There are a few writers who, upon succeeding within a genre, show guts to try another. That a writer expands from realism to science fiction, however, is a rare case indeed. Yet this is exactly what Iain Banks has done. Achieving good sales from his first three novels, all realist, Banks suddenly decided to try a hand at sci-fi. The genre—and certainly Banks sale’s figures since—have not looked back. The author’s vision of sci-fi not only in line with nerds’, he has also carved a space for himself with the Culture, making the genre jump all the more remarkable. Consider Phlebas, while not as bold as Banks’ later leaps into space, is that first step.
The title taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Banks does not leave his literary roots far behind with Consider Phlebas. The novel being the story of a changeling, Horza, and the fight against his galactic oppressors, the author’s first step treads familiar sci-fi ground. Hyperspace, plasma guns, warp speeds, standard units, and an overall Star WarTrek-ish tone to the story do not possess the creative playfulness which earmarks later Culture novels like Excession or Look to Windward.
To Banks’ credit, however, he wisely avoids most pitfalls of space opera. Horza’s fight is not simply good vs. evil. The decisions he makes trying to uphold his own self-respect have more in common with William Gibson than George Lucas. The astute positioned alongside the more licentious, Banks takes full advantage of morally ambiguous characterization in telling the story. But that is only one positive facet of the book.
Consider Phlebas features a plot that moves briskly from the start, though slowing slightly toward the finish. Horza is a secret agent for the Idirans, a group attempting to both conquer as much of the galaxy as possible while at the same time prevent their rivals, the Culture, from doing the same. Moving from pirate ships to orbital belts, abandoned mines to desert islands, Horza’s espionage keeps him in a constant struggle to balance morals with the vision of his ideals. Far from the perfect spy, the concessions Horza makes to his enemies never seem to add up to the fire fights, captures, and macabre/sticky/wholly unpredictable situations he gets himself into. There are thus two major themes to Consider Phlebas.
The first is singular in nature, namely the futility of war. Forever looking ahead and forgetting to look behind, Eliot’s Phlebas is caught in the moment and fails to learn history’s lessons. Horza’s ideological stubbornness is much the same. The second major theme of the novel is a juxtaposition: natural life vs. life saturated with technology to the point life itself is difficult to define. The Idirans religious zealots, of utmost importance is the precocity of the heartbeat and braggadocio in protecting and maintaining a spiritual connection to it. It goes without saying that their war, including Horza’s, is foremost one of principle. The Culture, particularly its post-scarcity/post-human promulgation of utopia, is anathema to the Idirans. The Culture’s wholly rational, perfectly structured society could not be further from idyll—Brave New World chiming in the background. The novel is thus on firm thematic footing.
Competently but not lyrically written, Banks’ prose fits the sci-fi adventure bill rather than literary realism’s. The digressive elements do as well. There are occasional side stories which have no real place in the narrative and seem to exist for reasons of color only. Additional shortcomings of the novel include a forced ending. Obviously planned like an architect does a home, the unraveling of final events does not have the natural feel later Culture climaxes possess. The suspense and surprise are there, but must be dealt with one deliberate, plodding step at a time.
In the end, Consider Phlebas is a solid sci-fi debut which gives every indication of the complexity and appeal later Culture novels would cultivate. The scope kept at a human rather than galaxy level, readers should expect a character and plot driven novel that does the little things correctly, a few gratuitous motifs of mainstream literature thrown in for good measure. The space ship and the crew with which Horza spends his time has a strong Schismatrix feel, thus readers of Sterling may want to have a read. Likewise, readers of later Culture novels will not be disappointed at the setting’s first offering if it hasn’t already been read. Banks a huge fan of Simmons, those who enjoyed Hyperion may also want to try out the Culture.