Consider Phlebas

by Iain M. Banks

Hardcover, 2023



Call number



Folio Society (2023)


Fiction. Science Fiction. HTML:The first book in Iain M. Banks's seminal science fiction series, The Culture. Consider Phlebas introduces readers to the utopian conglomeration of human and alien races that explores the nature of war, morality, and the limitless bounds of mankind's imagination. The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender. Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.… (more)

Media reviews

The choice of name was definitely not an attempt to gain literary credentials or he would have ditched the ‘camp aliens and laser blasters.’ He has acknowledged the similarities to the poem in that the main character in Consider Phlebas is drowning and later undergoes a ’sea-change’ –
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this being a motif running through The Waste Land – but that is far as it goes. But there are a number of parallels between the two works, whether deliberate or not on Iain’s part. To prove my point I will take a brief look at Consider Phlebas and then at The Waste Land, followed by examples of how the latter informs the former.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member DRFP
I can see why Banks went on to write more novels about the Culture as it's the stand out part of this book; a very interesting societal idea and one which totally overshadows the very generic Iridians. However, everything else is a little average.

The writing is solid but not startlingly good.
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Banks doesn't waffle but there were times when I thought it could have been edited a little more ruthlessly. For all the words Banks has shoved into Consider Phlebas he does remarkably little with the characters. This isn't a short book and it's disappointing how flat all the characters remain by the end. Plot-wise, the novel is hurt by the way Banks' starts the novel, which makes the first 250 pages seem like a near pointless digression (also, the finale, down in the tunnels, is disappointingly tedious too). The first half of the story was still enjoyable but there was always a nagging voice at the back of my mind asking: 'What's the point to this again?' I also wasn't entirely convinced by the author's sci-fi talk. Banks tends to hit you with sudden, large lumps of hard sci-fi in between acres of very soft stuff. I couldn't help but make an unfavourable comparison to Rendezvous With Rama, which has a real brevity and clarity in its style of writing (though RWR does fall down on character development too).

Banks says he rewrote an old novel and turned it into Consider Phlebas and I think it shows. This is an okay novel, but nothing more. I do intend to read the other Culture novels, as that aspect of the story is very interesting, but if the writing doesn't improve I won't give them a third chance.
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LibraryThing member ChrisRiesbeck
Disappointing, not because it's awful, but because my expectations were high, given how often Banks is listed in discussions of authors to read, and given I dimly recall enjoying a different entry in the Culture series. This is classic modern British space opera, with all the strengths and
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weaknesses that implies, and nothing particularly outstandingly different. It combines Stapledonian philosophizing about cultural development, a tour of some galactic backwaters, and a pulpish countdown cliffhanger climax, but never blends them into a unified story or theme. There was no resonance between elements, no unifying subtext or theme, and no justification for the many digressions and resultant length. One of those digressions, "The Eaters," was so deliberately unpleasant that I assumed the author had some ultimate payoff for its presence, but there was none that I could see. The concluding action chapters managed to be exciting and impossible to put down, but also mechanical and contrived, and extremely cliched. Unlike some of the other LT reviewers, I did not find the protagonist unlikable. Unfortunately, he was the only character given any real development. The other actors were mainly props. As in classic American space opera, the signposts said "welcome to the far future," but the inhabitants, human, alien, and computational, were straight from the 1940's.
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LibraryThing member RobertDay
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
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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?
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LibraryThing member elenchus
THE CULTURE: BOOK 1 | Consider Phlebas

The first published Culture novel, the sixth I've read. Here begins my read through the complete Culture cycle in publication order, at whatever pace feels comfortable. A special focus: evidence the Culture is for Banks neither utopia nor dystopia, but a
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desirable social arrangement tested for rigour and suitability. Banks subjects the Culture to thought experiments for teasing out conceptual weakness and moral liability, such as that of the democratic paradox: the notion democracies cannot successfully be founded and/or defended while adhering to democratic principles such as tolerance, universal inclusion, or constraints upon coercive power.

Phlebas is narrated in 3P omnisicient, employing multiple POV characters with the majority of text devoted to a character antagonistic to the Culture. (Other characters include a Culture agent, a Culture Mind, and a Culture savant; collectively these account for perhaps a tenth of the anti-Culture character's word count).

