Many discerning readers, even ones who like SF, will reflexively sneer if you say the dreaded words space opera One need only think of E.E Doc Smith, for a long time the unquestioned king of this particular sub genre I read Galactic Patrol when I was at primary school like innumerable other geeky nine year olds, I adored it, and particularly loved the Helmuth speaking for Boskone tagline I also remember how, aged 12 or 13, I picked it up to see if the magic was still there Oh dear It was maybe the first time I felt embarrassed at ever having liked a book, and wondered how I could have had such poor taste You will gather that he really isn t terribly good.None the less, if you love a book when you re nine, it probably has something to recommend it what s great about space opera is the sense of wonder it inspires, as you are taken outside our little planet and shown how huge and strange the larger Universe is As people like Kingsley Amis and Brian Aldiss have argued, the roots of this kind of literature go back to imaginative, ostensibly mainstream authors like Dante and Milton, but the project somehow got hijacked in the early 20th century In the 1980s, Iain Banks conceived the ambitious idea of redeeming the space opera, and started writing the Culture series Consider Phlebas is the first one The title a quotation from The Waste Land, no less lets you know at once that something important has been fixed The author presumably wanted to increase the number of people who d get as far as even opening the book Instead of Smith s dreadful prose, Banks writes elegant, literary English By the time you ve got a dozen pages into it, you re convinced that this will, at the very least, be pleasant to read at the sentence level After a while, you find out that he s also addressed most of the other standard problems.Banks has given interviews about the Culture novels, and one aspect he likes to focus on is the politics He said he found it distasteful that galactic empires always had to be right wing military hierarchies I didn t realize it when I was nine, but the basic plot in Smith is one bunch of Nazis fighting another The Culture is ainteresting beast a decentralized, anarchic society, which consists of a loose federation of humans and intelligent machines, spread out over many worlds The humans use their advanced technology to support a relaxed, hedonistic life style, with a lot of sex, drugs and rock n roll A nice detail is that they are genetically engineered so that their bodies can synthesize their own drugs Not so far fetched our own society has plenty of endorphin junkies, to mention just one hormone we regularly enjoy The machines are very well done Most space operas never really consider the fact that machines will eventually be smarter than people, but Banks confronts this head on You see the Culture both from the inside and from the outside its critics tend to say that it s really run by the AIs, with the people having little influence The smartest Culture machines, the Minds , are indeed enormouslyintelligent than any person could be, and have almost godlike powers I see the relationship between machines and people in the Culture as being rather like the relationship between a person and their genes You re far smarter than your genes However, the genes built you to take care of them, and you often do what they tell you Just as a person can get into a relationship that they know makes no logical sense, because their genes like the idea, Banks s godlike machines also let their human partners make important decisions for them on emotional grounds Although his main purpose is to tell a story, Banks is saying some quite interesting things here about the future of technology Well, that s a lightning tour of the Culture universe, and Consider Phlebas makes good use of it There s a war on between the Culture and the Idirans, and the book is about one tiny incident in that war Neither side is presented as intrinsically good or bad the main character, Horza, is a spy working for the Idirans, who has been assigned the job of retrieving a Mind that has been accidentally stranded on a remote planet Horza is opposed by a Culture agent there is again no attempt to show that he is morally superior, and in fact she comes across in many ways as a better person We see acts of treachery and heroism on both sides, and one of the things I liked is that some of the bravest and most heroic acts later turn out to have been utterly misconceived The story at first seems to be meandering around, but as Horza gets closer to the Mind it tightens upandthe ending is absolutely terrific, and left me with an adrenaline rush and a head full of startling, nightmare images I enjoyed this book as much as my nine year old self enjoyed Galactic Patrol. I can t really say much, other than Iain Banks has become my 1 favorite Sci Fi author I love the way he fleshes out flawed, believable characters in a Space Opera setting I m always surprised by his writing, and that keeps me coming back forIf you re not into the genre, but want to give it a try, pick up this book