On 'Consider Phlebas'

Posted by Jack on 2014-10-01 at 23:23
Tagged: scifi , books

I've read my fair share of science fiction. I wouldn't consider myself an expert, but when it comes to sci-fi (and most fiction for that matter) I've realized there are two major components. There are the ideas and the execution of them.

For example, Asimov was prolific and his stories were very good, but Asimov was an ideas kind of guy. His plots in The Foundation series, and the Lije Bailey stories in the Robot series were interesting because he envisioned a world that was quite different than ours and intricate enough to hang a good plot on, but when it comes down to it, the man wrote functionally. He conveyed his meaning, and you are interested in that meaning, but in the end I would characterize his style as austere. Very imaginative, but very plainly executed. Dry, even.

There are many titans of science fiction that are similar. In fact, I'd say that if you have great ideas and write sci-fi, it's really not a burden to be lacking in prose. Herbert's Dune, Orwell's 1984, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It's not that they're poorly written, it's that they're classics because of their ideas, or their satire rather than their language.

And of course that's not to mention the raft of... lesser works out there. The works of Crichton, for example. Jurassic Park is a classic, but I'd put that more on Spielberg than Crichton. Crichton's work in Congo and Sphere are fun reads, but nothing to write a thesis on. Timeline read like it was a screenplay-in-waiting. Fantasy, which is so often lumped in with sci-fi (and there is a blurry line in between) is rife with successful authors trading on ideas rather than execution. George R. R. Martin's books are well conceived, but you read them to find out what happens next and not for the pleasure of reading them. Tolkien, who is the grandfather of all modern High Fantasy, is one of the worst offenders in this regard but he was a master of epic mythology and linguistics more than an author.

I bring these instances up not to shame these authors, in fact I'm a fan of all of them, but to note just how rare it is to find a really great author outside of "literary fiction" that trades in not just ideas, but also in writing that packs a punch and doesn't shy away from being stylistic.

When I cracked Consider Phlebas, first of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, I admit it was with trepidation. The term "space opera" gets thrown around a lot in a pejorative light and, quite frankly, I'm not really one to dig novels that are basically episodes of Star Trek or rehashes of Star Wars. I imagined that it would be yet another band of heroes fighting against an evil galactic empire, or some opposing alien (yawn) force. In the first chapter, trying to absorb the names alone made me fear that I'd started reading The Lord of the Rings in Space.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. Consider Phlebas has everything. A compelling plot, believable relationships, well thought out action, clever (but not trite) dialogue, fantastic locations, realistic tech, vast scale, suspense, surprise, philosophy. I could go on. The best part of it is that Banks' style rings clear and true from the first page to the last.

It's been a long time since a novel has been able to really get me to picture each scene like Consider Phlebas did. The writing was never awkward, never confusing and yet extremely evocative. Amazingly, this includes feats like describing life on a massive Orbital that's inherently beyond the sort of day-to-day experience we have in the 21st century. And it's not just describing its shape or dimension or the people on it well, it's making you feel like it's a real place. That the people that live there are three dimensional and not just background noise of some boring plot point.

It's similar with the technology, where Banks really went above and beyond. A lot of really great work (like Gibson's Neuromancer, another of my stylistic favorites) benefits from the fact that it takes place in the near future. Things are different, but also the same. Banks had no such help, and yet even when detailing things that are literally only in the realm of sci-fi it has that tinge of truth behind it that lets your brain accept that such a thing is not only possible, but even likely. At one stage, he spent a few paragraphs describing just what it would look like looking out of the window of a spacecraft in hyperspace. It's well trod ground between Star Wars' hyperspace (all the stars turn into lines!) and Star Trek's warp speed (the ship disappears into a point!) and likely touched on every single "space opera" between here and Jules Verne. And yet, Banks didn't just cop out with a single sentence ("They went to hyperspace and all the stars turned into lines!"), he crafted a beautiful scene and included details of what would be seen, and how it relates to real space and celestial landmarks.

The final point I'll mention in what should hopefully read as a ringing endorsement of Consider Phlebas is that between all of the wonderful metaphors and descriptive language, there is a lot of action and it is all well written. So often in text the excitement is dulled by awkward phrasing or poorly paced or ordered action sequences so I was pleased to find that even in the midst of battle I was able to easily follow what was going on without getting confused and having to re-read or getting bored with minutiae. The whole book flowed from static scene to dynamic battle and back again without skipping a beat.

If I had to register one complaint about the book it would be that it was too short, but even that criticism would only be a joke to underscore how much I enjoyed it.

If you're a sci-fi reader, like me, that appreciates a little more weight in your worlds then you owe it to yourself to give Consider Phlebas a read. It is a masterpiece.