Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review of "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks

Having received this book at Christmas from a friend from Scotland, I was keen to explore "Consider Phlebas," by Iain M. Banks. I am a fan of space operas, yet I hadn't heard about Banks before. First I had to look up what the title refers to. Then after a slow start, I had about reached the middle of Phlebas, when I heard that Banks had announced he was dying of cancer. Talk about pressure!

"Consider Phlebas" is a thick tome, the first in Banks's series of novels about "the Culture Wars." In a distant future, the Culture (humanity and related species) has learned to travel through wormholes and establish thousands of outposts throughout the galaxy. It is extremely dependent on technology and its sentient AIs and has left religion and other superstitious trappings behind in favor of the simple right to do whatever it pleases. Things are going along well until the Culture meets up with another civilization that steers itself by its religious principles. Galaxy-wide war ensues.

This book was written in the 1980s, and it's easy to see that it uses as its model today's conflicts between democratic secular western society and fundamentalist muslim middle eastern values.

We're thrown into the story of Horza Gobuchul, member of a nearly extinct race of humans known as Changers, who has decided that the fundamentalist Idirans are morally superior to the Culture and works for them as an agent and spy. His mission is to find and destroy a powerful AI "mind" that has escaped an Idiran trap and fled to a planet that has been declared off limits to both civilizations.

Horza is a human "Terminator"--practically unkillable, with shape-shifting capabilities that let him slip out of chains, spit poison into the eyes of cannibal adversaries, and disguise himself at will. Contemptuous of AIs, he has no scruples about pursing the Mind, sentient or not. He assumes the captain's identity and steals a pirate ship before the orbital outpost he is on is destroyed by the Idirans. Horza is hard to like, but you can't help but admire his tenacity and kickass prowess. Throw in characters such as his pirate lover Yalson, the Culture agents Balveda and teenage genius Fal, who uses her AI expertise to outguess Horza and protect the Mind, and you've got an exciting brew of brains v. brawn.

Horza drags his crew of mercenaries and the captive Balveda along as he tracks the refugee Mind, whom he calls "Mr. Adequate," into the Control Network deep below the surface of Schar's World. There they encounter a pair of implacable Idiran soldiers, who refuse to acknowledge Horza as an ally.

One of the wounded Idirans awakens the gigantic nuclear-powered train running through the planet's Command System, jams its controls, and sends the runaway train hurtling toward the book's climactic conclusion.

I won't describe the ending (wikipedia does that anyway), but suffice it to say that Horza gets his Sidney Carton moment.

Please allow me to add my voice to the chorus of praise, Mr. Banks.

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