Iain M. Banks wrote Consider Phlebas as one of several science fiction novels that were rejected by publishers. He earned success with a literary novel in 1984 (The Wasp Factory) and in 1988 he published this novel. It went on to become the first of his ten novels about a utopian humanoid civilization: The Culture. It does not, however, read like an introduction to that series in that it is about Horza, a mercenary fighting against the Culture for the non-humanoid Idiran race. Indeed, Banks did not originally plan a Culture series, but chose to re-work his other science fiction novels as the first in a series dealing with this less than perfect utopian civilization.
In origin, then, Consider Phlebas is a standalone novel about a humanoid fighting for non-humanoids against the dominant humanoid civilization. Almost by accident it became a rather odd first novel in a series about the enemy presented here. That textual history is not the only oddity about this rather unsatisfying novel. The story opens with a rescue of Horza by his Idiran employers from a grisly execution and the rescuers reveal the central tenet of the novel: a Culture ship computer known as a mind escaped the destruction of the ship it was in and Horza is commissioned to find it because it is now hiding on a closed planet that Horza previously lived on. The planet of Schar's World had a colony of Changers, Horza's race. They are a dying race distrusted by other humanoids because of their ability to change their appearance to create a perfect copy of another humanoid. Horza was part of that colony before becoming an Idiran mercenary, so they hope that he can gain access to capture this mind. This search will form the end of an action-packed conclusion to the narrative, but oddly most of the novel consists of an episodic detour that has limited relevance to the main storyline.
Even if the Culture had never been the subject of a series Consider Phlebas would be a disappointing novel. In its transformation into being the introduction to Banks' main series it is distinctly odd: it is better to think of it as a prequel rather than an introduction. Yet even in its original status as a standalone novel it reads like a short story that was padded out to little positive effect.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.