Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

Consider Phlebas

-Book Cover

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas tells of a galactic war between a human-computer and an “alien” civilization. A sentient computer (a Mind) is lost on a planet and both sides are trying to find it. I enjoyed it. If it was a bit too “action movie in words” in sections (is there anything more tedious that reading a fight sequence) there are other sections that are stunning. The two first-person chapters told by the Mind, the long description of the Orbital (and later its destruction), the game of Damage and the two appendixes (why do I always like appendixes and glossary’s in novels) stand out.

Now, I don’t read science fiction very much. I watch movies, but don’t read books. There are probably a lot of reasons. Sci-fi always seems a bit macho on the page: gear-head, hard-tech stuff or computer-nerd fantasy. Neither really appeal to me, and when it’s neither, it’s often silly. The biggest problem is that “genre” often becomes a vehicle for “childish” in sci-fi, a missed mark that disappoints and offends me so badly I’ll put the book down.

Sci-fi I’ve liked have been things like Dune and Frank Herbert’s other books (The God Makers and The Messiah Complex stick out) and C. S. Friedman’s The Madness Season. Otherwise, my sci-fi picks were always sci-fi fantasy hybrids: Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and, when I was much much younger, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity trilogy.

Dune hits pretty squarely what I enjoy in sci-fi: an interest in large-scale philosophical and political questions allegorized into space-travel terms. (I’ve had Dune on the mind since summer. It is a book about gridlock and religion and works as an allegory of the 21st century. I’ll probably reread it and post more detailed thoughts in the coming months.) These books are sci-fi but the drama, the interest is on the decidedly non-scientific humans at the center of the story.

The Madness Season does something less elaborate but just as enjoyable: transform gothic fears into technological terms without reducing them. (I’ve been thinking about steam-punk and wondering if some of this might crop up there.) Oddly enough, Consider Phlebus, like The Madness Season has a changeling as its protagonist, and like Fiedman’s book, a central element of Phlebus’s plot is this character’s struggle to be someone coherent, to maintain some kind of identity.

I plan on reading the next of Bank’s Culture novels. I’ll wait a bit though. This book was long. I had a hard time giving so much time to…I hate to say it, but it’s true….a genre novel. At least at this time of year.

Posted October 24, 2011