Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I had a good time reading Consider Phlebas. Iain M. Banks manages to mix technobabble with description and dialogue to come out with fascinating societies and intense action sequences. The plot was simple, and pretty linear, but it got the characters where they needed to go and blow things up. Beneath it all, there were the questions Banks raises about what it means to be human, about how we plan to interact with machines when they are just as intelligent as—more intelligent than—we are. My elation and excitement began to dissipate after the climax, however, melting away into a small amount of confusion and the bittersweet realization that nothing that happens in this book really matters.
First, a minor spoiler that's more about Banks' universe than the plot of Consider Phlebas. When I started reading, I assumed that the Culture is the product of humans from Earth and that this book takes place in the far future. The appendix clarifies the timeline; the Idiran-Culture War during which this book takes place is actually concurrent with 14th century Earth. The Culture's origins lie in a group of humanoid species, and contacts Earth around 2100, nearly eight hundred years after the events in Consider Phlebas. Again, this has no bearing on the plot, but it's a good reminder of one way in which Banks manipulates our sense of scale.
The fact that the Idiran-Culture war is "the most significant conflict of the past fifty-thousand years" of galactic history is buried at the end of the appendix, but it's one of the most interesting and important observations in this book. Imagine considering fifty-thousand-year swathes of history. Fifty thousand years ago, humans were still stumbling out of Africa and spreading throughout the world. We really have only about, what, 6000 years of recorded civilization? By setting his work in a world where civilizations like the Culture consider a couple of millennia a mere blink of the eye, Banks immediately puts us on uncertain ground and forces us to re-evaluate our conceptions about history and how individuals and even civilizations influence the outcome of events.
Consider Phlebas is a classic "rescue mission" plot, somewhat inverted in that the protagonist is working for the stranded Mind's enemies, trying to steal it away before its comrades can retrieve it. Horza has plenty of opportunities to explain why he dislikes the Culture and has sided with the Idirans; frankly, I have to admit I'm on the Culture's side in this one. I'm ready to accept my synthetic overlords. And it's pretty clear that Banks thinks the Culture is a very stable, largely beneficial society. So throughout the book, I was hoping that somehow Horza would lose, that the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda would recover the Mind and return with it to the Culture. . . . In retrospect, I should have been more careful with my wishes.
OK, here's the spoiler. The back cover copy says "It was the fate of Horza . . . and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries . . . actually to find it, and with it their own destruction." I thought that was just some hyperbole on the part of the publisher to sucker ambivalent readers into the story.
I was wrong. Almost everyone dies toward the end, and one of the survivors later commits suicide. The events in this book aren't part of a great turning point in the Idiran-Culture war, and none of the characters have any significant impact on galactic events. Which brings me back to scale and how Banks distorts our conceptions of "a long time" to humble us.
On an individual, human level, Horza's actions are important. He's fighting the Culture out of personal convictions, and even when he has the opportunity to go off and forget his obligations to the Idirans, he gets his mission back on track and sets off to retrieve the Mind. In the process, he falls in love with Yalson and conceives a child with her . . . and when she dies, something in Horza breaks, and he pushes himself over the edge trying to take revenge. Although I didn't agree with Horza's ideology, I understood that he was struggling to find a place and keep some sense of purpose. This is no easy task, especially not in a society that exists on an interstellar level, as Banks reminds us.
Ultimately, the Idiran-Culture war concludes some time after the events of Consider Phlebas. The story's only bearing the war itself is that the rescued Mind gets installed in a Culture ship and names itself after Horza. As a result, Banks leaves us with the bitter taste of futility in our mouths at the book's end. There was no real reason for all those people to die; they did, however, and not in some blaze of glory like so many war movies. They were extinguished in Horza's failed attempt to steal something that ended up having no influence on the outcome of the war and robbed him of everything he cared about.
The only conclusion I can draw that makes any sense is that this is Banks' justification for the Culture's reliance on machines, a refutation of Horza's claim that the human-machine alliance is a hollow, stagnant one. Only Minds possess the combination of boundless intelligence and longevity. Humans in the Culture, and even the Idirans, are nearly immortal, but immortality itself does not beget wisdom. The Minds are nearly immortal as well as wise, and as such, they are the only beings in the Culture capable of understanding events on a galactic scale and reacting to them. Hence, the Culture needs its machines because humans—with a few exceptions—can't comprehend events on such a large, lengthy scale. I'd have to say that Banks is right on this one.
The less lofty aspects of Consider Phlebas aren't any less impressive. Although we don't actually see many Culture-controlled areas, we learn a good deal about the Culture, and Banks does a lot of world-building. I particularly enjoyed how he describes the Damage tournament that takes place on Vavatch Orbital prior to its destruction. Damage is the sort of game that we like to imagine existing in the post-apocalyptic type of world we often envision alongside any sort of posthumanism—the ultimately sign, perhaps, that all conventional morality has gone out the window. And Banks stays true to this idea, for the most part.
Also, I couldn't help but imagining all of the drones in Consider Phlebas as having British accents. Maybe it's the bad influence of 343 Guilty Spark from the Halo series, but there's just something about the snarky superiority of the drones, particularly Unaha-Closp, that fits with the British stereotype of the elite, upper-class gentleman with perfect diction and manners used to disguise discourtesy. Anyway, the parts where we got a glimpse at the workings of the drones' minds were a definite treat.
Where Banks is less successful is the main plot of the book itself. Sometimes the action wandered, and there were parts that seem unnecessary (and unpleasant—I'm thinking of Horza's encounter with Fwi Song). Horza's approach fluctuates from calm and calculated to insanely risk-taking, and I never quite get a handle on what makes that switch inside him flip. I continued reading because I knew eventually they would wind up on Schar's World and try to find the Mind, but Banks seldom succeeds in interesting me in what happens in between the beginning of the story and its end. I was hooked on the societies, and maybe a couple of the characters, and I wanted to know how it all turned out!
Consider Phlebas has an edge to it. Without any prior experience in Banks' Culture universe (nor, indeed, with any of Banks' other work), I didn't realize this until the end of the book. Whispering rather than shouting, Consider Phlebas still manages to describe the scale on which its grand imagination must play out. Yet it doesn't always deliver a similarly-scaled narrative, not successfully anyway. I recommend it, but with the warning that this isn't "feel-good" fiction. And although the space pirates, antimatter bombs, and sex may make this sound like an action-oriented space opera, there's something deadly serious about Consider Phlebas.