"Consider Phlebas" was Iain Banks' first published SF novel, and the first to feature "the culture", a pan-Galactic civilisation, descended from humanoids, but which has evolved machine intelligence to such a point that the machines have become their "God." Its pure space opera, in that an incomprehensible galactic war is going on between the Culture and the Idirans, and a "changer", (a race of human who can take on the characteristics of others), Bora Horza Gobuchul is fighting on behalf of the Idirans. A classic mercenary he has chosen the Idiran side because they at least are organic creatures, whilst the Culture have evolved so that their society is controlled by machines.
SF is at its best when it can assimilate a wide rang of ideas, and the ideas in "Consider Phlebas" are about what makes a perfect society. Yet the book itself is an adventure story. At a time when his non SF books "The Wasp Factory", "The Bridge" and "Walking on Glass" brim with fantastic imaginings, and believable characters, "Consider Phlebas" feels like a very early work, good fun to write, and even to read, but which gets caught up in its own invented mythologies. The story itself finds Horza on the point of death, before escaping. A series of unusual events see a "Mind" - the Culture's controlling machine intelligences - escape an attack and end on a planet of the dead, where Horza once lived and worked with other Changers, including his lover. These semi-religious planets are almost shrines to a previous culture, indifferent to the great space war happening around them. But before Horza can get there he ends up with another bunch of mercenaries on the nicely named Clear Air Turbulence, a bandit ship led by Kraiklyn, a battle hardened captain, who has little sentiment for the various waifs and strays who crew the ship. After a disastrous raid on what should have been an easy target, the reduced band falls under Horza, who has changed again, to look like Kraiklyn.
Kraiklyn is heading to a game of Damage, a high stakes game of chance taking place in a doomed outer space cluster which is soon to be destroyed by the Culture. Before he gets there Horza finds himself nearly a victim of a group of crazed cannibals.
At its best there's something Swiftian about these episodes, though Horza is a strange Gulliver. He acts as a bit of a mouthpiece for the book's philosophy, but the book rarely stops for long enough, as Banks goes into describing another strange world or scenario. I liked the Damage game section best of all - though its echoes of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker novels, and "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe" are an obvious one.
The quest to find the "Mind" seems a somewhat pyrhic one - yet Horza has personal reasons to go there as his old girlfriend is still there. Yet at the same time he has gone to bed with Yalson on the ship. In the meantime a Culture agent, who had been trying to kill Horza at the novel's start gets herself captured by him at the Damage game, and becomes a prisoner, as the crew head down to the planet of the dead.
This final section of the book took me a while to finish. The ancient planet has already been visited by some Idiran's and Horza's allegiances are now no longer so certain. For his old lover is dead, along with the other Changers. The search for the "Mind" feels a little like a shaggy dog story - and in these pages we've got a complex chase through the workings of the old planet, where ancient trains are awakened as Horza still goes looking for the mind, whilst also chasing the remainder of the Idiran soldiers.
There's much of interest in this first SF novel, and the Culture would be the main setting for the majority of his SF novels over the next thirty years, yet I found it a bit of a challenging read. The characters are, like so often is the case in hard SF, hard to visualise or love. The motley crew never comes alive, and you get the feeling they are like the characters in a disaster movie, ready to be picked off one by one. Horza himself is more of a cipher, whose role in the story is rarely heroic. The divide between "man" and "machine" is touched on throughout - a drone who gets annoyed that he is treated as a machine, the warrior Idirans who only really care about death or glory, the impossible intelligence of the Mind, the respect between Horza and the Culture agent - yet the novel is primarily an action novel, and yet the detailed action scenes lack pace. I'm sure I'll come back and read another Culture novel at some point, but after a run of books which I couldn't put down, this older novel was a bit of a disappointment. I got to the end, just as Horza does, but it was a close call.
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