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*200th - PHLEBAS CONSIDERED - 200th*
Iain Banks (or Iain M. Banks from our perspective) is a Scottish writer who's spread his talent across the spectrum of fiction and science-fiction, producing popular novels under both genre titles since 1984. Prior to the writing of his SF books, Banks decided that with these, instead of using the name Iain Banks (as he had done for the previous fictions) he would use Iain M. Banks. In a BBC Four interview in 2006, Banks shed light on the reasoning behind this decision, accrediting it to a mistake made by his father at a birth registration office back in 1954. The writer's parents had wanted to name him Iain Menzies Banks but had accidentally failed. Banks however recognised this in later life and after his publishers dismissed the idea of using the 'M' in his first few books, were convinced to include it in the SF's to act as a recognisable distinguisher between the novel types. Anyway, it was with publication of 'The Wasp Factory' that Banks' career began, and after a subsequent two fiction based novels the writer felt ready to embark on a new and altogether different adventure four years later.
The 'Culture' novels intrude into the futuristic fantasy landscape within which many contrasting specie societies are known to exist. Some civilisations have long been forgotten, whilst others thrive in technological prosperity - some in peace and others involved in catastrophic conflict our real-world society would cower at the sight of. The bigger picture indentifies a momentous war, one which the blurb describes 'raged [rages] across the galaxy' where 'billions had died, and billions more were doomed'. But the actual writing and story-telling of this particular book focus's more around the ideologies associated with the different societies - the evolved belief systems, religions, hierarchies, CULTURES, and how these affect how the societies appear, and how they operate. It seems as though Banks is using his literary invention as a platform to voice the arguments and thought processes he himself has explored on the bigger questions - life, the universe, and everything. Consider Phlebas is just a taste of Banks' creation, critically, leaving you hungry for more.
Familiarity and self-comparison has to exist to make this novel relatable (some would argue), and that is most likely the reasoning behind Banks' inclusion of the human form (or humanoid) which plays a key role in the series. Consider Phlebas centres upon the doings of the Changer, Bora Horza Gobuchul, or 'Horza' as he is continually referred.
- - This book is the first of nine (and is on-going) and it's worth knowing I haven't read any of the others (yet), but despite this I feel I am the perfect candidate to write about it because I only finished the adventure last night! - -
Horza is a Changer, a small, often idealised race of humanoids which can alter their appearance to impersonate any other humanoid (once they have absorbed visually the features they wish to copy). Additionally to this, Changers have other natural abilities the reader comes across throughout the beginning of the book, and these aid in the progress of Horza's adventurous happenings.
The story follows him throughout, and as expected, you automatically build an individual mental image of the man in your mind, characterising his features and personality. At first I found this difficult as Banks' descriptions are sometimes unclear and a tad hypocritical - soon enough though, the picture forms and you realise Banks' intention - to almost give off the sense of an unpredictable HUMAN nature. Horza is mostly a determined, intelligent person with an abundance of confidence and an inert ability to control any given situation.
Opener: a grotty cell of medieval appearance. Horza is trapped. I love it when novels begin confined before exploding out rapidly into interest and new imaginative location - and that's exactly how this novel protrudes. Gerontocrat Minister Amahain-Frolk and Perostock Balveda are the first secondary characters introduced. They are of the enemy, though 'enemy' is useless terminology in an adversely interpreted world. They are of the Culture then, one of the dominant society's existent within the stories definitive area of the universe. Horza dislikes the ways of the Culture, and this is made apparent from the start by his continually described thoughts and dialogue sculpture largely ingeniously by Banks. That great war mentioned in the blurb is being fought between the Culture and the Idiran peoples, both of which more powerful than one book can possibly describe.
