Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1987)

Grade: B — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.  Also, to avoid bias, the highest grade I’ll give a book by someone I know and like.

In brief:

Consider Phlebas is one of the best Science Fiction books I have read.  It launched Iain M. Banks‘ Culture world/series and demonstrates that good Science Fiction can stand up to any other form of literature.


The Culture is a hyper advanced, galaxy spanning utopian civilization whose citizens lead an arguably hedonistic life free of concerns.  Governed by a series of hyper-intelligent artificial Minds (they are to Artificial Intelligences as humans are to single cell organisms), the citizens of the Culture live as long as they wish, have backups of their memories in case they die, can change shape (and sex) at will, can gland whatever drug or feeling they desire… can do whatever they please.

In Depth:

I know… I know.  How can I give this a Beta rating?  It launched one of the best Science Fiction worlds and series ever created!  Its prose describes vivid imagery and hugely imaginative ideas. It addresses the notion of secular vs. religious ideology and reflects upon concepts that were key to the Iran-Iraq war. What is more, I’ve given other books in the series a higher rating, so how can this get a Beta? 

Well, maybe you should re-read the rating system.  Beta doesn’t mean it is any worse than an Alpha rating, just that some readers may not like it due to elements of its genre. 

So, if you like Science Fiction, this is a must read.  If you don’t, well, you may not like this book. Similarly, if you like very simplistic sentence structure, you may get lost in his prose, but if you love the flow of language, you may like this book even if you hate sci-fi.

For me, however, all of these things added to the tale. The imagery and descriptions used in this book are vivid and create a unique and remarkable world.  The ideological themes and philosophical elements of book (secularist vs. theocratic world views) are extremely poignant to the modern world. The crafting of the language by itself drew me into the tale: Banks’ prose by itself is worth the read.

In brief, the story follows the tale of Horza, a shape changing human who works as a freelance agent (assassin) who is caught up in the center of Galatic scale ward between theocratic Idrians and the ‘humanist’ utopia known at The Culture.  Horza works for the Idrians, and is soon assigned the task of tracking down and capturing a fugitive Mind.  For those who don’t know, Minds are the hyper-intelligent machines that pilot ships, control habitats and effectively rule the Culture in a generally Platonic (and arguably hedonistic) Republic. 

If you like Science Fiction, Espionage, or the use of language for language sakes, you will likely enjoy this book.  If you don’t like some of these, you may not enjoy and if you don’t like any of these… find another author. 

Post Script: One nice thing about Banks’ Culture series is that you don’t have to read them in any given order.  It is better to start with the earlier ones and move on to the later ones, but this was not the first Culture book I read. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Espionage, New Space Opera, Political Drama, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Series, Spy Thriller, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Ultratech, Unique or Imaginative World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 1987)

  1. MBR says:

    I love all of Banks’ culture novels – and all the books by Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space universe.
    I can’t get enough of these two guys…

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