Tuesday 14 January 2014

Consider Phlebas

This next book has been read for no less than 'three' book challenges. First of all it was part of my reading for Carl's Science Fiction Experience, secondly it's my first book for Peggy's Read Scotland challenge, and thirdly it also qualifies as my second book for Bev's 2014 Mount TBR challenge. I think that's all... :-)

Anyway, the book is Consider Phlebas by Scottish author, Iain M. Banks.

A galaxy-wide war is raging between the Idirans and The Culture and has been going on for four years. The Idirans are an alien culture based on strong religious beliefs. The people who make up The Culture are of mixed heritage but tend to be more human based. They are very laid back in their approach to life believing strongly in not foisting your opinions or way of life onto others. They also rely heavily on a machine based technology.

Bora Horza Gobuchul - known to all as Horza - is a Changer, meaning he can take on the appearance of any humanoid he chooses, but not immediately, it's a gradual process that takes place over weeks. His natural appearance is human. When the book opens he's a prisoner about to be executed by drowning but is saved in the nick of time by the Idirans. It seems he's an Idiran spy and they have a job for him. The Culture's space vessels are run by 'Minds', basically computers which have a physical presence, and one of them escaped its ship in an attack and has taken refuge on Schar's World, a Planet of the Dead. The Idirans want Horza to go and fetch it so they can examine it and gain some technological advances.

The task is easier said than done. First of all Horza has to get to the far side of the galaxy and when he's captured by a 'free' ship manned by renegades it seems he has failed at the first hurdle. But Horza, at first demoralised, comes to see this as an opportunity if only he is willing to play the long game. And what a game! The crew of the ship are decimated by monks when they attempt to raid a religious site, hit an ice-berg on a mega-ship on a man-made 'Orbital' world, then Horza has to escape a cannabalistic sect on a desert island and various other trials before reaching his final destination. Then comes the biggest test of all...

I gave this a three star rating on Goodreads and am wondering if I may have been a bit mean. If there was a three and a half star option I would have chosen that because this was not a bad read at all. I just wish I had loved it rather than 'liked it'. It had all the right elements - it was imaginative, inventive, a roller-coaster type of a plot and so on. But somehow or other it just didn't do it for me and I'm finding it hard to put my finger on why. It's possible I just didn't connect with Horza. I was never really sure whether he was good, bad or somewhat indifferent. I know this is quite true to life, people do tend to be a mix, but my feeling was that he didn't care very much about anything and I found that off-putting.

The world-building, however, was superb. To be honest I think it's what kept me reading. I almost gave up I must confess, partly due to the small print of the book but also for my taste (your mileage may vary, as they say) the writing style was too meandering, too much superfluous detail. I felt the book wouldn't have harmed to lose 100-150 pages. Others would strongly disagree, I realise that! However, as I said, the world-building, or 'galaxy building' was excellent. For me the most interesting section was that of the Orbital world, Vavatch, which was mainly a huge ocean kept in place by giant walls. I imagined it like a giant polo mint, not sure if I got that right but it worked for me. A whole book set there would have been fine by me as that was by far the best and most interesting bit of the book.

It's an odd thing. Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss was equally as long as this book, in fact I think it may have been longer, but I didn't get bored once. Never felt the amount of detail (and there was a lot) was too much. Never found myself skip reading paragraphs. Was not glad to get the end. I know a lot of people think Banks' Culture series is the bee's knees in science fiction writing and I'm not disputing the quality of the writing 'at all'... he was (he sadly died last year) an amazing writer. But for me, something was missing. I can't work it out, I really can't, and will just put it down to individual taste and leave it at that.

Will I read any more in the series? I don't know. I'm intrigued by The Culture and may well pick another book up but the gaming plot of the next one doesn't really appeal. If I come across something in the library I may grab it and try it. It could be that I might like other books in the series a bit more as I'm not sure it's a continuous series, but more a series of unconnected books based in the same universe - a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish books.

All in all a good solid read for the Sc-Fi Experience but not my favourite of the four I've read so far.



