as well has having more experience of the world, I have detected much more on my re-read than I ever became aware of during my first encounter with Consider Phlebas.

I am sure there are other things in the book that I either forget at the moment or that I did not pick up, but you can see from the above paragraphs I saw a lot in this book. The experience of the re-read may lead me to re-read most of the other IMB Science Fiction books. I am particularly interested in revisiting [Excession] and [Inversions] as my memory of them is very hazy. [Use of Weapons] is another book I wish to revisit as there are obviously things in it that I missed all those years ago. ( )
1 vote pgmcc | Jan 30, 2014 |
A firm favourite and an old friend, which is a lot of fun in spite of its rather bleak outlook. ( )
  imyril | Jan 14, 2014 |
Lots of action. ( )
  gregandlarry | Nov 23, 2013 |
This, the first novel of the Culture science fiction series by Iain M. Banks, has sparks of what's to come, but is also reflective of an author finding his feet in new territory.

The novel centres on Horza, from the nearly extinct changer race, an engineered humanoid that can transform his appearance to match another's exactly and who has a series of lethal biological tools, such as poison sacks under his fingernails. He has sided with the Idirans, a fanatical, religious, war-mongering race that are rather brutally trying to take over the galaxy. The opponents are the highly civilised, hedonistic, and previously rather pacifistic Culture, who wish to continue civilizing the rest of the galaxy, and feel threatened in this aim by the Idirans.

After escaping capture from allies of the Culture, Horza is sent on a mission to a world of the dead, to recover a Culture Mind that is trapped there. He suffers various setbacks on his way, and even had he succeeded, the appendix summarising the war, with many billions of lives lost, argues that his part in the war was pointless, as was each of the other single characters as well.

The book covers some weighty themes, such as how to grab a purpose to life, and the rights of machines minds. This serves as a very intriguing backdrop to the plot. But ultimately the characters are somewhat thinly drawn, the plot is a little predictable and standard at times and there is something rather unsatisfying about much of it. For instance, it never rings quite try why Horza should be so opposed to the culture - just because they prize machines isn't really sufficient when he is so dependent on them himself, especially when his own views are so closely matched to the Culture's. This is admittedly explored in the novel, when Horza reflects at the end that he is adopting the mind of his enemy. But it's almost an apologetic recognition of where his true allegiances should lie, had the plot allowed it. There are also somewhat hackneyed plot choices, such as for Horza to keep enemies alive, rather than disposing of them (when he has no problems at other times disposing of those getting in his way), seemingly just so that added thrills in the story can be generated. It never works in James Bond, with no one actually just taking a gun to his head and ending him, and it certainly doesn't work here.

As with many series, though (such as the Discworld series), this novel is interesting as an historical backdrop to later Culture novels, where Banks is freer in his writing in every way - creating more vivid characters, more fascinating ideas and more fun, exciting novels. ( )
1 vote RachDan | Nov 4, 2013 |
I gave it almost 400 pages, but I just couldn't keep going. I get that he's working in a largely outdated genre, and I get that the novel came out before the resurgence (if we can call it that) of character-driven SF, however it's still just unengrossing. I give it two stars because I can see that he's trying to create an Odyssey-like pattern of the hero returning from being away and having episodic adventures along the way. I just think that it falls apart because there's no connecting to the central character, and all his relationships seem flat at worst and shallow at best. ( )
  JWarren42 | Oct 10, 2013 |
Did not finish. ( )
  rossarn | Oct 6, 2013 |
For some reason I had the idea that Banks was serious hard sci-fi and rather literary, a "hard" read. I have no idea who told me that, but if I ever figure it out, I am going to beat them roundly with a stick.

This is actually fairly soft sci-fi, and not at all a difficult read, in fact I knocked it off in a couple of days, although I did admittedly stay up a little late last night!

To get my feet wet in the Culture series, it did a great job, and I rather enjoyed the travelogue nature of it.

But I had some issues with it too, so I'm going with a 3 (I suspect this is a book that I may upgrade on a re-read, after I've read the rest of the series.)

