Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

After reading Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, I wanted to read another in the Culture Series mainly for the world-building.

Consider Phlebas is a fast paced adventure book. The protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is unreasonably superhuman, possessing super strength, a great fighting ability, and among many other things, the ability to change his appearance at will. He finds himself in increasingly ridiculous situations, at one point stranded on a small island populated by fanatical cannibals. I found the plot itself to be so out there, parts of it read like my 10 year old self's stream of thought in an early creative writing assignment.

That said, Banks does a good job with the world-building. Set in the middle of the Idiran - Culture war, Horza sides with the Idirans mainly out of hatred for the culture. This is a fascinating conflict, reminiscent in some ways of modern divisions between progressive leftism and traditional conservatism. The author does a great job of making both factions quite relatable, and the protagonist morally ambiguous.

Idirans are monotheists, modeled on the fervent Jewish/Muslim variety. They range from zealots to pragmatists, but all have a clear sense of identity about them. Physically and spiritually my mind renders them as the Protoss from Starcraft. Except they have three limbs, and are in symbiosis with another race of six-limbed sentient beings.

The culture is sort of a macrocosm of Western society, far more technologically advanced, and taken to an extreme. All things, strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. They rely heavily on sentient machines, and creatively named spacecraft. The lifestyle is decadent and are subject to the Tyranny of Convenience. The have a general lack of conviction, and no skin in the game.

Ultimately, Horza is killed by an Idiran that mistrusts him. A moral lesson from Mr. Banks? The non-Hollywood ending is refreshing, given the superhero-like attributes of the protagonist.

The scale conveyed in this novel is huge, and well executed. The destruction of the Vavatch orbital is well described. Epic battle scenes are extremely cinematic and would play out well in an adaptation to the screen. But the end could have been shortened significantly. I was quite tired of the endless underground tunnels of Char's World. Overall, a fun read if you're into a fast paced, sometimes ridiculous action novel.