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Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas

I am a sucker for series of books rereleased in handsome matching trade paperback editions, and Orbit Books seems to know it, because that’s what they’re doing with Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novels. Another one of my foibles is that if I am presented with such a collection of books, I have to start by reading the first one, even if they’re only loosely related (as with murder mysteries) and there’s no particular reason to start from the beginning. So this is the first of his Culture books, of which there are now seven (ranging in publication date from 1987 to 2008).

It’s a total space opera, flinging its protagonist, Horza, from world to world across the galaxy. In fact I could have used a little less flinging and more of a regular plot arc; there are a bunch of set pieces on various worlds that do contribute a little to our understanding of this universe and Horza, but largely feel like they had been kicking around in Banks’ head for a decade and, this being his first and I suppose at the time possibly last science fiction novel, he had to shove them all in while he had the chance.

But they are pretty cool set pieces, except for one which intentionally stepped over the genre line into straight-out horror fiction, which squicked me pretty bad. And all the action scenes at the end were really well done. Because of my lack of visualization ability, and my tendency to accelerate through a book so that I’m reading fastest just as the amount of action demands fuller attention, big science fiction action scenes tend to sort of whiz past me in a blur, but I didn’t have trouble keeping track of everything going on here, and it stayed interesting.

One nice thing (perhaps the main feature of the book) is that there is lots of moral ambiguity. People and aliens on both sides of the greater conflict are drawn sympathetically (and unsympathetically), which is a lot more interesting than some humans-against-the-bugs scenario, or even good-humans-against-the-bad-humans.

A couple of gripes: Banks starts out with one point-of-view protagonist (except for some interludes), and then slowly starts to occasionally give us other POVs. It’s kind of jarring, especially when the reader has already been experiencing some suspense precisely from not knowing just what the other characters are thinking exactly, and when he starts sliding back and forth within sections it gets even more so. There’s also a sassy robot who resents being forced to act as a servant, a la Marvin from the Hitchchiker’s books, who is probably supposed to be sort of comic relief but which I found wearying. I am starting to feel that this is a peculiarly British trope (they already having a tradition of servant-based humor).

Overall, it was very good. Just when I was getting tired of Horza bouncing back and forth from adventure to adventure (around a third of the way through), the strands started weaving together, and the last half of the book had a nice direction to it, all the way to the end. I’ll definitely read another one, and naturally, it’ll be the second in the series.

Warning if you read this book! There’s some supplementary material at the back, including what he calls a Dramatis Personae, that is not actually intended to be consulted while reading the novel, contrary to most SF appendices. For example, the so-called Dramatis Personae in fact details what happens to a selection of the characters after the book ends. So don’t read any of that stuff until you get there.

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