The title is a clue to this choice of protagonist, and an epigraph reminds the reader of Eliot's lines: "Gentile or Jew ... / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you." Banks's decision to introduce the Culture through a character actively antagonistic to it was genre-defying and emblematic of his take on space opera.

I read from the first U.S. edition, clothbound.


This first installment impresses for how developed is Banks's conception of the populated universe and its various civilizations. Already the reader learns that Culture's Special Circumstances is a specialised unit of Contact, already encounters an Orbital, is presented with a Planet of the Dead, with various classes of ships (notably GSVs and megaships). Evidently Banks did a good amount of world building separate from this novel, the extent of which is hinted at in his 1994 essays, "A Few Notes On The Culture" and "A Few Notes On Marain".

I chose to read the appendices on the Culture-Idiran war first: don't recall spoilers and it helped put individual conversations in context. Religion is a recurring interest of Banks's, both in Culture and other novels.

The character of Fal Shilde 'Ngeestra, a Culture Referrer, reveals Banks imagines Minds as hyperfast pattern recognition consciousness; the savant is the same, essentially a "biological AI".


SYNOPSIS | An Idiran mercenary attempts to infiltrate a Dead World in pursuit of a Culture Mind, setting the stage for a small but potentially significant battle in the ongoing Culture-Idiran War. Horza has a history with the Culture's Special Circumstances branch; the administrators of the Dead World; and Idiran military leaders --not to mention some objectives of his own. Predictably, these threads intersect and a lot of people suffer. Uncertain is whether events will influence the larger War or go unnoticed apart from those directly involved.

● Horza's perspective is that Idirans and Culture are primarily different not so much in faith vs non-faith, but in being predicated in organic life vs AI "machines". Interesting then, his blatant hypocrisy committing manslaughter about midway through the book, and again later. Horza's victims on the Vavatch Orbital and End of Invention are not even Culture-bound, were that even offered as rationalization.

● An iconic fear of AI (think Skynet) is voiced here by Horza: eventually Minds will see how irrational and wasteful are humans (or perhaps, how threatening), and "do away with them". Banks effectively treats that view as a bogeyman: notably, neither Culture pan-humans nor Minds mention this concern themselves. An issue that is raised by Culture citizens is that in a post-scarcity society, the key concern is "making meaning from life". This is as true for Minds as it is for pan-humans.

● Banks does like to bodily torture his characters, a theme found in both his SF and his literary fiction. It occurs here throughout, Horza especially but other characters are made to endure (and at times, fail to endure) a wide variety of extreme duress.
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LibraryThing member reading_fox

Most series' suffer from bloat where, as the author gets more famous, and the editor has less control the latter books become unnecessarily verbose, withut the impact of the earlier works. It is therefore a shame that the culture series starts with an unnecessarily verbose and longwinded
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story that is badly in need of trimming before it finally reaches a very sudden and pointlessly bloody conclusion.

Quite an interesting premise though. Mankind has spread throughot the galaxy splintering and evolving (sometimes through deliberate choice) into various factiions and species. Our hero Horza is a Changer, deliberatey bred species as soldiers of limited numbers with the ability to alter his physical apperance, impersonate others, , emit and resist venom and acid and countless other adaptions. We first meet him in a particularly unplesant death row, where he has been sentanced following his discovery as a spy. His deception was unmasked by an agent of the Culture, also human but dedicated to AI and the sentenance of artifical brains. The Culture are in a war with an alien species the Iridians (fundamental religionists) who recruited the Changers.

What follows could have been an exciting and fascinating series of excerpts from the two agents personal battles in various arenas as part of the wider war, exploring the fascinating universe Banks' developed. Instead we suffer through Horza's tortuous fantasy quest style journey through a few pointless encounters with a mercinary company until we reach the planet foreshadowed in the introduction as being the pinacle of this phase of the war. This is at least half the book, snd i's all spent thinking. Horza just get on with it!

The remaining half of the book is equally tedious aided by confusing descriptions of what's happening to whom where, some contrived excuses for not imagining futuristic technology properly and some more of the frankly unbelivable aliens. Horza explores a world with the previously mentioned culture agent as his prisoner for no good reason. Running out of ways to end the story Banks goes for the last man standing at the OK coral style fight. To preserve what limited suspense there is I won't say who it is. But you can guess. All the remaining plot points (lots) are supposedly tied up in a series of excerpts from 'history' and an epilogue as well for good measure.