You will not regret it And today, mine is going to be unpopular But remember the advice from 9th grade Advanced English teacher Mrs Muench about metaphors Or maybe I mean false equivalency Regardless you are not what you like If I dislike something you love, I am not dislikingyou. But you may not want to read my review, friends who love this book Consider Phlebas is classic sci fi that I missed growing up Periodically, I try to exercise my genre core, and it was with a bit of read harder spirit that I picked it up Initially intrigued, I gradually lost interest as the main character, Horza, ended up in one disastrous situation after another Horza s a Changer, a shape shifting species that is extremely rare throughout the galaxy, who voluntarily works for the Idiran race in a battle between the Idirans and the Culture Disaster seems to sharpen Horza s philosophical skills, because as he attempts to save himself from da dum Certain Doom, he takes a little bit of time to compare and contrast the structured and AI dominant Culture with that of the religious and militant Idirans.I ll take C, none of the above.Honestly, I ended up bored, and there s no way that should happen when you are a in a torture chamber filling with liquid waste, b in a deep space shoot out, c captured by space pirates, d attacking a monastery for a priceless artifact, e involved in a mega colony ship crash, f about to be eaten by cannibal cultists, g playing a card game to the death, or h making a daring spaceship escape, which is where I last set the book down.Mr Bazan, of the honors high school Civilization class always insisted that boredom was due to the person complaining of it the students, naturally not asking enough questions I m willing to accept some responsibility here, but frankly, it feels padded with filler Though Horza is approached with a job for the Idirans that involves returning to a planet and people from Horza s earlier life, he doesn t actually start that particular task until close to 3 5 through the book, having to get through the aforementioned adventures to get close to his objective I noted at one point that he felt like Odysseus,than a bit of jerk and taking ten years to accomplish his goal.So the plot is somewhat meandering Maybe the characters are interesting Well, not really Horza is hard to enjoy While he is resourceful and confident, and occasionally even affable, he truly connects with only one person He shares very little of his past, so despite reading three hundred pages or so, I can t really tell you much about Changer culture, his childhood, etc Although he states families are close knit, his parents are dead and he s the only one in his clan, one presumes he s been isolated by circumstance His feelings towards other beings is largely dispassionate, strategical over emotional.The writing failed to grab me as well, with a fair amount of description that doesn t really advance the story or the world building For instance, when on the pirate ship During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn t Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his roommate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet, and, when not eating or working, usually asleep The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.Dorlow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson She was plump, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice, which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot Her movements were fluttery and nervous It goes on like that for another three pages for the rest of the crew, and this is on page 67, mind you, of people who quite possibly may be killed The descriptions aren t even particularly interesting different cultures races represented and we get that the voice was high and her eyes watered No dialogue on discovering this I remember reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and being intrigued by interaction with the crew members, the details that made their race personality come alive Banks doesn t even have the courtesy of character preservation, so that my effort in learning these almost faceless blobs names might be entirely wasted.It just didn t work for me Explanatory and expositionary full of telling, a main character that was a challenge to connect to, and a rather arbitrary division between religious extremism and A.I regulation couched in yawning philosophical dichotomies meant this was a struggle all the way through.Sorry, friends Always a downer when someone doesn t love the book that you do. Consider Iain M Banks an unsentimental, often ruthless writer his characters are provided robust emotional lives and richly detailed backgrounds all the better to punish the reader when those characters meet their often bleak fates his narratives are ornate affairs, elaborately designed, full of small meaningful moments as well as huge, wide scale world building all the better to deliver a sucker punch directly to the reader s gut when those narratives turn out to be ironic, predetermined mousetraps yet despite the cruelly intelligent design of his