Monday, 29 November 2010

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

As much as I love the Wasp Factory, I'd still rather read a Banks with an M in it.

This is his first sci fi book, and one which I've read before. Couldn't remember it of course but I rarely do. Hence the blog. Like most M Banks, it's set in the Culture universe, as close to a utopia as it's possible to get in science fiction. There many species living together on orbitals, massive spacecraft and other artificial habitats, with very powerful AIs called Minds. It's a post-scarcity libertarian/anarchist society with no money or laws - you can do anything you want and people are virtually immortal. Luckily this is Iain Banks, so there's always some sickness going on.

This book starts with an old man being drowned in shit, for instance. And it's set on a wider background of a war between the Culture and the religious three-legged Idirans in which billions are being killed. Our hero Horza is on the Idiran side.

It's actually quite different to the rest of the Culture books - I was struck by how much of an adventure story this is. I hate to use the term but hacks would call this a romp. Tonnes of action, mostly following the galaxy's unluckiest crew of space pirates. One stand-out scene, set on an orbital scheduled for demolition, concerns a card game where players can deal emotions on the opposition. They also have to bring slaves (or willing fanatics) in case they "lose a life." Then you've got multiple shootouts and fistfights, a massive wooden boat hitting an iceberg, a spaceship chase inside another spaceship and a grotesquely fat cannibal and his followers who eat excrement.

All fantastic, until the last section which drags along far too slowly then ends in a damp squib. So much interesting stuff has been set up by this point. You've got a planet of the dead, a memorial to genocide curated by a shadowy alien civilisation. You've got the Artifical Intelligence somewhere on this planet which everyone's looking for. And you've got Horza's still unexplained reasons for hating the Culture and AIs. All these potentials are pissed away.

Very annoying, considering how much I was enjoying it. I'm going to go on a bit of an M Banks binge to figure out the best one. I seem to remember Use of Weapons being particularly good.

In the meantime I've finished Roadside Picnic so I'll need to review that before I forget it. I was almost finished the Stalin book (and I will go back to it) but I got waylaid by an unnecessarily long biography of Myra Hindley which has completely hooked me.


alistair said...

I've only read The Player Of Games, but it had me thinking I'd quite like to get through a few more of the Culture novels. Damp Squibs aside, this sounds intriguing.

Interested to hear your thoughts on Roadside Picnic as I read that a while back oooooh.

Joe said...

ooooh indeed.

I really like the Culture books. Always fun, you've got the tension between utopia and horrible stuff, and it's a big enough world that the stories don't need to tie in. That's quite refreshing in sci-fi, and means Banks has got a lot of scope with settings and moods.

Bryce said...

I need to re/read some IMB... I am a big fan of his other work but for some reason always struggled with his SF stuff.

I'm enjoying the steam punk Difference Engine.

Joe said...

I really liked Difference Engine - so much to get your teeth into. But it is set out quite oddly. It's certainly not a novel, it's more like detailed notes for a couple of novels.

Bryce said...

Yes, more like a collection of short stories. Possibly because it was written by two people?

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