The extremely graphic violence doesn't work as a writing style to make up for the deficiencies in the plot or the rest of the prose. Not on my list for re-reading, and I can't see why the series has the aclaim that it is normally granted.
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LibraryThing member majkia
Consider Phlebas felt like a space opera the more I read it. A main character who wasn't exactly a hero, but who certainly was willing to give his all for a cause.

It was hard to figure out who the bad guys were, and certainly the main characters struggles never answered the central question, was he
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really on the right side or the wrong side?

Fascinating concepts: shape changers, galactic-size space battles, intelligent machines, species whose concepts, beliefs and desires are not necessarily obvious.

Nor, I might add, is the meaning of it all.
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LibraryThing member lucasmcgregor
You know how the third Matrix movie seems like one giant chase scene that leads to an ending that no one cares about? Along the way, throw away characters and settings are thrown out and discarded with the reckless abandon that only cheap CGI allows. Well, this book reads the same. Improbable
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settings, shallow characters, motivation that never goes beyond "I felt like I must," and a complete lack of new ideas. Near the end, some poorly articulated thoughts on evolution and purpose try to justify the last 300 or so pages -- but like the rest of the book, it just isn't believable. This one is to be missed.
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LibraryThing member baswood
Its an Iain M Banks novel rather than an Iain Banks novel and so it is one of his science fiction novels. In fact it was his first published science fiction novel dating from 1987 and the first in his Culture series. It is in the sub genre of Space Opera in that the whole galaxy is background to
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the story of Bora Horza Gobuchul. Far in the future the humanoids of the Culture are at war with the Idirans described as three-strides-tall-monsters. The Culture have developed machinery/robotics that allows their humanoids to enjoy a more hedonistic lifestyle while the Idirans with their god fearing culture are intent on dominating the galaxy. Bora is an agent of the Idirans because he prefers the God folk monsters rather than the machine dominated lifeless Culture. The novel opens with Bora a prisoner of the Gerontics who are part of the Cultures sphere of influence. Bora is a changer in that over a period of time he can adapt to resemble a humanoid which makes him an excellent assassin. He escapes from the Gerontics and embarks on a series of adventures around the galaxy as an agent of the Indirans.

The novel is loosely held together with Bora’s quest to locate a Mind; an advanced piece of robotic machinery developed by the Culture which has escaped from a battle with the Idirans and is hiding in a tunnel network on one of the dead planets Schar’s world. Bora manages to infiltrate a gang of mercenaries and the second half of the novel takes place in the claustrophobic tunnels of Schar’s world where the team and a captured Culture agent do battle with an elite vanguard of Idirans. The tunnel network with decommissioned trains and impossible odds provides an atmospheric backdrop to the climax of the book.

Banks is at his best in this novel when he creates a scenario where he can unleash some fast paced thriller writing against an imaginative background. The gruesome goings on on the island of Fwi-song or the ingenious drug enhanced game of Damage on Vavatch Orbital on the eve of its destruction and finally in the tunnels of Schar’s world, in each of these stories Bora battles his way through the limits of his physical capabilities in his single minded quest to win and survive. However it is Bank’s ability to carry the reader along with his visualisation of his fantasy environments and his portrayal of his characters that are deep enough for them to emerge from the two dimensional. It is adventure rather than hard science and episodic rather than continuous, but it does have that sense of wonder during its best passages that make it an enjoyable science fiction read which I rate at 3.5 stars.
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LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
I had been intending for many years to read Iain M. Banks science fiction series The Culture, of which Consider Phlebas is the first volume. Because of this persistent aspiration, I collected several of the books before even beginning to read.

Considering how lauded The Culture is, I was surprised
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at the extent to which the book is pretty conventional space opera, but I certainly enjoyed it. The increasingly intelligent handling of interstellar travel in recent decades of sf seems to have left me with an allergy to FTL "jump drives," although Banks does a little better than pure handwavium for the technology. The plotting and structure are not ordinary, and those who want straightforward adventure with triumphant endings might find this book unpalatable. The worldbuilding is ambitious, and it's easy to see from just this one (of what I am assured is an extremely varied series) that there will be many interesting environments and large-scale events in these books.

