The novel “Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks was published for the first time in 1987. It’s part of the Culture series.
During the Idiran–Culture War, one of the Culture’s starships is destroyed during an Idiran attack but its Mind, the artificial intelligence that controlled it, survives. With a desperate maneuver, the Mind manages to hide on the planet Schar, under the protection of the Dra’Azon, entities so powerful that neither of the two contenders wants to provoke their anger.
Bora Horza Gobuchu is a Changer on a mission for the Idirans thanks to her ability to change his appearance. The intervention of Perosteck Balveda, a Culture agent, causes Horza’s mission to fail and the Changer must be rescued by the Idirans. An attack by the Culture puts him in danger again, and this time he’s rescued by a Free Company of mercenaries’ starship. Horza is forced to fight for his life and to continue his mission by reaching the planet Schar.
“Consider Phlebas” is the first science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks and it’s the one that introduces the Culture’s fictional universe that made the author famous. It’s a rather curious introduction of the Culture, as that civilization is only partially shown directly or through the actions of its citizens but above all from the point of view of Bora Horza Gobuchu, who is its enemy. It’s part of the complexity of a saga that offers themes that are often science fiction classics with a depth unthinkable a few decades earlier.
The Idiran–Culture War is used by Iain M. Banks to develop what is a space opera on a truly grand scale. The battles involve sometimes gigantic and very powerful starships but also artificial constructions such as the Orbitals, rings built around stars.
The adventurous component is remarkable and has nothing to envy to the classics of space opera but the tones are very different from those stories. Soon in “Consider Phlebas” it’s clear that this is not a trivial clash between good and bad and it’s very difficult to think of any of the characters as a hero. The protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchu doesn’t inspire much sympathy even a lot of bad things happen to him. Horza seems happy to work for the Idirans even if they’re religious fanatics. Like most of the characters in the novel, he’s morally very ambiguous.
There are tales of battles and dangers for Horza in the course of his attempts to find the Mind but they’re interspersed with many digressions that sometimes slow down the pace considerably. Iain M. Banks uses the various moments of that adventure to talk about some political, social, and religious facets of the Idiran Empire and the Culture, sometimes through conversations and sometimes through internal monologues of a character. One problem is that sometimes they’re facets seen from the point of view of the protagonist and therefore far from objective.
All this makes “Consider Phlebas” not an easy read. The problem, in my opinion, is that this novel isn’t a simple classic space opera with a smoothly told story, nor does it have depth enough to compensate for a certain heaviness. There’s still the merit of offering a very rich fictional universe.
“Consider Phlebas” is in my opinion far from perfect, and various subsequent novels better develop the elements of that fictional universe. It’s not essential to read it to go on with the Culture series because the various novels are autonomous or almost autonomous. You might like it if you appreciate space opera in which political and social elements are important.