Consider Phlebas is Iain M. Banks ' first Culture novel, its title apparently from a poem by T.S. Eliot. I am not well enough versed in poetry to analyze the significance of the poem, but I looked up The Wasted Land IV - Death by Water online. Phlebas is dead, and we are asked to consider his fate.
Good advice. The story is set to the backdrop of a great interstellar conflict between the religious Idirans and the human-machine collective intelligence of the Culture. The protagonist is a humanoid operative called Horza working for the Idirans. We follow him as he attempts to recover a Culture ship mind for his employers. It doesn't go really as planned, and already from the onset we somehow know that Consider Phlebas is not a story from an action hero mold. Refreshing and a bit scary; suddenly nothing is given, anything can happen.
The plot is very interesting and fast paced, the purpose of recover artifact X at place Y before faction Z, is more of a device than a reason. Horza's journey is the purpose. Classic tragedy mixed with science fiction.
The droids and the ship minds are interesting, as are the Culture, and the possible reasons why the machines would want humans around. I think the answer is hinted, and it is perhaps hard for us humans to understand, thinking as we do that others think like us…. So, I found the description of the Culture and its AI and human minds quite interesting, and I look forward immersing myself in it when I read further works by Banks.
However, the Culture and the world building was what I had heard about, what I came for. Now, what really impressed me was the characters, and the story. Horza is conflicted. He has issues, and he is an enigma to us. Actually, all characters (even the droids) in Consider Phlebas have personality. Flaws, strengths, and motivation. Yes, that is usually considered basics for any good book, but I found it so clear and well handled by Banks that it really hit me. The way that evil is depicted, through action, also impressed me. All too often 'evil' is a sign hung on the antagonist, who then go out to perform despicable actions. Banks let the driving force behind those actions come into focus. The hunger for power, or the blind adherence to faith. Thus the deeds carry a sick meaning instead of being simply plot elements. There are some horrific scenes in the book, and violence and power often stems from perversions. However, don't be afraid that the book is very violent or weird. It is both at times, but not often and never for show. Much less so than almost any modern crime novel.
In any case, Consider Phlebas is an excellent read. I would call it a true space opera, but then I'd have to rename a lot of other space opera as space farce (and they are not). Think instead of how opera can capture many narratives from comedy to drama. Consider Phlebas is both.
Sadly Iain Banks passed away last year, but reading his books is hopefully is a good way to honour the brilliance I glimpse in Consider Phlebas. It is probably no surprise that I have already picked up a few more of Banks' Culture novels, and I am really looking forward to them.