Consider Phlebas is focused on a "short" half-century war between two interstellar powers, the Culture and the Idirans. The chief viewpoint character works as a spy for the Idirans, but there are "State of Play" chapters that offer the Culture perspective on events as well. A documentary conceit to provide greater narrative unity to the text is supplied in an epilogue. That epilogue reminded me considerably of the way in which Ada Palmer wrapped up her much more recent Perhaps the Stars, and I was given to wonder if she wrote that consciously influenced by Banks.

The use of "A.D." dating in the "historical" appendices is a curious choice. It does demonstrate that the Culture is older than modern terrestrial civilization, and that the events of the book are actually within our historical period although elsewhere in the galaxy. It does not establish what relationship, if any, the "humans" of the Culture have with Earth.

I expect to continue with The Player of Games fairly promptly.
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LibraryThing member sockatume
I first read this when a friend got me in to the Culture novels in high school. Revisiting it with a couple of decades of experience of life in general and of Banks in particular, it's comforting how many of the series' conventions and defining themes were already established, although I hadn't
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realised it the first time around.

The book revolves around one of the questions that the Culture is meant to answer: when you take away the capitalist struggle for survival, resources and recognition, what if anything does a human life mean? Consider Phlebas provides thoughtful speculation on this topic laden with caveats (despite the author's obvious preference for the solution the Culture is meant to represent) through witty dialogue, smartly constructed symbolism and poignant imagery. Yet the novel also merrily indulges in enormous action scenes, monumental carnage, pointless digressions in to technical minutia and a troubling fascination with torture (ostensibly condemned, frequently indulged): it is unrepentantly high space opera and unmistakably Banks' work.
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LibraryThing member TheCriticalTimes
If you like narratives that extend endlessly into an unknown direction with plenty of fast flying-by descriptions, strange cultures, exotic aliens and complex machinery, then Consider Phlebas is yours to dive into for the holidays. I would agree with the reviews on the dust jacket that Iain Banks
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is the ultimate Science Fiction author, but I wish he would also be a stellar literaturist. Our main character and our emotional focus as a reader is a 'Changer' by the name of Horza. It would be best to describe him as an incredibly lucky assassin with an impressive array of personal and deadly tricks up his sleeve. Horza works as a mercenary assassin for a dominate galactic race called the Idrian. He also happens to agree with their philosophy of life although we never get that many details on exactly why he does what he does. Horza has been tasked to retrieve an advanced piece of technology called 'The Mind' from a dark underground labyrinth located on a deserted planet. He decides to accomplish this task with a set of misfit buccaneers on a raider spaceship under the direction of a pirate captain, who is at some point disposed of in order for the Changer to take his place.

That's pretty much where the common sense part of the story description ends. Horza is not one of the smartest assassins in the universe and he makes countless dumb mistakes but always gets gets through without much of a bad scratch. At least not a scratch a good night's sleep will solve. In those cases where Horza is indeed badly hurt, Iain Banks simply ignores the problem and moves the story onto other fast past space chases. For example, in one chapter one of Horza's fingers is bitten off leaving clean bones sticking out, something that should you would assume have a bit of an effect later on. We don't really know how that influences the rest of the story because we never hear from it again. It would greatly change everything I would imagine since Horza is imitating a well known player of a game of chance called Damage. Horza attends this mass broadcast and much attended game already completely in the guise of his target. Anyone knowing the person he's trying to imitate would be a bit more than surprised by a missing finger. Not only that but Horza casually walks around the immediate area of his target without anyone noticing that they are spitting images. Later on when Horza meets up with his old pirate crew, nobody seems to notice that their old captain is missing a finger.

Sure, it's details and in the end it's all about the action and the adventure. But if you call someone the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, then I think you can have some higher standards and some more scrutiny. The book is riddled with cases like this and what's more important, the main plot-line depends on Horza making out-of-character mistakes. On the one hand he disposes of people easily enough and on the other hand he drags two enemies and one lethal adversary all the way down into the labyrinth to complete his task. At some point the silliness becomes so frustrating that you just want to see how it all ends.

