I decided to start re-reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture series because the newest book is due out in February and it’s been a while since I read any of them. I read Consider Phlebas the weekend before Christmas and The Player of Games shortly after.
I would like to write something analytic and detailed about these books, but can’t find a lot to say. Maybe it’s because I was reading them in holiday mode, or maybe it’s because they’re familiar (even though I didn’t remember Consider Phlebas very well). Regardless, this is going to be more cursory than I’d hoped.
Consider Phlebas is set during a war between the Idirans, a religious empire, and the Culture, a post-scarcity and deliberately egalitarian society. It’s mostly told from the point-of-view of Bora Horza Gobuchul, a humanoid working for the Idirans because he opposes the Culture’s ideals and structure. This setup leads to there being two schools of thought about the book’s effectiveness as a starting point to the series. One says that its whole point is seeing the Culture through the eyes of one of its enemies and deciding that he’s wrong [*], and therefore it would lose its effectiveness if the reader had already met the Culture. The other says that, whatever the benefits might be, they’re outweighed by the book being the weakest of the series.
[*] If you do. I know a few people who don’t, though probably not to the extent of wanting to join the war on the Idiran side.
After this re-read, I’m going to join the second camp. The book does demonstrate the inventiveness and energy of the series, but its episodic structure makes it feel unfocused and longer than necessary. Also, one of the episodes is needlessly gross (and probably makes very little sense, but I made a point of skimming past it quickly so couldn’t say for sure).
A minor note: this book is the only book I know with its Epilogue after the Appendices. They’re all part of the story. (The funky narrative structure is also characteristic of the series.)
The next book, The Player of Games, is considerably tighter and more successful. Also, it has a really cool premise: an entire Empire is held together and structured around a mind-bogglingly complicated game, the winner of which becomes Emperor. The Culture has recently contacted the Empire, but purports to be unsure how to deal with it since interstellar empires are unprecedented in its experience, and so sends one of its best players to play the game.
This book has its anvilicious moments, but works better for me because I got a clearer view of the central character and a more focused story. Also, I enjoy the continued illumination of the Culture through contrasts with other societies.
I took a break after these two books, though, thinking that the next, Use of Weapons, might feel too similar: all three are tightly focused on a single man and share themes of people as weapons or tools. Instead, I detoured off into fantasy.