novels, a strong case can be made that Banks is a fiery humanist if the idea of humanism is expanded to include all forms of consciousness, including the psychologically aberrant, including artificial minds is there a genre specialist who is apassionate yet clear eyed even cold eyed partisan for the right of all conscious beings to pursue their own individual desires, dreams, and destinies while not fucking up the lives of other beings even his utopic, galaxy spanning civilization The Culture has its own major achilles heel in their theoretically positive desire to improve the self determination of other cultures.Consider Consider Phlebas now this is a SPACE OPERA it has it all multiple alien cultures in a race against time and each other sentient machines piratical mercenaries world hopping the destruction of orbitals and entire cities a graveyard world overseen by a transcended being an incredibly advanced, liberal, permissive society in conflict with barbaric, right wing, militaristic religious fanatics a shape shifting spy for a protagonist a very canny choice in regards to providing an outsider perspective on The Culture it is filled to the brim with so many things, including a handful of long digressions in the first half of the novel, chapters that are pretty much only side adventures some of which seem like trial runs for ideas expanded upon in Player of Games and the non Culture Algebraist despite the length of the novel, despite wide ranging adventures and misadventures, the blood vengeance, the extreme presentations of eating defecating, despite the in depth detail present in all that running about in the tunnels of Graveyard World, despite the whole sturm und drang of it all this is an intimate novel intimate in its character work and almost peculiarly intimate in the way that Banks allows his ethical concerns, his one could say almost rigid moralism to dominate the proceedings this is not a tale of crazy adventures that eventually finds its way to a punchy end this is a novel of rigorously political ideas and, perhaps, ideals those ideas are carefully encapsulated within each sequence, by the grand conflict at hand, and by the eventual fates of each one of its major characters.the choice of the title is wonderful how fitting i was also reminded of another well known passage I met a traveler from an antique land Who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed And on the pedestal these words appear My name is Ozymandias, king of kings Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair Nothing beside remains Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.Banks is not a depressing writer he can have a light touch his novels are full of life, full of wit and love and laughter and bravery and mindboggling invention and yet they are often a rather depressing experience i can see why some folks avoid him i can understand why some dislike Consider Phlebas and its often uncomfortable combination of digressive high adventure and stark, moralistic political analogies hey, the world can be an awfully shitty place and so why immerse yourself inof the same although he is easy to read, Banks certainly doesn t make things easy on readers and their various sentimental attachments he chooses discomfort and tragedy at nearly every turn.well who ever said that utopian ideals are an easy thing striving for utopia should be hard it should be long and difficult and heartbreaking and full of intensely uncomfortable ambiguity it should make you want to cry, little baby. The War Raged Across The Galaxy Billions Had Died, Billions 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 SurrenderWithin 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 Posted at HeradasIn my introductory essay on Iain Banks and the Culture, Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Principle of Charity, I mention that he approached fiction with a certain kind of duality, representing and considering ideologies and viewpoints antagonistic with one another In Consider Phlebas, his first published novel in the series, he takes this to an extreme, showing us the Culture almost entirely from an antagonistic point of view before giving readers a glimpse of the positives It went way over my head the first time I read it I think I didn t know how to read it exactly, or even what it was Only after moving on to The Player of Games and finishing it, did Consider Phlebas start to take form and make a measure of sense to me It s not without its problems, but what it does well, it does very well and I have to commend it Iain Banks is an incredibly nuanced, subtle writer, and he accomplished something unique with Consider Phlebas.The narrative begins with a short prologue detailing the birth, escape, and subsequent pursuit of a Culture Mind in a rare time of war, followed by a particularly grim introduction to our protagonist, Bora Horza Gobuchul, in which he is slowly drowning in a prison cell via sewage and waste created as a result of a banquet held in his honor It s a startling introduction, and when I think back on the series as a