We're supposed to believe that the Mind, or intelligent cylinder resembling a torpedo, is sentient. We know this because throughout the narrative the drone's internal thoughts are splashed in italics. The machine being highly intelligent is also a feeling being and is scared about being captured and maybe even fears for its existence. When we finally arrive at the scene where the drone is found we read nothing anymore about how this conscious object feels about the situation. We don't even read why it can't escape and why it simply flops to the ground ready to be trucked off to the surface. Why? The setup was wonderful and promising but we are essentially left with: well then they found it.

What you're left with is a good ride. It's entertainment and it's fun. Iain Banks is probably the only author who can extend any chase and action scene across an entire chapter. And even with a book this size you will breeze through it all at a break-neck speed. However, after you've read the conclusion you might wonder: so what was that all about?
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LibraryThing member antao
When Banks died, I was in the process of starting one of my usual re-reads of the Culture novels. I decided it was not the time to start that re-read. I said to myself, “I’ll just wait another couple more years.” It’s now 2017, and I’m not sure I’ll re-read them now in one large gulp. I
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want to be able to savour the remaining books over time. One of my main attractions to Banks' novels lies in his version of AI. Stephen Hawking and colleagues worry about tooth and claw Darwinian features of AI, that threaten us all. Why not allow for the possibility that a truly superior intelligence would follow its own independent moral code? Banks' machine minds have values and follow courses of action that are far more admirable than what our species can manage.

No longer being able to look forward to a new Iain. M. Banks novel every twenty months or so is a source of great sadness. "Consider Phlebas" was such a dazzling, utterly astonishing tour-de-force, the grandest and saddest of all space operas, which nothing before or since has even come close to. And I can still remember the delight of coming across a 'hard' SF writer whose politics were, for a change, anti-authoritarian.

The concept of The Culture was brilliant, partly because of the wonderful plot opportunities it offered, but also as a wildly optimistic if improbable speculation about how human (and by extension, alien) intelligence might one day be weaned from self-destructive selfishness. Banks' descants on the Culture, its workings and philosophy; they're always intriguing and never preachy. The one question he tended to skirt around was the age-old one of humanity's inherent if occasional will to evil for its own sake: in a perfectly liberal society in which everybody can have almost anything they want, what do you do with somebody who just wants to hurt others? In one of the novels, the question is posed by a new arrival to a Culture planet or orbital, and the answer is something like "they don't get invited to parties very often", which is not good enough...

The Culture is a fascinating fictional presentation of a "post-scarcity" society, and it's to Banks's credit that he explored the implications of that idea intelligently and honestly enough to raise some questions.
If the only way for human beings to experience their full potential is to exploit the services of a technology so advanced that the technology itself is sentient, how is that different from human slavery? it's very noticeable that Banks's Culture characters sometimes tend to act and speak like spoiled aristocrats - and these are some of my favourite characters.

If the answer is that the AIs are so far advanced beyond us in power and intelligence that their apparent services are just trivial (to them) gestures to keep us happy, are we not then the slaves, the happy sheep, who could be discarded by the actual masters at any time?

Is slave/master the only relation possible between sentient beings?

Certainly, I never read the relation of minds and humans as anything other than symbiotic cooperation between equals (different but with the same rights and expectations). In the same way that humans cooperating can achieve great things, minds cooperating (with other minds or with humans) can also achieve more than they would alone.

Finally, and I think this is a point that Banks is making with minds too - if minds are sentient beings with infinitely more power than humans, would it be a bad thing if humans, having created minds, disappeared? I don't think so. I'd weep for the extinction of intelligence in our universe, but not for the extinction (or evolution) of a species to something greater. But then, one of my favourite Banks’ novels was/is ”Excession”, so what do I know.

Some of the other books are also cleverer but “Consider Phlebas” will always be my first and favourite Banks even when I gave it “only” 4 stars when I first read in 1994. It's a noirish take on space opera with enormous vistas, action scenes, dark humour and grim determination. It's like Star Wars for adults. Too much so for Hollywood, but perhaps not for HBO. “Consider Phlebas” knocked me out, slung me over its shoulder and carried me off; by the time I woke up I was hooked.

I like all the novels and love the idea of the Ships who get to name themselves. I always got the sense that the Culture was more like a 'phase' than an 'empire' - bits of it sublime or break away at the edges but there's always new species deciding they quite fancy living that way for a while, so there will always be a Culture or something like it as part of the galactic ecosystem.

