Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
My first attempt to read Consider Phlebas began a couple of years ago. I made it to the fifth chapter and abandoned the book. This past June, the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club selected Consider Phlebas as the science fiction group read. The discussion leader provided two avenues for discourse: by topic or by chapter. I opted for the chapter course, hoping that by only absorbing one chapter per day I might actually finish the novel. Some chapters made better lunch reading than others (for example, if you’re squeamish, you might avoid the sixth chapter, or at least avoid masticating and digesting dinner while reading it).
With my support and therapy groups ready and willing to urge me on, I reluctantly consumed a chapter a day and finished my first (and perhaps last) Culture novel. Many of my thoughts and comments can be found in the discussion threads here.
Banks’ writing style lent itself to rich cinematic visualizations, especially of some of the action sequences (escaping from space ships, orbital rings, runaway trains). Those images, created by Banks’ prose and my own imagination, are forever seared into my memories, some of them as vivid and visceral as a strobe light flash in a Halloween haunted horror house.
My most intriguing find resulted from the epigraph which quoted two lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and directly relate to the title and the tone of the novel. My research lead me to further contextual reading in The Waste Land to include the entire section surrounding the epigraph quote:
IV. DEATH BY WATER
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
I found few likable or relateable characters, with the exception of the robots and Minds (Banks’ AI permutation). Knowing nothing of the Culture prior to reading Consider Phlebas, and in light of the quote above, I can understand and appreciate the author’s endeavor. Just not my cup of tea.