Tuesday, 20 May 2003

Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1988
Review number: 1160

Despite the literary origins of its title, from The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, the first of Banks' Culture novels is his least sophisticated. It is set in a war between the Culture and another major galactic power, the Idirans; even though most of the characters are either neutral or on the Idiran side, Banks' interest and sympathy clearly lie with the Culture. The central character is a Changer named Horza, member of a genetically engineered race who can counterfeit the appearance and mannerisms of humans - clearly based on the Face Dancers of Frank Herbert's Dune series. At the beginning of the novel, he is about to be executed by drowning in a sewer, but is able to escape to take on a mission to travel to the planet Schar's World to try to find a Culture Mind (one of the artificial intelligences which run Culture society) which escaped seemingly certain destruction to take refuge there. For Schar's World is a monument, a commemoration of its native people who destroyed themselves in a holocaust, and it is conserved by a guardian who is very choosy about who is allowed in. Horza has already been there, and so the Idirans hope he will be permitted to land again.

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction which has had mixed fortunes over the years, often being derided for overblown and ludicrous scenarios and unbelievably heroic central characters. Banks is one of the authors involved in attempts to revive space opera from the late eighties onwards, seeking to add more literary ideas while taking advantage of one of the genre's richest collections of standard ideas and the immense grandeur of scale offered by such fiction. In each Culture novel, certain ideas from the sub-genre are re-used; in this case, huge empires of worlds, linked by faster than light travel, and the quest for some object of tactical significance (many space operas use military scenarios). The main change from older works by authors such as E. E. "Doc" Smith is that Horza is in no sense a heroic figure. In fact, his quest for the mind is more a series of disasters than the traditional crescendo of successes, and the main superhuman aspect of his character is his ability to survive these debacles. (Such changes would form an ideal part of a parody, but Consider Phlebas appears to be more serious in intent than that.)

The novel never really grabs the reader, unlike the space opera it is based on (which tends to emphasise excitement given a sufficient readiness to suspend disbelief) or the later Culture novels. It has some nice touches; the nature of space opera and the fact that a large proportion of the Culture's population is human leads the reader to make the assumption that it is an Earth-derived civilisation, but then the appendix reveals that the events described took place in our thirteenth century - Earth humanity is clearly a less developed offshoot of the species in Banks' scenario. This detail seems quite a neat if slightly contrived subversion of the genre. It is also the only clear piece of humour in Consider Phlebas, which is really the most po-faced of Banks' novels, and that makes it a much less interesting read. Banks turns the genre around, but here doesn't offer a convincing alternative.

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