God, I miss Banks. I have “The Quarry” but can't bring myself to read it because then there'd be no new ones to look forward to.

After having lost touch with SF for 10 years or more, it was Iain Banks's books that drew me back into it. As I said, I had given up on SF for more than a decade when someone persuaded me to try it, and I was enthralled. It may not be great literature, but it is great fun and better written than most "serious" novels I must plough through. The only SF author I still read at a time when I mainly eschew intentional fiction altogether. Consistently brilliant. His books could sometimes do with pruning these days but I still love The Culture and his ability to tell a tale.

One of the brightest and most original minds in SF; he is sorely missed.

SF = Speculative Fiction.
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LibraryThing member Black_samvara
Point by S about unlovable characters is well made. The main character is neither The Good Guy nor A Good Guy and other more emotionally attractive characters get far less air time, I'm thinking it's deliberate.

I think the structure of the writing reflects the state Banks is trying to express. If
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this story had been told primarily from the perspective of a Culture character it would have been very hard to avoid getting caught up in the whole 'win/lose', 'us/them' dynamic.

Instead I am distanced from people I want to identify with and forced into a relationship with a character I don't really like and whose alliances are.. unwise. I do my best to understand and relate to him - which is exactly what the Culture agent opposing him is doing at the same time. This is in turn paralleled by the Culture's relationship with the entire war - the multiple layers of the story resonate.

Best moment for me was an AI reflecting on his potential death by embarrassment if his favourite human discovers he has a collection of recordings of her laugh.
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LibraryThing member kencf0618
The Culture is one of the great space opera creations, and "Consider Phlebas" was where I first tucked into the milieu. Something of a cross between Vinge and the early Gibson, but Banks has a sadistic streak which recalls Ian Fleming. An allusive, rip-roaring comic strip for adults.
LibraryThing member RandyStafford
My reactions upon reading this novel in 1989. Some spoilers follow.

An enjoyable, very exciting space opera. Banks doesn't invent anything new. All the trappings here are standard sf issue: genetic engineering, aliens, artificial intelligence, cannibalism, xenoality, ruins of alien civilizations.
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Banks presents, in his huge spaceships and galaxy spanning war, an appropriate grandiose scale and infuses, at times, a delightful wit, particularly with the surly drone Unaha-Closp and his sarcastic comments. Banks writes in a baroque, highly detailed, highly visual style. Some of his scenes are delightfully inventive: the huge ocean Megaship and its iceberg collision, the huge Vavatch Orbital and its stunning death, the bizarre game of Damage, steel teethed cannibals, the fantastic escape from the Ends of Invention, and the deadly fights in the underground MX-type rail system. His action scenes are detailed and exciting if, at times, a trifle confusing, and reveal an understanding of the action and grandiose scale necessary for space opera.

Banks gives us well-defined characters whose interrelationships are realistic, poignant, and well-done. I also liked the two groups of the Culture and the Iridans and their implacable conflict. Banks infuses his tale with irony as enemies become allies and allies fall to killing each other with understandable motivation. This is a tale of doom (particularly with the death of both of Yalson's loves and his own people the Changers extinction) in which everyone who goes after the Fugitive Mind dies or commits suicide with the exception of Unaha-Closp. But it is not a simple blood bath tale. Banks makes it seem logical, moving, and uncontrived. I also liked his epilogues and the idea of Planets of the Dead.
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LibraryThing member mausergem
This is a true science fiction book. It has three legged creatures with insect-like exoskeleton, humans who can change appearance, beautiful females with hair for skin, humans controlled by machines, inter galactic space travel ships, ring like planets, drones and many such craziness.

It's a fast
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paced book and quite readable.
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LibraryThing member pwaites
Consider Phlebas was just not the right book for me. While I thought it was well written and appreciated some of the ideas, the end result left me cold.

Consider Phlebas is a long space opera set against the background of an epic war between two civilizations, one based around artificial
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intelligence and the other around biological organisms, both fighting because of their differing ideologies. Instead of being about the people running the war, the story focuses on a mercenary, Horza, who seems to be drifting through it.

A sentient AI, the Mind, becomes trapped on a planet of the dead. Both sides want it, and one hires Horza to go after it. This end goal is set up in the first two chapters, but it takes Horza three hundred pages to get to the planet.

