Synopsis: Horza Gobuchul is a humanoid Changer who fights on the side of the fanatic alien species, the Idirans, against The Culture.
As the novel opens, Horza is nearly drowning as a prisoner in the sewage. His latest spy mission has been uncovered by Perosteck Balveda, a Culture agent, and their fates are entangled from there on. Horza gets rescued by the Idirans, but they are soon attacked by enemy foes.
His ultimate goal from there on is to retrieve an advanced Culture sentient A.I. which took refuge on Schar’s World. Now, if Schar’s World would be easily accessible, the A.I. wouldn’t be there anymore. But that planet is a Planet of the Dead, a holy place under supervision by the far advanced Dra’Azon, a godlike being which forbids both Culture and Idirans to land. Only Changers may enter at all, and that’s where Horza comes into play.
He flees and gets picked up by a the Clear Air Turbulance (CAT), a pirate ship (those ship names are iconic!). He needs to win his place among the crew by a fight to the death. A fatal raid to a planet follows and leads to the death of a part of the crew. The next raid leads to Vavatch, a gigantic Culture ringworld “Orbital” which is about to be destroyed in a couple of days as a pawn offer to the war. The crew would like to steal a replacement laser from one of the abandoned ships steering around the orbital’s ocean. Again, the raid is disastrous.
Horza gets picked up by a fatalistic group of cannibals, leading to some very memorable and also icky moments in the story (no reviewer fails to mention that chapter!). He manages to flee and joins an end-time card-game attracting high-stake players and their addicted followers – one of them the CAT’s captain whom he manages to kill and take over his identity.
Mimicking the captain, he flees Vavatch back to the CAT. As a new crew member awaits – hello, again! – his old foe Balveda who doesn’t recognize him. In a reckless escape, they shoot their way through many docks and pick up another new crew member, a sentient robot who got trapped on the spaceship.
Together they land on the icy planet Schar’s World and search there for the A.I. in a huge subterranean infrastructure. Their hunt isn’t easy, because a pair of Idiran elite soldiers oppose them.
Review: Wow, what a ride! Starting in a fast pace right from the start, the narration around Horza drew me in instantaneous and never let go from improbable rescue to the next last-minute hectical activity. The last fifty pages of the novel were a thing of its own, super-high octane switching six different POVs in a fast frequency. I couldn’t put it down at all and ended up exhausted in the middle of the night.
But what has the eponymous Phlebas to do with it and what should he “consider”? Iain Banks first few novels were high-brow literature, that’s where he’s coming from. It’s quite a feat to switch to our beloved genre from there, and it’s shining through in many places. That’s why I call this “Literary Space Opera“, paralleled by Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos. If you enjoyed Hyperion, then you’ll also like this series.
Do you have an allergic reaction to stream of consciousness? You rather like Star Wars’s clear friends and foes than shady heroes? Stay away from this novel, then, because it’s got touches of advanced literary techniques and complex narration at several places. It’s an interesting mixture of relaxing popcorn action and demanding attention!
Back to Phlebas. The title comes from T.S. Eliot’s most important poem The Waste Land (just like the later novel Look to Windward) featuring Phlebas the Phoenician who should recall his own mortality, learning from history. Just like Horza’s failure to adapt.
The novel’s most prominent and easily recognizable topic is the ideological clash between Idirans and the Culture. On the one side unaltered natural life versus post-human technology, providing a perfect foundation for the novel.
It’s not Bank’s masterpiece, but a solid introduction to his setting, providing glimpses into the complexity of the later novels in the series. It’s also a standalone, because the next novels don’t link deeply with this one, and the main protagonists don’t carry their stories. A well developed main protagonist, a vivid setting full of space ships, ringworlds, drones, cannibal cultists, aliens, and A.I.s, and more action than your breath would like to fight against. I wouldn’t have expected those twists and that ending. That’s Consider Phlebas. Highly recommended!