Had I not read The Culture out of order and had some idea what I was looking for I am not sure how the first half of Consider Phlebas would have worked for me. Interesting enough as it starts off, if a bit crude in its botched execution by sewage, but it takes a full half of the book before it stops being a collection of cool ideas and turns into a coherent narrative. It was jarring as main character Horza leaves the Idiran/Culture war-front and goes on a macabre Gulliver’s Travel with crazy mercenaries.
But for a fan of The Culture (as in the series) such as my self the book was a fascinating starting point as it looked at The Culture (large space fairing super collective utopian government) from the viewpoint of someone fighting it. Almost everything about The Culture is perfect; lives are extended, pain is optional, material wealth is universal. So Horza’s willingness to side with an alien religious crusade to fight the sentient computer ‘minds’ that are so vital to The Culture is a great counter viewpoint.
This is most likely the most action packed of the Culture novels I have read. Beside traveling with a mercenary group Horza is right in the middle of war as he is tasked with bringing a lost Mind to the Idirans for study. Along the way come cannibals, a crazy card game with lethal stakes, decapitation by star ship, and finally, toward the end, the Idiran conflict that forms the core of the book. And when it finally gets focused it becomes impossible to put down.
Consider Phlebas is a bit rough but ultimately well worth reading. Banks never tells the reader what to think about the utopian Culture he built rather he just lets the reader see it through the eyes of very different characters. But while exploring these themes he takes the time to craft great characters and a very entertaining story. The Idiran’s are alien enough to not quite be understood. The ‘Damage’ game makes for a great backdrop during one of the side plots. And Balveda, Horza’s constaint foil from the Culture, provides the perfect counter balance to Horza.
Also note that the audio narration by Peter Kenny, is quite wonderful. He gives each character a unique voice without ever going overboard.