The Idirans are the reason for Horza's capture and imprisonment under Culture control. He is working for them, carrying out missions and attempting to alter the balance of power in one way or another - not out of love or connection with the Idirans (if anything, Horza's ancestry is more aligned with the Culture), but out of a sheer spite for the Atheist, machine-reliant society they operate. Horza feels the Culture is out of touch with its own individualism, becoming increasingly dependent of machines or robots (in every sense, not just in a manufacturing or working format). The robots are given identities, names, personalities - they are civilians (some of them), with as much knowledge, power and lawful right as any organic entity. And it's worth bearing in mind that the Culture are a society which have engulfed others, they are not one single species, but a combination which have fallen under the influence of the greater power and succumbed to its way of life.
'The Finmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking's immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season.' The meaning of this indeterminate italic centred passage is revealed - but only the text is mentioned at the beginning.
'The Querl Xoralundra, spy-father and warrior priest of the Four Souls tributary sect of Farn-Idir' as he is introduced, is the Idiran soldier Horza has been undertaking missions from. And this spoils nothing believe me... but he is the commander who manages to rescue Horza from the grubby cell, taking him to the Idiran's war-ship, 'Hand of God 137'. As the Changer explains, to the Idirans 'a ship name ought to reflect the serious nature of its purpose, duties and resolute use' - a belief opposed by the Culture who choose 'jokey, facetious names' to christen their war-ships (or GCU's - General Contact Units)
The Idirans are a 'near immortal' (or biologically un-ageing) race of 3 meter tall, three-legged, two-armed individuals all of whom worship the same god, and follow the same path in life (for the most part). They are born, grow up and learn, impregnate, raise, and then drop their gender, grow to their full height, increase in weight, become armoured with layers of Keratin, and live out their lives as a loyal warrior to the state. Though the description emits an animalistic tone, the species intelligence shouldn't be under-estimated. They have adopted a secondary species (evolved in social symbiosis with the Idirans) as their grunts, slaves: the Medjel 'companion' race (which is of less intelligence).
I can't help but find it strange how Horza (who comes across as a reasonably minded, fair, though self-righteous [given his responsibilities] person) prefers the Idirans over the Culture. Yes you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but the beliefs and way of life of the Idirans is so strange and unconventional (even to the Changer) that I still find it hard to contemplate Horza having such a deep hatred for his and the Idirans enemy (used wisely) over the Idirans themselves. Maybe there is some hidden message here from Banks which you will find out in a further novel?
The story continues on after Horza's rescue onto the 'Hand of God 137' when he is given a new mission from Xoralundra regarding the capture of a Culture designed 'Mind'. I'm not going to spoil anything so don't worry, but I will explain the properties of said Mind as it is definitely the most masterfully designed prop from within Banks' creation.
Minds are immensely intelligent computers initially created by biological beings, but with the ability (over time) to reinvent and redesign themselves to become many more times intelligent than their creators - they are sentient, hyper-intelligent machines: conscious beings. Usually resided to larger starships, they are the culmination of the Cultures societal advancement, they are everything that they stand for - and they are also the Culture's key weapon in the war.
Phlebas considered, I really enjoyed this book very much indeed. It enlightened me as to the creative possibilities of the science-fiction genre when a great writer gets involved. With cross-character development and the setting of a variety of vibrant scenes with which you as the reader feel you're actually exploring, I can find few faults with the novel. The major downside to this book however is the lack of significant characters, or more the lack of certain significant characters being described as fully as others. With many introductions throughout the story, some coming all at once and rather startling you into a state of 'oh god, can I remember all this for later', I feel Banks could have spent a little more time ensuring the reader was able to interpret each without coming under pressure. Despite this, as I've already stated, this is a great read.
I have now set the scene from which the novel blossoms. How will Horza go about capturing this mysterious Mind for the Idirans? What new interesting settings and societies will he find himself in? What vibrant characters will he encounter on his travels? And how will he use his specie-unique talents to manipulate his progress along the route to success (if success is routed)? ...State of Play.
