I read Iain M. Banks' most recent novel, The Algebraist, in December (review here) and up until its midpoint, I was thoroughly convinced that the book would turn out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. Following that point, however, Banks' intriguing combination of social SF and hyper-imaginative space opera gave way to a humorous but ultimately repetitive adventure story, and the book eventually amounted to a minor work. That first half was still enough to whet my apetite for more of Banks' fiction, specifically his Culture novels, and being a completist I started with Consider Phlebas, Banks' first science fiction novel. This, I now suspect, is a mistake on par with starting to read the Discworld series with The Color of Magic--the talent and the good ideas are there, but they've yet to be developed. Consider Phlebas suffers from many of the faults one might expect from a new writer who has yet to cement and take control of his voice (my awareness of the deficiencies in Banks' prose was certainly heightened by the fact that I had recently read his latest, and stylistically quite accomplished, novel). A greater disappointment, however, was Banks' treatment of the social questions which make up the meat of the novel.
In The Algebraist, Banks juxtaposes the hyper-organized yet cruelly authoritarian Mercatoria with the E-5 Disconnect, a religious cult ruled by a hedonistic madman. The opponents in Consider Phlebas are quite a bit more subtle. In one corner, the Culture--a technologically advanced society of plenty, a Communist utopia, a society made up of morally conscious hedonists, powered and largely governed by artificial intelligences orders of magnitude more advanced and complicated than humans could ever become. The Culture has picked a fight with the Idirans, a race of aliens in the midst of a religious Jihad, who view humans and other alien species as weak and unworthy. Banks never for a moment allows us to entertain a black and white interpretation of this conflict--the Idirans aren't the violent alien menace; the Culture isn't being taken over by machines for humanity's own good. The novel's protagonist is Horza, a human in the employ of the Idirans who nurses a burning hatred of the Culture. Horza's thesis is that by eliminating hunger, scarcity, and injustice, the Culture is doing away with the necessities of human evolution, that its machine masters are either ignorantly or deliberately directing their biological citizens towards stagnation. The Idirans may be murderous invaders, but according to Horza they are still 'on the side of life', messy and violent as it is.
Consider Phlebas is essentially a protracted debate between the pro- and anti-Culture points of view (the Idirans exist mainly as a catalyst for this debate. Their argument for galactic domination is not seriously considered). In Banks' hands, the Culture is an intriguing mix of simple-mindedness and sophistication. It is at the same time as virtuous as its propaganda claims, and quite a bit more messily human than its detractors would have us believe. According to the novel's coda, the Culture goes to war because "The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had ... brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture's sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works". The Idirans, and with them a sizable portion of the galaxy, believe that the Culture is incapable of sustaining a prolonged military effort, that its pampered citizenry will rebel at the first suggestion of sacrifice or discomfort, as opposed to the Idirans who view sacrifice and service as a way of life (and yes, the real-world comparisons come in hot and heavy throughout the novel). What they, and we, discover, is that life in every form must always find reasons to struggle, and having found them, will pursue that struggle relentlessly.
The terms in which Banks couches this debate--the question of whether human society can thrive, and maintain its humanity, in conditions of plenty, or whether scarcity and conflict are necessary for human advancement--are quite a bit more sophisticated and nuanced than I am used to seeing, but the substance of the discussion remains unchanged, as does its conclusion. Life, in the end, is life. Messiness and violence can't be bred out of it, nor can repurposing or retitling them alter their fundamental nature. The Culture-Idiran war claims a fantastic toll in lives (the number is purposefully absurd, and its off-hand mention is clearly meant to shock the readers), and yet it is ultimately a minor, insignificant conflict, an exercise in vanity and self-justification on both sides. That is, ultimately, what the novel boils down to--war is bad and wasteful, but ultimately a human endeavor, and death awaits us all no matter the rightness of our cause or the purity of our ideals (a quotation from Eliot's "The Waste Land", 'consider Phlebas' is apparently the phrase one turns to after 'memento mori' throughly percolates into the cultural consciousness and becomes unusable as a title). 471 packed pages is quite a bit of effort to go to in order to say something that most human beings work out by their late teens, especially if the novel doesn't do much beyond expressing this philosophy.
And indeed, some of you may have noticed that although by now I've gone on about this book for four paragraphs, they've all dealt with topic and theme, with the plot nowhere in sight and the characters only briefly mentioned. This is, frankly, in keeping with Banks' approach. The novel's beginning sees Horza tasked with the retrieval of the AI core of a Culture vessel, which made a daring escape from an Idiran attack and hid itself on Schar's World, a neutral and heavily protected planet. Before he can go about completing this task, however, Horza is dumped into space in the middle of a space battle, captured by pirates, captured again by cannibals, caught in the crush to escape a soon-to-be-destroyed orbital platform, and forced to punch his way through a gigantic spaceship in order to escape the Culture's clutches. Will he survive all of these ordeals? Yes, of course he will, as the plot obviously requires that Horza make it to Schar's World, and yet nearly 300 pages are spent in this bouncing from peril to peril. Their purpose is obviously to showcase both Banks' ability to invent bizarre races, exotics customs, and magnificent technological edifices, and more importantly, to act as a backdrop to the ongoing discussion of the Culture. By showing us how the galaxy perceives the Culture, and how Horza reacts to this perception, Banks complicates our understanding of that society. Unfortunately, with no inherent tension to hold our interest, and with Banks pausing frequently for yet more info-dumps or yet more social philosophy, the novel's first 2/3 drag.
As I've already said, Banks' prose isn't up to the level I had come to expect from The Algebraist. In that later novel, he had learned the invaluable skill of making the info-dump interesting and unobtrusive, and much more importantly, he had learned the importance of humor. The frequent use of humor is one of The Algebraist's most compelling qualities--we can trust an author who won't take himself too seriously, and who recognizes the absurdities inherent to his premise and chosen style. Consider Phlebas' topic is, admittedly, a more serious and sombre one than The Algebraist's, but that difference doesn't excuse the earlier novel's humorlessness. Even in the most difficult, most hopeless situations, people make jokes--it is a fundamental human fact. There are almost no jokes in Consider Phlebas (actually, there are four. And none of them are particularly funny) and the novel's tone is unrelentingly tragic. Without humor to leaven it, that tragedy soon comes to seem ponderous and self-important. The characters, never particularly rounded, are further flattened by Banks' choice to deprive them of an important aspect of their personalities.
Unskilled, humorless prose, indifferent characterization, preachy and obvious philosophy--by almost every criteria Consider Phlebas is a flawed, perhaps even a failed novel. Even taking into consideration my unfairly heightened expectations, is there any point in continuing with Banks' back-catalogue? I think if the problem were only with the prose, I'd be perfectly willing to move on to one of his later and highly-praised novels--Use of Weapons or Look to Windward. As I've said, the talent is clearly there, and I already know that Banks develops it. But looking at summaries of the other Culture novels' plots, I get the distinct impression that ideologically, Banks never moves far away from Consider Phlebas' rather simple point. The Culture is virtuous and simple-minded; no, the Culture is decadent and inhuman; no, the Culture is subtle and bent on shaping the galaxy in its own image; no, the Culture is all of the above, and so entirely human and, in its own way, no different than any other empire. This is the not-too-surprising conclusion that Consider Phlebas reaches, and I don't get the impression that the other Culture novels do more than explore its ramifications in greater detail. Am I wrong, and if not, is there still something to read for in Banks' oeuvre?