Experiments in Ontological Relativism

and Other Brain Farts

Review of Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas

Posted by Jason on February 12, 2009

I posted this review on my page over at Goodreads, but I thought it might go well here, too. I’m going to try to make more of an effort to write reviews (at least short ones) of books I’ve been reading. I don’t know if anyone’s really interested in reading them, but at least my thoughts are out there. Better than just keeping ’em in my own head, where they do no one any good!

Anyway, I invite feedback as always. Hope you enjoy!

First of all, the obligatory SPOILER WARNING. Are you warned yet? ‘Kay. If you want to avoid spoilers, you can skip down to the summary at the end.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I love the vast backdrop and the space opera elements. Banks seems to have created a fantastic universe to play in, populated by interesting people, filled with some very sexy technology, and nuanced by a subtle political configuration. Sometimes, however, I felt that much of this detail was only a facade; Banks throws out great names for places, groups, religions, etc., but I sense that he has no more idea what these things are and how they work than the reader does. His flagship setting, the Culture, seems to be much better thought out. Unfortunately, we only see them mostly on the fringes of this novel, though they seem much more interesting than most of what we directly contact in the text. If I do go on to read any of Banks’ other novels, it will be because of this richness of setting.

If I do read those other Culture novels, it won’t be because I was lured by Banks’ actual prose. Though the story in Consider Phlebas is certainly exciting, I felt it suffered greatly from a lack of direction and some strange pacing. The story starts off well, with an exciting rescue of the main character, Horza, from certain death. Great, action! Following this, Horza is given a very definite mission with specific place, time, and goals. Fantastic setup.

Then the story goes off the rails. Horza is led on a series of misadventures, side trips, and turns of bad luck before he can even begin to get to what he’s supposed to be doing (and what the audience expects the novel to be about). Some of these diversions are interesting, some exciting, but ultimately they go on way too long, leaving the reader to wonder when will heever get back to what he’s supposed to be doing. To put it another way, Horza doesn’t even get to the situation described on the jacket blurb until well over halfway through the novel.

The pacing of the text itself also felt horrendously slow at times. Banks seems to love writing action scenes–and, in fact, he’s quite good at it!–but some seemed to drag on interminably. At a few points, I found myself skimming or skipping entirely several pages of fight scene. I’m not sure if this was just my personal preferences, or the fact that really only the outcome of the fights mattered to the plot. (I have the same problem with action movies: I often find myself drumming my fingers, thinking “Enough already, just get on with the story.”)

The climax suffered from similar problems. Banks spends at least 75 pages setting up for it, when any astute reader clearly sees it coming after, say, 5 or 10. I was more than ready for the novel to be over long before the last page arrived.

Speaking of the ending, (you did see that SPOILER WARNING up above, right?) I found the outcome to be extremely dissatisfying. At the risk of overgeneralizing, Horza fails in his mission and everyone dies, including him. One (arguably minor) character survives, and another one is maimed (or its equivalent, anyway). I don’t need a happy ending per se, but I was left feeling that everything the characters had done (and my time spent reading about it) was more or less a big waste of time. Not to mention the fact that characters I’d worked hard to care about were offed seemingly without a care. I can only imagine that Banks was trying to make a statement about the pointlessness of war; all I got was a lesson on the pointlessness of reading the last 500 pages.





Consider Phlebas sets up an extremely compelling universe, full of fun places and people to explore. It hints at some very interesting thoughts and questions on what it means to be human, sentient, even alive. Unfortunately, it’s marred by poor pacing, lack of focus, and an overbearing action movie mentality. This was the first written of Banks’ Culture novels, and I hope that these are just first-timer mistakes. I’ll probably give at least one more Culture novel a chance, to be fair, but I’m not putting it too high on the reading list.


2 Responses to “Review of Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas”

  1. Thank you. I have read some Ian Banks. (‘Dead Air’ and liked it) But your review has put me off reading Phlebas. I do like a message other than just entertainment. Otherwise what’s the point- there’s so much ‘just entertainment’ on telly. So thanks again for putting your thoughts outside your head. Appreciate it.

    • Jason said

      No problem at all. Thanks for taking the time to respond! I really hope that some of his other books are a bit tighter, as I would love to be able to recommend them. He does have some very creative, very interesting ideas. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like they were quite worth slogging through 500 pages in this instance. I think I’ll pay a bit more attention to other reviews before deciding which of his books to read next!

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