- Book Information -
Author: Iain M. Banks
Availability: Amazon.co.uk with FREE DELIVERY.
Target Audience: I'd have to say anyone with good reading skill and understanding who's over the age of 14/15. There are some quite vulgar occurrences some readers may find distressing, and a few paragraphs describing sex (not in much detail at all though!).
*All text I have typed which is surrounded by speech marks is taken directly from the novel*
Thanks very much for reading my 200th Dooyoo review! I hope you enjoyed my insight into Iain M. Banks' imaginatively described inter-galactic universe - and Horza!
...'Clear Air Turbulence'
Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain.M.Banks' Culture novels and the first of his sci-fi titles to be written under his full name. Though Banks had already carved himself a successful career with books such as The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory, it is with these that his writing really excelled and earned him a cult following through the early nineties and beyond.
Phlebas is a space opera of grand proportion! An ongoing war is under way between The Culture, a quasi-religious collective who aim to spread their message of peace and harmony throughout the universe whether you like it or not, and the Irdians who wish to stop them. The batles and skirmishes have been going on for many years but things have pretty much reached a stale-mate until a Culture ship is destroyed and it's "Mind" (the conciousness that controls the ship that is as much organic as it is machine) escapes and takes residence on a Dead Planet known as Schaar's World.
Horza is one of a unique species known as Changers who can alter their body chemistry to look like others. After being rescued from certain death by the Irdians after beng captured by The Culture, he is given the task of going to this Dead Planet despite warnings to stay away by the Alien being who guards it in order to recover this Culture Mind before it can fall back into the hands of the enemy. Horzastands more chance because some of his kind have been left there to caretake the planet!
Unfortunately, no sooner has he been given his mission than the vessel he is on is attacked! Horza is jettisoned out into space but is thankfully rescued by a team of mercenaries. Unfortunately, they are the worst and most mis-fortuned bunch of mercenaries ever to try and make money from the war and soon Horza begins to wonder if he might have been safer just floating in space! But the truth of the matter is, Horza needs them if he is ever going to get to Schaar's World!
This is a great epic classic sci-fi tale that both astounds and impresses with its vastness and its heavy political slant that lends the whole plot a sense of scary realness! There is lots of dark humour contained within and the characters, though not nessecarily likeable at times, nonetheless are easy to bond with very quickly. Having not read any of Banks' sci-fi before, I was instantly impressed and rate this very highly!
The ending is a little bleak but this is the only weak point in an otherwise very strong tale and that is more than made up for by the epilogue that kind of evens things out a bit. Still, this is a very difficult novel not to like and Icannot wait to read more of the same!
First published in 1987, Consider Phlebas was Ian Banks (known here under the sci-fi pseudonym of Iain M Banks)'s first foray into the world of sci-fi space opera, and is a typically ambitious novel, set around a conflict between two intergalactic superpowers; the culture, a conglomeration of roughly humanoid species that prides itself on being civilised and diverse but is ultimately at the behest of a group of unimaginably advanced computer AI's or 'minds' that they allow to control their society; and the Idirans, a hardy tripedal reptilian species of deep religious fervour that considers the Culture's subservience to artificial life to be anathema their ideology.
The central protagonist is Horza, a humanoid changer who, as his title suggests, can shift his form to mimic that of other humanoids, and is fighting on the Idiran side because he considers this to be the side of life, as opposed to the artificial existence he attributes to synthetically created machines. There is an interesting philosophical debate on 'specieisism' here that runs through the book, along with other interesting observations on social psychology, on the roles of science and technology and on civilisation in general. His nemesis in this regard is a female Culture agent, but despite their being on different sides neither party can quite bring themselves to kill the other somehow.....