I feel like some of this should have been cut. I particularly disliked chapter six, which was a very gross foray into cannibalism that I don’t think was at all necessary. The book also kept cutting to a woman who lived in the Culture, the AI based civilization. She was not at all related to the plot and never interacted with any of the other characters, so I guess her sole purpose was to illuminate the theme of the novel by reflecting on the war? I don’t think her chapters were necessary, and it would have made for a tighter novel if Banks had found some way to weave her observations into the main story thread.

A lot of Consider Phlebas deals with the idea of the war and the death and destruction being pointless and inane. Due to this, it’s no surprise that the characters drop like flies. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel anything or even care when these people died. I kept forgetting that some of them existed or who they were. Most of these characters felt like little more than names, and I never became attached to even the protagonist.

On the positive side, the prose was excellent and there were some imaginative ideas, even if they weren’t as explored as they could have been. The war and ideological conflict was fascinating. The game played in places about to be destroyed was very interesting. In general, the world building was quite good. The book also had enough drive to keep me reading it, which is worth something.

However, overall Consider Phlebas just felt dull. When I finished, I wondered why I’d read it. Plenty of people love this series, so there’s obviously something I’m missing. Still, I have no idea who I’d recommend this one to.

Originally posted on The Illustrated page.
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LibraryThing member duhrer
Having read "Excession", "State of the Art", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background" and "Player of Games", I was excited to pick up another of Iain Banks' Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas".

"Consider Phlebas" is the first of the Culture novels, but it works very well if you've already read a
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few in the loose series. Instead of learning about the Culture from the inside, we follow Bora Horza Gobochul (great name), an agent who is at war with the Culture, who opposes its ideals with violent action. I'm impressed that Banks started on this note, most authors would have held this type of narrative device in reserve for a follow-up work.

"Use of Weapons" and "Player of Games" explored how the Culture shapes the destiny of less advanced civilisations through its Contact and Special Circumstances branches Think of Contact as the arm that does the heavy lifting and Special Circumstances as a hand that practises sleight of hand most of the time, but is always ready to form a fist as a last resort. Horza works for the equivalent of Special Circumstances among the enemies of the Culture, the Idirans. Horza is a shape changer, the ultimate spy, and quite literally a born killer, with venomous teeth and poisoned nails. He fights the Culture because their intelligent machines are in his mind the enemies of all living beings.

As with many of the Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas" takes an impressively long view. There are small and long arcs that nudge forward the larger plot. Most of these diversions do their job well enough, carrying us through the varied set pieces Banks has lovingly crafted and placed before us. As always, Banks provides a lot of descriptive detail, which requires careful reading, and is a kind of workout for the imagination, but is generally enjoyable.

As with many of the Culture novels, Horza picks his way through his own past as he draws closer to his final goal. This is perhaps a mild cliché, but as the reader begins each novel in utter ignorance of the life and history of its main character, a wee bit of self-absorption and reflection on the past are necessary evils to help us understand the emotional weight of the character.

I don't want to give anything away, but "Consider Phlebas" is, if anything, a bit darker than "Against a Dark Background" in its ultimate resolution (thankfully it's a bit lighter than "Use of Weapons"). It's a testament to Banks that this book is neither much better or much worse than his later Culture novels. Each novel finds a way to mine different facets of the same material, and each stands alone in its own right. All are highly recommended.

I'm in the midst of reading "Look to Windward", thus far it's a great read, stay tuned for that review in a few days.
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LibraryThing member Hectigo
The world that Iain M. Banks creates here is definitely interesting, so it is no wonder he went on to write several more Culture novels. There are interesting places, interesting societal structures and an epic, galaxy-wide war taking place. However, the plot of the book has the sour taste of genre
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fiction that never quite manages to break free of sci-fi cliches. Spaceflight and fighting with laser rifles almost drown out the more interesting parts of the book, and killing off the people Banks is writing about doesn't work in the book's favor. The disposable characters remain distanced to the reader, and particularly the romance plot gets way too cheesy in the end. All that being said, it still managed to be an entertaining read - just keep your hands on the on/off switch of your brain to flick it depending on where the book decides to turn next.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
I began Banks' famous Culture series with Look To Windward, about six months ago, and while it wasn't a fantastic book it was promising enough for me to want to try the rest of the series. Consider Phlebas is the first Culture novel, so I thought I'd start here.

