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_Consider Phlebas_ by Iain M. Banks
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Grand vistas, but grim storytelling.

Horza is a shape-changing interstellar spy, working during a war between two huge star-spanning civilizations. When we first meet him, he is literally in Deep Shit, having been caught by some enemies who have a particularly gross idea of appropriate execution methods. He is rescued, however, and given a new mission. Soon, however, he is marooned by a space battle, after which he falls in with a band of space pirates. He does his best to continue his mission under ever-more-dire circumstances, as his comrades die one by one around him. Eventually, at the big climax, he manages to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory, and dies, unheroically. His (sympathetic) opponent 'wins', but is so traumatized that, not much later, she "auto-euthenizes"; so really, nobody wins.

I don't demand that stories have a happy ending (though I do generally prefer them); there are lots of other reasons to enjoy a book. The main ones, for me, are: witty dialogue, an interesting prose style, characters I want to spend time with, insight into the human condition, real-world facts, and worldbuilding. The prose and dialogue here are serviceable, but nothing to write home about. A few of the characters are mildly sympathetic, but none are likable enough to carry the book. The only insight I can see here is: "In a universe of vast wonders, the horrors also scale up to vastness." Which is not that enlightening, frankly. As the appendices make clear, horror is still a very minor fraction of the universe considered as a whole. The worldbuilding has *some* interest -- but Banks strikes me as the emotional equivalent of a small boy with wooden blocks; his main joy in building complex structures is in seeing what happens when he kicks them over.

To paraphrase rickthefightguy quoting The Princess Bride: "Geez, grampa! Why'd you tell me this story?" What reason is there for this book to exist? What was he trying to say that was worth hundred of pages of prose to say it?

I read this because I have heard many people whose opinions I respect recommend Banks, especially his Culture novels, of which this is the first. But I gotta say that there's nothing in this one for me. So a question for those who have read more of them: Do any of the others contain at least *some* of the elements I like?

Not Recommended.
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I disagree about the author's intention in telling the story: I think he loves the game, and he likes pushing the character/pawns around the board, but feels no special attachment to them. Unfortunately, his lack of attachment to his own characters comes through pretty clearly, and they have no more agency than a piece of driftwood on a wave as the tide inevitably comes in. I think Banks likes the giant forces, but has no emotion for the humans that get caught up in the tow.

He exercises his descriptive powers, and a sardonic sense of humor. His human characters are often deeply flawed, but powerfully motivated. His vision of an alternate world is mythical.

I think some of his other books are stronger, but if you didn't like that one, you might not like any. Also: avoid his straight fiction (Ian Banks versus Ian M. Banks).

You *might* like The Player of Games, but it's a stretch.

Not every author is for every body. I love Banks.

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_Use of Weapons_ is a masterpiece of artistic merit, but is in no way comforting. It's about a mercenary for the Culture's Special Circumstances group, which is the part of Contact that gets to have fun.

_The Player of Games_ is about a master game player -- any game, he'll learn the rules and beat you at it -- who is recruited by SC to investigate the Empire of Azad, which is ruled by Azad-players in an analog of Confucian China. The Empire is exceedingly nasty.

_Excession_ is more military space opera, and takes a deeper look at the internal life of the Minds that run the Culture. Has some excellent sense-of-wonder bits. Please note that there is a lot of message traffic, and some of them are lies.

_Inversions_ is only a Culture novel if you pay attention to the clues; otherwise it's a low-tech intrigue.

_Look to Windward_ is a philosophical sequel to _Consider Phlebas_; it concerns people who can't get over the Idiran War.

_Against A Dark Background_ is not a Culture book, because it takes place in a solar system in the middle of a dust cloud. They've had millenia of technology, but no out-of-system travel because they don't know that any other stars exist. Then there's a quest, so the protagonist pulls her old team of mercenaries together and races the evil cultists for the prize. Try this one.

I agree pretty closely.

I do, however, consider Banks an extremely good writer at shorter forms. It's just that I can't read more than a few thousands words of his work at a shot.

Except that he regards himself as a novel writer. IIRC "State of the Art", his only short story collection contains all of his short form work.

"Consider Phlebas" is his first Culture novel & not his best work. You'd probably be better off trying "Player of Games".

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