Whilst not without philosophical depth the book is nevertheless full of action and a complex and constantly evolving plot. The central premise being that one of a new breed of Culture mind of great importance has evaded Idiran capture by hiding in the long-disused catacombs of an ancient civilisation of humanoids with technology rougly level to ours today that wiped themselves out via germ warfare, the Mind now beyond reach from either the Idirans or the Culture because it has been chosen as a Planet of the Dead by a powerful and mysterious entity that neither side wishes to agitate. Only Horza can access the planet legitimately, as it is also home to a group of changer guardians of which he was once one, but the Idirans will likely try and get to the mind one way or another despite the risks involved....
The plot is convoluted yet hugely engaging, although it does frequently feel disjointed, as Horza finds himself in one desperate situation after another. One moment he is figthing alongside a group of grizzled space privateers with lasers against a group of heavily armed monks in a temple made of crystal; the next he is trapped on a deserted multi-kilometre long ship on a crash course thats travelling round and round a vast internal ring of water inside an immense synthetically created halo in deep space; the next he is trapped on a desert island populated by a bizarre eating-disorder cult of emaciated people under the thrall of a grotesque, morbidly obese cannibal giant with prosthetic metal dentures.
The plot does build up nicely overall despite this disjointedness, and the book has lots of strong characters and a dry humour and witty dialogue that keeps things interesting throughout. An abitious work with tremendous scope, Consider Phlebas is a graet sci-fi novel with a solid plot, lots of variety, some great action pieces and some great characters. Highly recommended.
"Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." So starts the very first of Iain M Banks' Culture series, an ambitious project to create, describe and justify a materialist utopia. The story is that of Bora Horza Gobuchal, a changer, one of a race of shape-shifters that now live within a sphere of space controlled by a race called the Idirans. The Idirans are at war with the Culture, the aforementioned 'perfect' society, on which most of Iain Banks' sci-fi is based. The Culture is initially introduced through the way it deals with the war it fights, both technologically and ideologically. It is also viewed largely through the eyes of its enemies, an excellent tool for learning the merits and pitfalls of the system they have created. Horza violently hates the Culture, and works for the Idirans only because they fight the Culture. He is scared by their hedonistic, computer 'controlled' existence, and fear that they will eventually inflict their society on everyone across the galaxy, something he would hate. His mission, for most of the book, is to rescue a Mind, the epitome of what the Culture is and how it works. This mind is a sentient computer so developed that it takes up only a small sphere of space (not much more than the size of a person) whilst weighing as much as a sun. These Minds are infinitely more intelligent than almost all the humanoid species that make up the Culture, but live alongside them regardless. The fate of this mind will alter the course of the war dramatically, although both sides remain sure that they will win no matter what the outcome. Horza is initially rescued from an earlier mission where he was imitating a senior minister in a government in order to try and lead the government into supporting the Idirans. It is during this failed mission that we meet his arch nemesis, Perosteck Balveda. She is key t
o the novel as she provides the counterpoint to Horza's anti-Culture views. Throughout the novel they spend more time warring with words than with weapons, although both are adept with such weapons. When he is being transferred to his next mission to capture the Mind, his ship is attacked and he is forced into an escape pod. He is eventually rescued by the Clear Air Turbulence, a ship of mercenaries who initially thought he was dead. When he manages to prove his worth, he is taken on by them and survives many dubious missions. These missions are dealt with in detail, from the attack on a monastery built out of crystal - not the best thing to fire a laser at - to the looting of a giant abandoned ship about to hit an iceberg. These events give us insight into Horza and his life, as well as developing the relationships between himself and other members of the crew, and explaining in more detail the background to the galaxy as Banks sees it. His overall mission, though, is always to get to the trapped Mind and capture it for the Idiran military to study. The Mind itself is, as you would expect of a sentient machine, a character in the novel, although not one of the main ones. We follow it through it's initial escape from an ambush as it destroyed a fleet of Idiran ships and it's own ship, escaping only through an insane piece of flying that even the most daring Minds would not try and imitate. It was this act of bravery and control of itself and the 'warp' that makes the Mind so valuable to both sides. The Mind is one of a new class especially geared towards the war, a prototype destroyer, if you will. The Idirans feel that capturing this Mind will give them valuable insight into the Culture's plans, as well as learning about how to manipulate it's own ships better in times of emergency. The Culture want to know how the hell it did what it did, and of course rescue one of it's own citizens, and stop the Idirans from gaining an