whole, one of its most striking moments.After that introduction the story appears to be a fairly standard space opera, populated with the familiar tropes of the genre a cast of bizarre aliens, strange locales, and a lone protagonist with an overly simplistic moral code fighting for their life through a series of perilous adventures However, when Banks is involved, things are never that simple, especially with regards to genre tropes Under this familiar surface, Consider Phlebas is a muchnuanced story The narrative is structured somewhat like a sixteenth century Spanish picaresque novel, a form of episodic storytelling in which a picaroon rogue or untrustworthy anti hero rambles from place to place, stumbling into situations that are ultimately used to satirize the society in which he lives By combining the form of picaresque with the notoriously conservative, highly American genre of space opera, Banks carved out a niche to comment on space opera and politics When it was published in 1987, Consider Phlebas is arguably the spark that initiated the New Space Opera fire, effectively reinventing a long stagnant genre and taking it in aliterary minded, left leaning, progressive direction Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, and Peter F Hamilton continued the change forward from there There have been several others over the years, but most recently progressive American writers like John Scalzi, James S.A Corey, and Becky Chambers have helped keep New Space Opera going well into the second decade of the twenty first century, alongside the British writers that continue in that tradition Historically, space opera has been a simplistic genre In fact, before being adopted by publishers and fans, the term space opera was used pejoratively to describe the simplicity of the drama Think soap opera Space opera protagonists usually travel around correcting wrongs and promoting an idealized version of American morality, while their views and opinions were confirmed for the reader In Consider Phlebas, Banks contrasts this by having Horza fight alongside the objectively in the wrong Idirans, as they wage a crusade esqe holy war against the Culture, a post scarcity, multi species, utopian society run by artificially intelligent machines known as Minds The Culture are arguable the good guys For the most part the Culture keeps to themselves and does whatever they want, but Contact division, and within it Special Circumstances goes around interfering with other societies, nudging them here and there in an effort to slowly bring them alongside the Culture s way of thinking Idirans win arguments by killing and conquering the opposition, the Culture wins them by showing its opposition why its views are correct so effectively, they can t help but adopt them as their own Horza despises the Culture, and everything they stand for He comes from a species that is mostly extinct, possibly as a result of interference in its past He doesn t believe artificial intelligence is life, sees the Culture as hedonistic gluttons who take no active role in their existence, sees the Idirans as the lesser of two evils, and decides to fight on the side of life The enemy of his enemy is his friend Gentile or JewO you who turn the wheel and look to windward,Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you 319 321 T.S Eliot, The Waste Land I think Consider Phlebas operates surprising well as meta commentary on belief, hubris, and the politics of genre There is a lot to be discovered between the lines in this book The title itself is quoted from a line of the T.S Elliot poem The Waste Land, which serves as a warning against hubris and a call for historical contemplation The preceding line in the poem is also sourced for another Culture novel title, Look to Windward, which deals heavily with the far reaching impact of the Idiran Culture war I ll be touching on the connection between these two novels when I write about Look to Windward in the coming months They are possibly the most connected of any two in the series, but the threads are still tertiary Excellent sources for these between the lines details are Simone Caroti s The Culture series of Iain M Banks A Critical Introduction as well as Paul Kincaid s Modern Masters of Science Fiction Iain M Banks These are books I ll be recommending frequently Both Caroti s and Kincaid s insights are numerous and have dramatically expanded my perspective on each of the Culture novels.Consider Phlebas is a strange introduction to, and not necessarily an accurate representation of, the rest of the series The main narrative, while entertaining, is a distraction of sorts from theinteresting story happening between the lines, where the book sneakily introduces the reader to the Culture by peripheral means It handles a huge amount of world building, and is multilayered and complex It s one thing on your first read, and something else entirely on subsequent visits It isn t the best Culture novel, and will usually show up on the lower end of most fan rankings.Personally, I think it s a fantastic entry once you know what it