Iain M. Banks' Culture cycle has garnered what could be described as a cult following. Especially on the other side of the Atlantic, where Banks is considered by many to be one of the very best and most influential science fiction authors of his era. In an attempt to get more American SFF fans to give the Culture sequence a shot, Orbit has reissued a number of older titles when they published Matter last year.
As members of the Commonwealth, we Canucks have been fortunate enough to have access to every Iain M. Banks title to date. Be that as it may, for some reason I had yet to give this prolific writer a chance. Hence, as the first Culture novel ever published, Consider Phlebas seemed like the perfect starting point.
The Culture and the Idiran Empire are fighting a galaxy-spanning war; the Idirans fighting for their Faith, while the Culture fights for their right to exist. Horza, a mercenary Changer with the ability to alter his appearance, is assigned the mission to retrieve a fugitive Culture Mind by his Idiran superiors. Fleeing from Idiran warships, the powerful AI has taken refuge on Schar's World, one of the Planets of the Dead. With the help of a motley crew of mercenaries, Horza must locate the Mind before the Culture's Special Circumstances agents do.
The worldbuilding is rather impressive, and I reckon it gets all the more so in the subsequent Culture novels. Though there is a lot of information concerning the Idirans' fanatical imperial expansion, I would have liked to learn more about the Culture. Banks' evocative prose creates an imagery that is seldom seen in the genre. The Vavatch Orbital, the Megaships, the General Systems Vehicles, the Command System on Schar's World -- everything comes alive and leaps off the page.
The characterization leaves a bit to be desired, however. While Horza is a fully realized character, I felt that we discovered very little about Perosteck Balveda. And considering the important role she plays during the course of this novel, I feel that we learn next to nothing about the Culture agent. The same could be said of Kraiklyn's band of mercenaries. Other than Yalson, the others were basically extras just filling some space.
The pace is, for the most part, crisp. And yet, the rhythm becomes extremely sluggish in some portions of the books, chief among them The Eaters and A Game of Damage. Though these chapters kill the momentum of the story, the rest of Consider Phlebas is a page-turning space opera.
Regardless of its shortcomings, Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas is a novel vast scope and rare imagination. I will definitely read the other Culture titles.
The final verdict: 7.5/10