Writing about Reading: Consider Phlebas

May 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

When I began assembling a menu of space operas to devour, I had a passing familiarity with most of the books on the list. One, however, I had never heard of — Consider Phlebas, the first book in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. Not only had I never heard of the book or the series, I’d never heard of the author.

I’m not sure why I’d never heard of Banks. He’s certainly been around a while and made a decent splash in not only the science fiction community, but also the world of literary novels. (When he writes the literary books, he’s Iain Banks; on his sci-fi covers, he’s Iain M. Banks.)

I wish I could say I picked the book up because the reviews won me over, or because I’d finally gotten around to it. The truth, however, is that I decided to bump Banks’ book up the list because I found out that he’s dying, and reading his book now is the only way I have of supporting him and saying “Fuck Cancer!” yet again.

Consider Phlebas is a long book, and I do love long books. The trade paperback weighs in at over 500 pages; not quite Neal Stephenson length, but enough to keep me entertained for a good long while. And entertained I was.

It takes some getting used to, this odd not-so-little novel. It’s chock full of strange and, at times, hard to pronounce names: Bora Horza Gobuchul, Perosteck Balveda, Kraiklyn, Unaha-Closp, and so on. The spaceships have odd names, too; my favorite is the pirate ship Clear Air Turbulence. (Banks is on record as having said that all space operas should have at least one ridiculously named ship in them.)

Consider Phlebas reads much like a Homeric epic—a space odyssey more so than Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001. Horza, the protagonist, is given a mission to retrieve a lost Mind from a forbidden world. Before the ship he’s on can carry him there, it is attacked and he is ejected into space to drift in a spacesuit. He is rescued by a motley band of mercenaries and forced to join their ranks, and easily a third of the book is him (mis)adventuring with them. Much like Odysseus, Horza if often waylaid while trying to reach his goal.

These detours make the book seem somewhat random at times, but they are nevertheless a lot of fun. One reviewer described several scenes as being very cinematic, and I can see them played out on the big screen with multimillion-dollar special effects. If the motto of the science fiction novelist is “Go big or go home,” Banks can be considered very far from home. Everything in the novel seems oversized and often even too big to comprehend. At one point, Horza finds himself on a Megaship that is four kilometers long; later, a similar Megaship seems small stored inside a colossal starship so big, other starships can fly around inside it.

The only thing bigger than the ships is the trouble Horza manages to get into. If the key to writing rising action is get your hero into worse and worse trouble, Banks takes it to the extreme in telling Horza’s tale. Consequences abound, too, as characters die right and left. Joss Whedon’s got nothing on Iain M. Banks, kids.

I have to admit that when I finished the book, I felt a bit let down at first. It wasn’t just the finale that left me unfulfilled; I felt like most of the book was a kind of shaggy dog story. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, however, I realize there’s much more there than I gave Banks credit for. Sure, the book could have been half the length if the shag was cut out, but it’s fun shag. It’s the genius, not the devil, that’s in these particular details.

So if you like space opera, weird names, unfathomably huge starships, and a hero up against insurmountable odds, you should perhaps … Consider Phlebas.



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