is and how to read it It has some pacing problems in the second half, and a painfully uneventful, tension building 80 pages near the end, but I think the lack of love it receives in contrast with the Culture novels it preceded is mostly a result of being almost universally misunderstood I find that a large chunk of its value lies in what it contributes to the experience of reading the rest of the series, and I think it s a mistake to reduce or negate its contribution.My favorite sections of the book are the short state of play interlude chapters, with the character Fal Ngeestra, one of the handful of Culture citizens who can occasionally match the strategic intelligence of the Minds that run the Culture Her conversations with the drone Jase give us a nice introverted, contemplative respite from theadventurous, swashbuckling chapters of the main narrative Fal Ngeestra holds up ideas and turns them, thinking about them from all angles She s able to comment on the story as it s happening, almost like the narrator in Don Quixote or other epic picaresque novels She serves as just a step below an omniscient point of view, and our only glimpse into the proper Culture society in the book She speculates about the other characters, revealing exposition about the Changer race, the Idirans, and the history of the Culture itself She s able to see the Culture from the perspective of the Idirans, and the Idirans from Borza s perspective She thinks the way that Banks writes, examining ideas from multiple sides, poking holes in arguments and patching them until they re watertight We are a mongrel race, our past a history of tangles, our sources obscure, our rowdy upbringing full of greedy, short sighted empires and cruel wasteful diasporas We are such pathetic, fleshy things, so short lived, swarming and confused And dull, just so stupid, to an Idiran The dynamic play between these different veins of Consider Phlebas truly embody Banks style of storytelling, and represent the antisyzygy that underlies his writing He knows readers want the action and adventure, and he delivers in strides, but still finds a way to bury the soul of the story on the periphery of the chaos This is how the Culture is introduced to us, hidden in the horse, wheeled through the gate because it s large and exciting All that being said, Consider Phlebas is a weird way to start a series If you re not feeling up for a long novel that is best, and sometimes only, appreciated through a close analysis of its themes and commentary for your first glimpse of a series, The Player of Games can genuinely serve as a better entry point Since the Culture novels are almost entirely standalone, you can cycle back to Consider Phlebas at any point after you ve read some others without missing anything particularly crucial However, if you re a patient reader, and can intentionally postpone gratification a little, it s better to start the series here, just know that the best is still to come.Up next The Player of Games, my personal favorite in the series, where we ll become intimately acquainted with life in the Culture Orbitals, Minds, Drones, Contact, Special Circumstances, etc and of course the empire and game of Azad. This is the second Culture book I read but the first one Iain M Banks wrote One of us did something wrong, because I liked The Player of Games a lot , and yet my reasons for not liking Consider Phlebas are almost all about what the book isn t.It isn t about the Culture, for one thing Sort of Not really The other books in the series are from the perspective of a citizen of the Culture, which is difficult to define succinctly so I will just say, imagine if you lived in a universe where you were practically immortal and super smart robots took care of pretty much everything, leaving you free to live your own life to the fullest existential extent do you want to be an artist a writer do you like orgies.The main character in Consider Phlebas is Horza, a rare shape shifting dude who haaates the Culture, which he considers hedonistic and base and godless c Partly he objects to the Culture s policy of interfering with other civilizations, whether to uplift them not to mix my sci fi metaphors or to eliminate them if they pose a threat to the Culture s, well, culture This is basically the opposite of Star Trek TNG s vaulted Prime Directive, which I, as a reader, don t really have a problem with Personally, if benevolent artificial intelligences want to pop by an offer a few helpful corrective suggestions that will put a stop to, oh, take your pick or check out whatever is on the front page today, I, for one, welcome our robot overlords Just as long as they don t start using humans for batteries or anything.But Horza instead throws in his lot with the Idirans, a xenophobic and deeply religious, deeply warlike society that is at major war with the Culture I don t want to get too into the nitty gritty of the plot, because it does offer up some nice set pieces, but basically, he s off on a mission to capture a new breed of Mind, which is what the Culture ruling machines refer to