y knowledge from it. The Mind itself was only interested in surviving, and so hid itself within the Quiet Barrier of a Planet of the Dead. The Planets of the Dead are a series of worlds protected by powerful and mysterious creatures called the Dra' Azon. These creatures keep the worlds largely uninhabited as a memorial to the stupidity of the indigenous society of that world. They have all destroyed themselves through nuclear or biological war, and the planets act as a reminder of the stupidity of such wars. The irony of the fact that the final battle is fought on one of these worlds is not lost on anyone reading the novel. The Quiet Barrier is the way that the Dra' Azon keep the planets uninhabited, by stopping any ships not part of the official observation team away. They do however allow ships in distress through, which is how the Mind found itself in an abandoned Command System on the planet. One, perhaps cynical reason why the Culture Minds keep humans around is because of a small group of people, represented in the novel by Fal 'Ngreestra. The Referrers, thirty or forty people out of the population of millions of worlds and Orbitals (artificially constructed worlds), have an ability to process facts and determine solutions with an accuracy higher than even the best Minds. Fal is one of these people, and she directs the operation to stop Horza from way behind the lines, over two years travel away from the Planet of the Dead. Her life, without any of the action or threat to life that Balveda faces, is as much representative of the Culture as Balveda's. This comparison helps us understand further the nature of the Culture and the grand scale it all works on. In the passage where we learn of Fal as a Referrer, we also learn that most of the humans in the Culture dedicate their lives to the things viewed as really important - art, games, sport, romance and study. Those bored of this lifestyle, however, tend to join Contact, who are view
ed during the war as the Culture's military division, although they would claim that they are just interested in exploration. When the war started, they had to adapt in order to protect the Culture's interests and ideologies. This is the organisation we follow in most of the Culture novels, as obviously there is only so much you can write about people studying. What is the Culture? It is a society built on the ability for every human to enjoy his or her life to the fullest. There are enough resources for everyone to survive in relative luxury, and so the idea of personal property has been all but wiped out. With the necessity to earn a living removed, people are free to dedicate themselves to things in life they really enjoy. Some of the best artists and craftsmen this fictional universe has ever known have come out of the Culture, as they have had the time and resources to dedicate themselves to their work. Many people have the time to study too, and the unimaginably large libraries of information amassed and analysed by members of the Culture are one of their proudest works. They are also explorers, and the Contact division studies yet unexplored worlds, and often takes the time to interfere with these worlds in an attempt to bring them to the level of 'enlightenment' the Culture currently possesses. The Culture is many people's idea of a perfect society, and yet, like all groups, it makes mistakes. Some novels look at these mistakes, others consider what could be called success in a gruesome way, and this one looks at the most unfortunate mistake a society can make - waging war. The Culture felt its identity and moral right to exist was threatened by the Idirans, a race expanding to create more subjects for their God. The Idirans felt that the Culture were a race of hedonist, blasphemers who ignored the Gods in favour of their own personal pleasure. The war was not fought over specific territories, although obviously control of are
as did change hands, rather it was fought over who had the right organisation and philosophy. Many of Banks' sci-fi novels have a rather obvious tie to modern society. With Consider Phlebas, however, Banks explores two different avenues. The creation and description of the Culture is obviously very important to the novel, equal in importance to the plot itself. This is the book all his other Culture novels were based on, and it defines the Culture in the best way possible, through comparison. The Idirans, who are fiercely religious, are perhaps the perfect opposite to the atheist, non-hierarchical Culture. The sentimentality and respect for opposition that is common in the Culture is wonderfully represented in the naming of the last ship our Mind occupies. The book is also an allegory about the futility of war, one perhaps important to remember in these tumultuous days. Billions of lives were lost, and in the end very little changed. At the end of the day though, that is the nature of the Culture - nothing really changes.