My biggest complaints about Look To
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Windward were that it felt more like a loose collection of ideas than a tight story, and Consider Phlebas is fortunately better on that front. The novel takes place during a war between the Culture (a post-scarcity utopia controlled by benevolent AIs) and the Idirans (a theocratic military race), but the protagonist is neither of these, instead being a mercenary named Horza who has aligned himself with the Idirans. Horza is also a Changer, a humanoid with the ability to transform his body to perfectly mimic specific people.

The novel revolves around a Mind, one of the Culture's artificial intelligences, escaping an interstellar firefight by taking refuge on a Planet of the Dead, a deserted world officially off-limits to both sides of the war. Horza is dispatched to capture the Mind, and along the way falls in with a rag-tag group of pirates and mercenaries aboard a ship called the Clear Air Turbulence (which I remembered from Philip Reeve's novel Predator's Gold, but that's from 2002, so the homage was Reeve's).

Consider Phlebas is therefore a rollicking action-adventure space opera, but not an exceptional one. Like Look To Windward, it still feels somewhat disjointed, the characterisation is lacking and Banks' prose is still excessively bloated and florid. His dialogue often feels stilted, and although he loves to put action scenes in, he's terrible at writing them - waffling on about details rather than making them short and sharp, to capture the moment. (This was most notable when the Clear Air Turbulence flees from an orbital ring.) The climax in particular is excruciatingly slow and tedious, with an elaborate set-piece in an underground train system and lots of dull examinations of the final thoughts of dying characters whom we've only just been introduced to and therefore don't care about.

Having said all that, I did enjoy this book and appreciate it for the light space opera it was. It's quite readable, at least up until the climax, and I did enjoy it slightly more than Look To Windward. And it is, after all, the very first novel in the series and can't be expected to be the best. General opinion seems to be that the best book in the Culture series is Player of Games, which, fortunately, is the next in line.
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LibraryThing member dominus
Oh, how I hated this book. Hated hated hated hated hated it.

I hated it too much to write a real review. To write a review, I would have to think about it again.
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
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.
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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.
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LibraryThing member djfoobarmatt
I was warned that Iain Banks had a dark outlook. I've never been a fan of books where most of the characters die. I suppose my motivation for reading is a bit shallow as I'm in it for a bit of entertainment and imagination. I don't find it particularly comforting when you get introduced to an
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interesting character only to have them sliced up by a laser in the next chapter.

Having said that, Consider Phlebas has plenty of good qualities. The philosophical debate running through the book is interesting and we see it from a number of sides. There are plenty of cool settings - a run-down mercenary ship, megaship (i.e. enormous boat), ringworld, culture home planet, rainforest temple, tribal island and mega-mega space ship.

There are some nifty aliens, the race of militant three legged scaly space monsters and their six legged lizard slave friends, the changer (protagonist), lot's of wierdly evolved humans (including a furry woman), some advanced AI robots and one super advanced 'mind'.

There are no 'badies' in this book because as you read, you realise they are all badies. Space has no morality. Murder is just a part of survival. It's an alien kill alien galaxy where your friends are just the ones who happen to be of use to you at the time. No point holding on to anything or anyone as it is all about to be destroyed anyway.
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LibraryThing member Cecrow
The title quotes a T.S. Eliot poem in which the sailor Phlebas dies and his body decays, emphasizing that mortality comes to all; a grim foreshadowing. The prologue drew me right in, and Horza's ingenuity was engaging in what followed. Technology is extremely advanced beyond the norm for space
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opera that I expected, and creatively used. The action is brisk and the pace is satisfying. Given all the imagination at work, I found the dialogue a disappointing match for being dull and cliche-ridden but it's in keeping with the visual style that evokes a Hollywood blockbuster.

Parts of this novel were very exciting, but when my heart wasn't thumping I worried that there's not much to chew on besides the war's two sides not readily being categorized as good or bad. Deeper shades became apparent as I progressed, and the ending raised the novel a lot in my estimation. There's something here about the measuring of violence for violence's sake. It's a satisfying and self-contained story, which I gather the whole series consists of. I may read more of these, though I don't feel compelled to do so immediately.
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LibraryThing member kgodey
CONSIDER 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
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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.
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