themselves as This Mind is stranded on a hostile world that, conveniently, only Horza has access to, but getting there will require some Ocean s 11 style adventures first.So here is my problem I read this after The Player of Games, which offers you the inside view of the Culture, both the good parts and the bad It is also a very fun book, despite some dark themes the smart ass Culture Drones, even just the mind boggling concept of sentient, continent sized worldships that you can have a chat with Just a lot of cool stuff Consider Phlebas gave me very little of what I wanted only one Drone No talking spaceships wait, no, there was one, but it was a small one By necessity, it is a darker, angrier book, and by the end, very nearly an abusive one I get what Banks was going for thematically, I m totally on his wavelength, but the ending of this thing just punishes the reader.On the other hand, it is still totally crazy, which is, I am starting to suspect, Banks modus operandi, and so you have a few largely inconsequential narrative pit stops that are nevertheless awesome, like when Horza gets trapped on an island with a horde of technology fearing cannibals you don t even know, it s so gross and intense Or a high stakes card game involving telepathy and actual human sacrifice Both concepts are pretty rad, as is the writing throughout.So which one of us messed up If I had read this first, and hadn t spent most of the book looking for the Culture and not finding it, would I have enjoyed itOr was it a bad idea for Banks to start the series with an unbalanced, action heavy, black as tar nihilist downer of a novel Considering he s super rich and probably the most popular sci fi author in the U.K today, I ll kindly request that you not answer that. Two stars is about right.Voltaire said something like the best is the enemy of the good okay, he actually said le mieux est l ennemi du bien But what is really annoying is that the coulda been good isdisappointing than the meh.Banks clearly has a great deal of imagination If he was able to discipline himself, he d have some four star stuff going on here, easily maybe better.But he fritters away his energy on irrelevant grotesquerries, like a schoolboy scrawling naughty pictures inside his textbooks, or sneaking fart jokes into the Wikipedia page for the Sistine Chapel Because naughtiness is its own reward Consider Phlebas opens with a character drowning in a room full of shit Why Because he s failed at an espionage mission, and the rulers are nasty enough to want to degrade him as they kill him Does this have anything to do with the larger story arc of Consider Phlebas Well, no it has no bearing whatsoever, other than being a memorably gross entrance for the major character.Later this same fellow will encounter a band of starving religious cannibals led by a grotesquely yes, there s that word again obese prophet Does this interlude have any bearing on the larger story arc Again, no Those are just the most glaring flaws, but the book is pervaded with haphazard storytelling.There is actually a story, and if it weren t for all the ill considered byzantine dross, it would probably be pretty good There are two or three characters that are well developed enough that one might actually care what happens to them, and a depth of context and mythos that is very alluring Sometimes the story is smooth and very well told for several pages at a time.But it really isn t enough.And the reason I first heard about the Culture Universe isn t dealt with well, either The Culture is an amalgam of human and machine intelligence, with the latter forming the functional backbone and the humans being mostly decorative The question of how humanity will deal with or survive, or whatever the Singularity should be a philosophically engrossing aspect to any book that touches on the subject, but Banks really doesn t seem to want to stretch himself reaching for the tough stuff when his febrile imagination can spin off so much vomit flavored cotton candy.Too bad.Oh if you are looking for a much better space opera, may I recommend Alastair ReynoldsRevelation SpaceReynolds doesn t promise as much as Banks, but he actually delivers on the promise, and then some. It s not you, it s me.I ve got to watch out for space operas I will either buy in early or I just won t And then I m staring at 400 pages of ehh.It s too bad, I really liked the idea and Banks writing seemed inspired There was a cool interstellar culture called The Culture The post scarcity confederacy of different races reminded me of Star Trek and there was also some Dune references.But it just didn t take DNF at 30%, life s too short.Sorry Iain, I might try again some other time. If you re into stuff like this, you can read the full review.Post scarcity Society Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks 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 coupleyears It s now 2017, and I m not sure I ll re read them now in one large gulp I 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 faradmirable 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.