This is the first Sci-Fi novel written by Mr Banks, first published in 1987. In case you were wondering, Iain M Banks is the very same person as Iain Banks (of 'The Wasp Factory' fame) - its just that he wanted people to be able to find his Sci-Fi and straight Fiction in different sections of the bookstores, to avoid any confusion. Considerate chap that he is. Anyway - having read all of the Fiction novels by Banks, and never fancied having a go at the Sci-Fi, I was lent a copy of 'Consider Phlebas' recently by a friend who raved about it. The closest I've got to Sci-Fi previously has been 'The Hitch-hikers Guide?..', so that is all I have to compare this with. Firstly, let me tell you the story. Briefly, the plot goes like this: The galaxy is at war. The two sides are the Idirans and the Culture. Both need to find and claim a vastly powerful, runaway Mind, that has landed on a Planet of the Dead. The main character is Bora Horza Gobuchul, the Changer, apparently working for the Idirans to capture the Mind but in fact preoccupied with his own mission - to return home and carry on his relationship with his old lover. Along the way he meets up and joins a band of mercenaries, some of whom end up on the Planet of the Dead with him, seeking the Mind. The story is that of the long, hard search for the Mind, and also of the War itself. I found this book strangely hard to read. The weird names of characters and places really got to me after a while - no Bobs or Sues are featured, instead we have Jandraligeli (a Mondlidician), Perosteck Balveda (Culture Agent), Xoxarle (an Idiran), and Unaha-Closp (a drone), to name but a few. I know it's all done for a reason, and yes it is fitting for Sic-Fi, but personally I found my struggle with pronunciation got slightly in the way of my enjoyment of this novel. That said, the story itself is engrossing. Written very much in Bank's style, the languag
e is witty and the characters are believable. Spaceships, star systems and planets are well-described. He writes in great detail of the actual history of the War, and includes an Appendix at the end showing the reasons for the conflict from both sides. The characters all have their own histories, their own reasons for doing what they are doing, and even the non-humanoids are described in such a way that they can be easily imagined by the reader. I found myself really feeling for the characters - especially Horza and his partner, the mercenary Yalson. Banks describes death in all its gory detail - the murders and bloodshed resulting from the War feature greatly. Having read other Banks books, I expected a few stomach-churning passages, and was not disappointed. An example? Well, at one point various characters meet up on a soon-to-be-destroyed Orbital for a game of Damage. In this game, if you lose a life, a life is lost. Literally. I think I will read more of Bank's Sci-Fi. 'Consider Phlebas' has whetted my appetite, although I did not feel the need to rush out and buy a copy for myself so I could read it again. If you like other Banks novels, you might enjoy this, then again you might not. As the character Fwi-Song might have said if he'd got the chance - 'It's all a matter of taste.'
First in the series of (unrelated) books about the 'Culture'. This is a truly original book. A lot of science fiction books are all science and no story. This is very different. This story just happens to take place in another place and time. Although the setting has been well thought out, it never becomes more important than the characters. Iain M. Banks is brave enough to follow the story to its natural conclusion, rather than look for a neat but implausible ending. Well worth a read.
The first Culture novel, this focuses on the war between the Culture and the Idirans which is referred to in the rest of these tales. It follows the exploits of Horza Bora Gorbuchal, a shapeshifter working for the Idirans who is sent to capture a crashed Culture AI that is hiding in a tunnel network on a long-dead ice world. A lot happens over the course of the novel, although it's been a while since I read this, so the finer points are lost to me. However, I remember this book fondly, which is surely the best recommendation there is? It also sets up a lot of the background and ideas found in the later Culture novels, so this is a good place to start if you're new to the series.