You know, for a webcomic review site, I should review webcomics once in a while. In the meantime, let's talk about a book.
Not Comic Review: Consider Phlebas By Iain M. Banks
I'm a fan of the Culture series of books by Iain Banks, who passed away this past year. I own all of them now, and I went back and reread a few of them. Use of Weapons, Look to Windward, and today's topic,
Consider Phlebas. What is the Culture? Well it's a sci-fi series, but honestly, the best way to understand the Culture is to go read Look to Windward, it's not the best book and story, but you'll learn more about the nature of the Culture than anything else. Beyond that, it's just a big, very advanced, civilization in the galaxy.
I could review any of the books, especially Use of Weapons which is one of my favorite books period, but Consider Phlebas stands out because, well, it's not very good. Or at the very least I don't like it very much. For a fan of the author and universe, this is hard to really critique, and even harder to describe why. But after doing a big long series of articles about how I'm a critic, I guess I should dive in.
It's certainly the weakest of the series. The reasons are many, but there is one key one I'll get to later, but first, what it does right is something the rest of the series isn't quite known for: action. Oh there are some great action scenes in this, gripping ones that get your heart pumping, especially a great chase through a space port. I believe Banks once said this book would make the best movie, and I think it's because of these action scenes.
Which is odd because, well, I couldn't remember any of it. I had read the book before, not the first book of the series I read, but an early one, and the only thing I could recall, roughly, was the part of the framing device. As I read it, I recalled more, but I can easily recall many of the major plot points of the rest of the books in the series, but not this one. It's got a lot of great ideas, from an elaborate underground nuclear rail bunker, to a city sized ocean ship and more. Yet, it's completely forgettable.
Part of the reason is that the main character Horza could be anyone. Oh, he has specific character traits, but no arc. There's no growth, development, or self discovery. He's just there to do all the wild action sequences, act as the counterpoint to the Culture (there's a war, he's on the other side), and that's about it. In fact, none of the characters are really interesting. Which is fine since nearly all of them end up dead. They're all cannon fodder, even the one character who actually gets a touch more than no development. I liked her, of course she dies. Everyone dies. It's a rather dark book in that sense.
I suspect that was kind of the point. The pointlessness of the deaths were meant to reflect the pointlessness of war. That bunker rail thing I mentioned earlier was designed to protect military leaders from a nuclear attack. In the end, the entire population of the population died anyway, of a biological weapon. The theme is well established, and it works, but that's all there is, and there isn't much that the characters do to help it along.
It's also a weird mix of events. They string together well, but they do feel random. First a raid on a temple, then an escape from a city sized ship crashing into an iceberg, an island of weird cultists, a game where lives are bet as much as money, then a mad dash through a shipyard, then they finally get to the final destination, which is random movement through that rail bunker.
The writing is good, the descriptions of the events and locations are pretty clear, and rather awe inspiring. The action, as I said, is quite clear and is rather smoothly done, it's not jarring is what I mean. The individual events are actually quite interesting and fun. Any one of them could be an entire book on their own if he had wanted. They flow together, as I said, but they are so different from each other, they don't feel like they really belong together.
Compared to the other books, it isn't really that different in that regard. Use of Weapons bounces between locations as well, but it also moves through time, both forward and backward. It has an interesting structure is what I'm saying. Look to Windward also moves between a few locations, but because both books have a point to unite together, the characters. You WANT them to live, you want them to succeed. I never get that in Consider Phlebas, and that is the biggest failure of the book.
But I know why. It was the first book of the series. Banks has written many books before it, but only a few. It was the first dipping into what proved to be a massive, wonderful universe, but one that needed refinement before it could really get going. Once he locked down the scale (the second book, Player of Games managed this) and changing perspectives a bit (most of the books are NOT from the Culture's perspective, or anyone that could be considered a peer) the series got more settled. For the first book, the rough edges are understandable. I still don't think it's very good.
If you want to see what this series is about, again I recommend Look to Windward to start. It manages to really define the Culture as an entity, followed probably by Use of Weapons or Player of Games to see how it relates to the rest of it's universe. After that, the books can be read in any order (I haven't gotten to Hydrogen Sonata, the last book, yet, so no opinions on that) but Excession should be saved for last, I think it fits well there. Consider Phlebas, while the weakest of the series, shouldn't be read until the middle of the pack, no reason to spoil the series with a weak edition.
Next time, I will hopefully have something to do with comics. We'll see, until next time kiddies.