“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

I’ve heard a lot about Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, but hadn’t read any of his books for a long time. I was inspired by the start of the new year to set up a group read of all of the books over on LibraryThing, and Consider Phlebas was the first book I read in 2014.

8935689Consider Phlebas follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and assassin for the Idirans, who are at war with the Culture. He is sent on a mission to retrieve a lost Mind, an Culture AI, who has landed on one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead. Along the way, he has incredible adventures and narrowly avoids capture by the Culture. Despite all the action-adventure, I would not call this a fun book, but it was a very, very good book.

Unlike most of the books I read, I had a fair amount of preconceptions going into this one, since I’d heard about the Culture for so long (Wikipedia calls it “a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences”). I was expecting a dense hard SF novel with unfathomably alien characters and plot primarily driven by worldbuilding ideas. I was not expecting the poignant character development or the incisive look at the sidelines of war, and those are what made this book great.

Two minor criticisms – one of the chapters has a fair amount of visceral body-horror, which I did not enjoy at all; I wish that Banks had chosen to display the craziness of his universe some other way. I also wish that there was more insight into the Culture, and how it works from the inside, but there are plenty more books in the universe for me to get that.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (The Culture, #1)
Macmillan, 1987 | Buy the book