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Book Review: Consider Phlebas

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If you like narratives that extend endlessly into an unknown direction with plenty of fast flying-by descriptions, strange cultures, exotic aliens and complex machinery, then Consider Phlebas is yours to dive into for the holidays. I would agree with the reviews on the dust jacket that Iain Banks is the ultimate Science Fiction author, but I wish he would also be a stellar literaturist. Our main character and our emotional focus as a reader is a 'Changer' by the name of Horza. It would be best to describe him as an incredibly lucky assassin with an impressive array of personal and deadly tricks up his sleeve. Horza works as a mercenary assassin for a dominate galactic race called the Idrian. He also happens to agree with their philosophy of life although we never get that many details on exactly why he does what he does. Horza has been tasked to retrieve an advanced piece of technology called 'The Mind' from a dark underground labyrinth located on a deserted planet. He decides to accomplish this task with a set of misfit buccaneers on a raider spaceship under the direction of a pirate captain, who is at some point disposed of in order for the Changer to take his place.

That's pretty much where the common sense part of the story description ends. Horza is not one of the smartest assassins in the universe and he makes countless dumb mistakes but always gets gets through without much of a bad scratch. At least not a scratch a good night's sleep will solve. In those cases where Horza is indeed badly hurt, Iain Banks simply ignores the problem and moves the story onto other fast past space chases. For example, in one chapter one of Horza's fingers is bitten off leaving clean bones sticking out, something that should you would assume have a bit of an effect later on. We don't really know how that influences the rest of the story because we never hear from it again. It would greatly change everything I would imagine since Horza is imitating a well known player of a game of chance called Damage. Horza attends this mass broadcast and much attended game already completely in the guise of his target. Anyone knowing the person he's trying to imitate would be a bit more than surprised by a missing finger. Not only that but Horza casually walks around the immediate area of his target without anyone noticing that they are spitting images. Later on when Horza meets up with his old pirate crew, nobody seems to notice that their old captain is missing a finger.

Sure, it's details and in the end it's all about the action and the adventure. But if you call someone the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, then I think you can have some higher standards and some more scrutiny. The book is riddled with cases like this and what's more important, the main plot-line depends on Horza making out-of-character mistakes. On the one hand he disposes of people easily enough and on the other hand he drags two enemies and one lethal adversary all the way down into the labyrinth to complete his task. At some point the silliness becomes so frustrating that you just want to see how it all ends.

We're supposed to believe that the Mind, or intelligent cylinder resembling a torpedo, is sentient. We know this because throughout the narrative the drone's internal thoughts are splashed in italics. The machine being highly intelligent is also a feeling being and is scared about being captured and maybe even fears for its existence. When we finally arrive at the scene where the drone is found we read nothing anymore about how this conscious object feels about the situation. We don't even read why it can't escape and why it simply flops to the ground ready to be trucked off to the surface. Why? The setup was wonderful and promising but we are essentially left with: well then they found it.

What you're left with is a good ride. It's entertainment and it's fun. Iain Banks is probably the only author who can extend any chase and action scene across an entire chapter. And even with a book this size you will breeze through it all at a break-neck speed. However, after you've read the conclusion you might wonder: so what was that all about?
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