Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Consider Phlebas? I'd Rather Not, Thanks.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

I’ve been hearing about Banks’ Culture novels for some time now. Whenever someone brings up neat future cultures or anthropology in sci-fi, Banks gets mentioned right along C.J. Cherryh, so I’ve been meaning to get to these for a while. I’ve also been warned that the first one, Consider Phlebas, isn’t very good. It’s Banks’ first sci-fi novel, and pales considerably next to the other books in the series. I’ve been told it’s more “Culture adjacent” rather than a true Culture novel itself. I’ve been told I can skip it.

I was told I should skip it.

I should have listened.

It starts off promising enough: a shape-shifting secret agent is chained to the wall of a dungeon after having been found out while impersonating an important member of a planet’s ruling gerontocracy. Looks like a great opening to a rollicking Planetary Romance, right?

Only the dungeon is built beneath the privies of a great feast, and he is sentenced to be drowned in the poo of those attending the feast. It’s a death as impractical as it is juvenile. Just how many people are attending this feast?

It doesn’t get any better. You’d expect the special agents of dueling star empires to ooze competence, if not a certain savoir faire (especially since one is from the magical and amazing Culture). Nope, everyone in this story is a bumbling incompetent. One character attempts to disguise themselves by doing nothing but changing their hair color. Another character nearly manages to escape. I can’t remember if that failed escape attempt results in any deaths, but nothing is done to prevent further attempts, which do lead to the death of a handful of characters.

Nearly everybody dies gruesome, ugly deaths. Even the “victor” of the novel’s events is so disgusted with the whole mess that they commit suicide.

The world building is pretty meh as well. Twice, Banks throws up his hands at attempting to explain why the characters are behaving they way they are and just blames it on religion. What these characters are doing is, in one instance, stupid, self-destructive, painful, and literally counter to basic biological instincts, but hey, it’s ok, because religion makes people that impossibly stupid. And what in the world does retirement even mean to a nigh-immortal AI living in a post-scarcity society?

The result is a long, rambly mess that feels like an attempt to write Heart of Darkness as a sci-fi novel. Yeah. It’s that bad.

I will eventually get to later Culture novels, as I’m still curious. But this one put me off my feed enough I’m going to wait a bit before I do so. Blah.