Peggy Ann said...

Isn't it great when a book counts for multiple challenges?

Kailana said...

I have never read Banks before, but I do have a book by him on my TBR. I will be curious to see what I think of him.

GeraniumCat said...

Sorry you didn't love it more, but books are like that. If you do go for more Culture novels, so for the early ones though - later on they get more violent (he's one of those authors who tends to have at least real wince moment per book, but they get more frequent) and more meandering. My favourite is Excession, because I love his AIs, and most particularly, the Culture ships - it has ship-to-ship conversations which are wonderful.

Bev Hankins said...

I owned this book once upon a time--back in my "buy everything SF" days. But never read it. I"m not sure that I missed anything--doesn't sound like it was a stunner.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I have yet to read any of Banks's book, although I have two waiting to be read - but not this one, and I'm not sure it's one for me, meandering and superfluous detail sounds a turn-off.

I've been thinking that I've been getting harder with my ratings - a few years ago I was giving more five stars than I do now. And I agree about the half stars on Goodreads and sometimes make a note in the comments section that my rating is actually 3.5 stars (or whatever).

DesLily said...

I will never understand why I never cared for reading much sci fi when I love watching the movies so much! Is there any sort of books that you don't enjoy???? (doubting it lol)

Cath said...

Peggy: It certainly is!

Kelly: I too will be curious to see what you think of his books.

Geranium Cat: Books certainly are like that. Oh yes, wince moments... there was one in this book wasn't there? I thought, 'Oh Gosh,' when he was on the island with that weird lot. I think I probably will read more as the universe he created is fascinating.

Bev: You might have felt completely differently about the book to me. Lots of people do! LOL

Margaret: I'm normally quite OK with meandering, well sometimes, but this time I seemed to have no patience with it.

I'm going to be slightly harder with my ratings this year. My problem though is that if I don't like a book I don't finish it and I wouldn't put it on GR, so it's going to be rare for me to give a book one or two stars.

Pat: It does seem odd that you love sci-fi films so much but not the books. I wonder if you maybe have not read the right books. Although... Pern is sci-fi. LOL

Nope... I like nearly everything. It's a real problem. LOL.

kamo said...

I'm halfway through rereading this right now, and while I absolutely adored it the first time I read it, I get what you mean about it feeling like it could be shorter. However, for me the bit on the orbital surrounding the Damage game has been the closest it's got to dragging.

I'm happily surprised at how much of it I've forgotten, so even though I know the ending lots of the little details seem fresh to me. I've normally got little patience for Worldbuilding, but the scale of Bank's imagination was awesome. The escape from the GSV and destruction of the orbital almost feel worth the cover price on their own.

Not many Minds in this one, either. Like Geranium Cat above, I'd say give Excession a go. The Culture is all about the Minds and when they get into their droll glory there's nothing quite like it :)

Cath said...

Kamo: I wasn't terribly interested in the Damage game either, but the Orbital itself fascinated me and I wanted to know more about it. I agree that its destruction was an amazing scene, and ever so slightly heart-breaking too! His imagination was awesome... what a sad loss he is to the reading world.

I've just reserved Excession from the library. I like the sound of 'droll glory' and Geranium Cat recommended that one too.

Susan said...

I haven't tried any Ian Banks yet, and I'd really like to. I think I'm kind of scared of it, it looks very scientific, which to my mind still sadly translates to boring. And yet he is loved by so many readers. Your review opened my eyes to some of his ideas and what he writes about, so I'm nearer to picking one up now, Cath!

It is fun when books count for several challenges, isn't it? I've just signed up for the Scotland Reading challenge for this year :-) First one for 2014 for me.....thanks to you and Geranium Cat!

Cath said...

Susan: The science in it was not tedious at all. The writing just had a little too much in the way of descriptive detail for my taste. I now have Excession on my library pile as this is the one Geranium Cat and Kamo recommended here in the comments.

Look forward to seeing what you read for Peggy's Scottish challenge.