Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Consider Phlebas Is A Book I Read

Or why you could read Consider Phlebas, 
by Iain M Banks

The Culture, a utopian future interplanetary society run by robotic Minds, is at war with the theocratic, jihadistic Idiran Empire. In Consider Phlebas, Bora Horza Gobuchul, a shape changing humanoid Idiran agent capable of impersonating targets, is rescued from a failed mission and tasked with infiltrating Schar's World to recover a Culture prototype Mind stranded on the planet. Unfortunately, things go sideways and Horza finds himself on a mercenary pirate ship. The novel explores whether Horza can salvage his mission and find the Mind before the agents of the Culture can capture or thwart him. 

I really did not enjoy this novel very much. I think the reasons for this fall comfortably into two broad categories.

The first is that I don't enjoy novels that fuck around too much. I'm kind of a busy person trying to balance a pretty demanding career with my marriage and so time is really precious to me. While I read during my lengthy commute, I still hate it when I feel like a novel isn't a good investment of time. And Consider Phlebas really felt like it was taking it's time not really going anywhere. This novel really didn't deliver a very effective plot and seemed more interested in messing around in admittedly interesting settings than focus on the story. Which can still make for a memorable novel if the characters are interesting and well developed, or if the novel is short enough not to feel bogged down. But with boring, underdeveloped characters and being of substantial length, Consider Phlebas felt more like a bloated time sink than a compelling story to me.

This sense of a pointless story is reinforced by a poor protagonist. For one, Horza, is pretty unlikable: he is this jerky guy who selfishly does awful things for unclear and poorly defined reasons. He is just kind of a butthole, which makes him someone naturally hard to care about and root for. Which could be fine if he were an interesting jerk, but because his motivations are so poorly defined and his character so bland, he ends up being a boring butthole. And this unlikable, bland character doesn't even really develop in any meaningful way over the course of the sizeable meandering novel. It's just stuff happening to a person I never care about who is acting on a vague sense of principles I guess? Blah.

(Consider Phlebas also kills the puppy. Now, I'm using kill the puppy as short hand for "an author deliberately setting up a situation or character that the audience will sympathize with and then doing something really, really shitty to them in a transparently manipulative authorial dickmove". And Consider Phlebas has a really hamfisted and exceptionally dickish example of killing the puppy. Such a dickmove in a novel that I'm generally finding quite bland is pretty unforgivable.)

I actually found the experience of reading Consider Phlebas a lot like reading a video game. The novel provided an empty vessel protagonist and sent him to a bunch of pretty interesting sounding settings and then staging first person shooter action sequences. Throw in a few more gun toting minions and autoturrets and you would have a not terrible FPS videogame which could be really fun to play through. But to read? Pretty dull. 

Would I recommend this novel? Well, no. I really didn't enjoy it. I feel like if you are the kind of reader who is less time conscious or was really into meandering fiction, you might enjoy this book. It came very highly recommended to me by the guy at my bookstore and by an author whose opinion in fiction I usually trust, so my dislike of this novel might just be a me thing. But, I can only share my own experience with this book, which wasn't very good. So, I'd say if you are looking for something to read, I'd choose one of the dozens of books I've enjoyed more than this one.

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