Book Review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
So. After everything I’d heard about the AI-driven utopian world of “The Culture” in Iain M. Banks books…I was expecting a bit more, well, utopia in my Science Fiction read.
Instead, Consider Phlebas delivered a gritty military science fiction: A disconnected protagonist, rotating cast of loosely sketched out supporting characters, relationships based on alienation, violent conflict, lots of slow-build tension and suspense, and a loosely connected series of action sequences. Oh and a bunch of exposition on democracy vs theocracy (life vs AI, systems vs chaos, the meaning of being alive, etc etc) that I grimly power-read my way through.
Gritty—occasionally gratuitous—this is not the high energy, character driven space opera fiction I was hoping for. The book left me feeling like I’d just woken from a sci-fi themed anxiety dream full of slow-motion chases through dark exotic locales (a jungle, a Titanic, a water fight), disconnected imagery, and death. (That, and I’m still vaguely annoyed that the brainwashing subplot never resolved to anything more concrete.)
In a way, the experience of reading Consider Phlebas reminded me of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger in atmosphere and Richard K. Morgan’s second and third Takeshi Kovacs book in grittiness, all being books I did not particularly enjoy.
If you’re like me and you like upbeat space opera (Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey) and space and character exploration (Becky Cambers), this is probably not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re into gritty, dark, and brooding action sci-fi, this might be the exact book for you.
Banks’ world is intriguing enough that I might give the series one more chance. (The next Culture books get higher ratings too.) But I’d definitely hope for more overarching plot and character motivation, and a hell lot less bleakness and blood.
Fine, an extra canary for world-building and science talk, and the TS Eliot reference.
What about you, canaries? Did you like this book?