Oh and (really, don't click this if you haven't read the book: If this had a "Better Book Title" it could be "Everyone Dies at the End". I literally had to re-read the last two chapters to make sure I got it right. And I do see the point being made, of the futility of it all, the pointlessness, but just... damnit. ( )
  krazykiwi | Sep 22, 2013 |
A space opera starring a genetically enhanced body changer and an assorted medley of 'interesting' characters as they race across the galaxy to find an artificial intelligent 'Mind' in the back drop of the culture - Iridian war which is explored further in the appendices at the end(dare I say, more fun than the main course).
Would be much better IMHO, if the island episode with the fat cannibal is edited out. But, OTOH 'fat cannibal'. Very cinematic. But slightly tedious when (over)describing the various architectural marvels.
This was my first Iain Banks novel and I am incredibly intrigued and by the Idea of Culture (a post scarcity anarcho commie collective) and craving for further exploration of it, so next up is Player of Games, I think. But words must also be spared for the Mighty Iridians too, they r an interesting concept and I find them, as a believer of monotheistic religion, slightly familiar. ( )
  aamermoquim | Aug 19, 2013 |
Several people have sung the praises of Banks' novels featuring The Culture (a post-scarcity, pan-galactic society based where individual liberty is paramount) so I expected to be blown away by this, the first novel in the series. Instead, I found it merely very good, containing interesting characters and story that kept me turning pages in spite of being a little episodic. One welcome technique is that, for a novel that introduces The Culture, the main character hates them, allowing the reader to see many points of view about them and drawing their own conclusions. ( )
1 vote crop | Aug 8, 2013 |
I decided to read the Culture books in order, because of the death of Iain Banks, and because my husband (who is not a great reader) devoured the whole series at great speed.

I enjoyed this book. It is definitely an Epic - there were lots of scenes that I had a niggling feeling had been designed for the big screen. The titanic titanic. The destruction of the orbital. The fist fight under a hovercraft. The lazering the spaceship out the side of a bigger spaceship. The collision of three mile long trains. If you don't like those sort of set pieces, this is probably not the book for you.

It also has the usual Banks grimness. The cannabals on the island were the ikkiest thing for me, although the dying soldier crawling his way to revenge was also hard work.

The story didn't go where I expected it to. I mean, that might in some ways be a plus point, but I thought it was going to be a tale of self discovery, and changing opinions, and how our hero goes to better understanding the world and what's important. Instead we veer towards this, but then pretty much everyone dies, pretty quickly. So it left me sad, and full of a sense of futility. Which was, after all, probably the authors intention... ( )
  atreic | Aug 6, 2013 |
Readable but didn't really grab me - overall conceit interesting, characters interesting, just a bit too space opera-y for me. I will try some more Culture novels to see what I think of them with a range as comparison, but right now I like Iain Banks better than Iain M. Banks. ( )
  comixminx | Jul 22, 2013 |
There are the beginnings of brilliance here, but I can already tell (having only read [b:Look to Windward|12016|Look to Windward (Culture, #7)|Iain M. Banks|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1288930978s/12016.jpg|124371] before this) that it is not the best of the Culture novels.

Vastly imaginative in scale, skillfully described; a seemingly straightforward space opera that nonetheless holds some unexpected twists and an unusual complexity in its characters and their relationships (to each other and to the world in which they live). But balance that with some serious nightmare fuel (there are several scenes in the book that are distressingly and gratuitously graphic, and I would not want to read again), the overall bleakness of the message, and some downright depressing events that happen at the end...

I'd say this is a good book, but it's not light reading, and not something I especially want to read again -- especially given that I know I can revisit the fantastic world in which the Culture exists without revisiting this particular story. ( )
1 vote wirehead | Jul 9, 2013 |
Not my first Iain Banks novel but my first of his Culture series. An exciting read with constant action and fun characters. I could easily imagine this story as a movie. The worlds created are imaginative and the different societies are interesting. I would highly recommend this novel the science fiction fans and will definitely be reading the next novel in the series. ( )
  briandarvell | Jun 23, 2013 |
One of the best sci-fi novels I've ever read. Gritty, fast-paced, interesting characters. If you're a fan of this genre and haven't tried Ian Banks, start with this novel. ( )
  bryan.miller.3705 | Jun 21, 2013 |
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