Consider Phlebas starts off promisingly. The action-packed opening also provides a conceptual framework for the Idiran-Culture War, the main conflict of the novel. This opening provides exactly what I was looking for in my second venture into the universe. I’ve been captivated by the concept the post-scarcity, socialist/anarchist, utopian society of the Culture and Consider Phlebas opens with what is essentially a philosophical debate about the society our protagonist views as atheistic, decadent and machine-controlled.
The problems begin after this opening. After the main plot is established the book takes a 300 page detour before returning to it and the war itself is relegated to the background in favour of a rollicking action-adventure story; one which mostly fails address the philosophical questions raised in the first chapter. Ultimately the story feels like it would rather be a Hollywood movie, populated by mostly stock characters and consisting almost entirely of action set-pieces.
Don’t get me wrong- the concepts for each action sequence are all spectacular; the megaships, the cannibalistic religious cult, the game of ‘Damage’, the Planet of the Dead and indeed the Culture itself are all testaments to Banks’ outrageous imagination and would all have been terrifically exciting if they came second to character development and weren’t simply sequenced one after the other.
At the end of the day I found myself reading out of obligation to finish rather than enjoyment almost from the very beginning. Perhaps if I re-read it with appropriately adjusted expectations I might enjoy it more. I’m still excited to read other books in the series but I’ll be looking for those which prioritise the big science-fiction themes over big action sequences.