by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've embarked on a re-read of The Culture novels, starting at the beginning and going all the way through to the end.
It's been quite a long time since I last read Consider Phlebas
, and I was a bit wary of rereading it, for fear of that it wouldn't hold up to the passage of time. After all, intelligent, literate space opera is no longer a rare or surprising thing, and the Culture isn't the startlingly new idea it was back when I first read these books either. Does Consider Phlebas
still hold up?
It does, although I think some of its flaws are more obvious now. This novel has a very large cast of characters, many of whom never rise above being a collection of miscellaneous tics and traits before they're unceremoniously dispatched in the course of some giant set piece action scene. And I don't remember being quite so thoroughly annoyed by the book's protagonist, Horza, on my first read. Although given that he is an anti-hero who's fighting the Culture, maybe that's not a flaw.
Of course, the things I loved about the book the first time are here as well: the outsized futuristic settings - the megaships, orbitals, and underground rail-systems filled with ancient nuclear-powered steam trains; the action sequences in which these feats of futuristic engineering are often spectacularly demolished; and the slightly twisted sense of humor.
It's interesting that in this first Culture novel, we don't see that much of the Culture - and a large chunk of what we do see is through the eyes of their enemies. It's also a very early version of the Culture - both in series chronological order and, of course, in publication order, so what we do see is much less developed than in the other books which are set hundreds of years later. We don't see any banter between Ship Minds; characters don't have the ability to back up their personalities and download them casually into new bodies; even things like the drones and the Culture's genetic modification technologies seem a bit more primitive than what we see later on. Even the trademark "wacky ship names" seem subdued compared to what we'll see later - the main text features ships called "Nervous Energy", "Eschatologist", "The Ends of Invention", "Trade Surplus", and "Revisionist". Unusual names, to be sure, but hardly on a par with "Size Isn't Everything", "Anticipation of a New Lover's Arrival, The" or "Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life's Rich Tapestry".
It'll be interesting to watch how the Culture develops through the subsequent novels, and to see how much looks like deliberate cultural evolution on Banks's part and how much is just him throwing in cool stuff as he thought of it. View all my reviews