Tuesday 25 January 2011

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

For a long time, I admired Iain Banks from afar. I read his second SF novel, The Player Of Games, and I was blown away. It was different from the kind of SF I was familiar with (mostly Asimov and Clarke), somehow more baroque and kickass. I also read his non-SF debut, The Wasp Factory and was once again impressed. Then came a long period of time when I couldn't spend much on books, his books appeared in stores in India only sporadically and, knowing that the Culture books were a series, I thought I couldn't buy a random installment without having the previous ones. All that has been remedied now that I found a full set of his Sf novels (upto Matter) in a second-hand bookstore, and I finally get the chance to read Banks's SF novels in sequence.

So, Consider Phlebas. The Elliot quote suggests a certain ambition beyond the standard space opera, and the novel often delivers on it, incorporating themes of transformation, decay and death that echo The Waste Land. It's also a gripping space opera, following a rather unsavoury, ruthless protagonist on a quest for a MacGuffin. There are amazing set-pieces, like a game of chance on a world that is slated for destruction, vivid descriptions of fantastic worlds and places and some effective renderings of weird or non-human states of mind.

There's a complex plot that makes you think against the warp of the typical space opera, in so far as, if you think the arguments through, the protagonist's enemies emerge as the better side in this war. There are moments when the narrative seems to flounder under a sometimes over-dense style, but the last three chapters are a harrowing race to destruction that left me somewhat shattered.

I still don't know why anyone should care for the protagonist, least of all the two people who come to during the course of this novel. He's ruthless, murderous and completely self-seeking, willing to kill, lie and bide his time with one lover while trying to work his way back to a former lover and basically destroy anyone or anything to achieve his ends. At least he has the strength of his fanatical opposition to the Culture, an opposition that seems increasingly flawed and baseless as more is learned about his nature.

I also expect this to be something of a prelude; while there was much that I enjoyed abut this novel, not least its unflinching depiction of he consequences of religious fanaticism, this story feels something of a footnote. I'm certainly looking forward to my next Banks novel - a re-read of The Player Of Games!

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