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Publisher's Summary

The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction - cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.

©1987 Iain M. Banks (P)2011 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"Dazzlingly original." (Daily Mail)
"Gripping, touching and funny." (TLS)

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The Culture is a magnificent and enticing vision.

I don't know why I'd never heard of Banks or the Culture before. After finally discovering and consuming what little of the series we've got on offer here at Audible, I've started to see references to it everywhere. Go figure. But if you, like me, are into the kind of science fiction that rewards a thinking and speculative approach, then you'd do well not to let this series pass you by. Iain is deathlessly funny in the blackest of black ways, and the narrator's quick and cunning reading really highlights the flippantly grim nature of the galaxy in which the Culture thrives--seriously, tried listening to some other Culture books with another narrator who tried this whole somber style, really didn't work out.

Consider Phlebas is the story of a war between the hyperliberal semi-transcendental post-human Culture civilization, the quintessential 'good guys' of a near-endpoint technological civilization, and a race of near-immortal warrior-poet types spreading their religion to the galaxy. Yeah, yeah, it sounds preachy, but it ain't. Through three or four intertwined narratives (the Culture books almost always do that Charles Stross thing where stories with unclear connections come together to a harmonious narrative), we get to know the civilizations we're looking into and watch as they breach the territory of a genuinely transcendent godlike mega-species, the Culture to rescue one of its own artificial intelligences, their enemies to capture that same mind for the technology it will offer them. But the plot, elegant though it is, isn't even the best part; it's the beautifully flowering exposition of the society of the galaxy, which Banks pulls off with an impossible grace. You'll wanna go there.

Just get it! You won't regret it, swear.

24 of 26 people found this review helpful

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  • Ryan
  • Somerville, MA, United States
  • 07-20-13

Visionary but half-cooked intro to Culture 'verse

I've listened to two other Iain M Banks novels, Player of Games and Surface Detail, and had a somewhat lukewarm reaction to them. But given his popularity in the SF community and his recent tragic death, I figured I'd give him another try -- maybe I just hadn't picked the right books?

Consider Phlebas is the first entry in the Culture series, so it seemed like a sensible place to go next. And, indeed, reading it gave me a better handle on Banks's vision, which I think is what really attracts people to his Culture books. Here, we get a galaxy that's partly under the sway of The Culture, a giant liberal wish-fulfillment fantasy of a society in which benevolent machine overseers ensure freedom, tolerance, and material well-being for all. However, the Culture is being encroached on by the Idirans, a religious warrior species that rejects what they regard as its empty machine dependence.

The hero of this story, interestingly, is Horza, a man with shape-changing abilities who works as an agent for the Idirans. He does so less out of conviction in their theology, and more out of a sense that life in the Culture is a dead-end state, a pleasant but ultimately hollow existence. Thematically speaking, it's worthwhile stuff.

Banks's storytelling, however, is frustratingly undisciplined. The characters, including Horza, are thinly developed, deriving about as much personality from Peter Kenny's multi-accented audiobook narration as from the actual writing. The plot's ostensibly about a race to retrieve a lost Culture Mind from a dead world, but after a dramatic opening, it wanders off into an aimless, somewhat implausible middle section that seems to be an excuse for battles and set pieces that don't go anywhere and one gross-out scene. At times, I could see where Banks's reputation as a "smart" author comes from; other times, the experience was more like reading a space adventure made up by an imaginative twelve-year-old boy.

Not that these issues necessarily lead me to steer all readers away. He did have a knack for cinematic imagery, inventive machines, sizzling firefights, and things happening on a huge scale. I enjoyed his dark sensibilities, the idea that war, conflict, and predation are a nasty business, not a light-hearted adventure. The final chapters contain a suspenseful confrontation in underground tunnels and an ending whose ambivalence I liked.

In all honesty, I'm not sure that I could recommend this novel to anyone new to Banks, given how half-cooked its execution is. Yet, for those looking to dig deeper into his works, it's definitely of value for putting his Culture universe into perspective, being the book that first set it up. Its rawness is a good counterpoint to his more polished later works.

20 of 23 people found this review helpful

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First story of Culture, told from outside

This is the first novel in the Culture "series". It's told from outside of the Culture, as the main protagonist is actually an agent for the opposing side. As far as the story of his mission & his journey - it's pretty crazy. I thought some parts were completely crazy and had trouble getting into some of the characters. However, it is worth it in the end for the wrap up of the adventure.

In this novel we first meet the huge GSV's of culture's fleet, Special Circumstances agents, AIs, orbitals, and drones - all the pieces of Banks's big crazy world. The middle journey in the book which takes place through an abandoned orbital, so a completely bonkers introduction to them, but gets across the enormity of what it is to you.

The drones in Banks's stories are often my favorite characters but I wasn't a huge fan of the one here. He was a little too whiny and annoying.

Even though this story is "first" you can read the novels in any order as they don't really share characters.

Once you've finished this one, pick up Player Of Games!

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

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In Iain's own words "What was it all for?"

What would have made Consider Phlebas better?

When I read a book I have an expectation that I would be well entertained, that I may learn some new worthwhile ideas or concepts and if I’m lucky, I may experience a fascinating journey with believable characters that I can relate to. Most of all, I read a book with the expectation that it will be worth the read.

When the story ended I was astonished that it was over and that it had ended so poorly. There is a section at the end that explains a number of other things after the story ends, which only made it worse. Indeed I was left dismayed that I had listened to the book at all.

Iain Banks once said in an interview:

“There's a big war going on in [Consider Phlebas], and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much. At the book's end, I have a section pointing this out by telling what happened after the war, which was an attempt to pose the question, 'What was it all for?' I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché of SF's 'lone protagonist.' You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don't know.”

From this I understand that the book was written to make a point that most people’s lives don’t really make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. And those that do should truly be admired. To make the book better this could have been shown by using a supporting character and having the protagonist ponder on this idea.

What was most disappointing about Iain M. Banks’s story?

I was disappointed by some of the graphic and pointless scenes, the disjointed way the book moved along and at times the completely unrealistic and unexplained changes in a characters behavior and motives. However, the overarching disappointment of this book was the abrupt pointless ending.

Any additional comments?

After reading Iain's comments, I at least understand why he wrote the book the way he did and the message he was trying to get across. Unfortunately, at least for me, it left me wondering why I had wasted my time listening to this book.

If you want a great read, try Evan Currie’s series that starts with “Into the Black: Odyssey One” or the amazing series by Jack Campbel that starts with “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless”

17 of 20 people found this review helpful

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  • Joshua
  • mcleansville, NC, United States
  • 11-23-11

A potential tour de force that got lost somewhere.

This book was truly a mixed bag, even feeling haphazard at times. It could really have easily been a tour de force, and I kept hoping that it would turn into one. But alas, it comes out feeling like the book needed a decent editor.

The novel starts out quite dense, and I had to struggle not to get lost with all the names and things going on. We get glimpses of the war on a cosmic scale, only to be mired down in drivel and wasted pages. Eventually I listened to the novel at double speed while at work, realizing that I didn't care enough to get that invested and I just wanted to catch the highlights of what happened.

A strong content rating on this one as well, as adult situations and languages abound. A few bright moments, such as the escape through the inside of the massive Culture craft, as well as the high-stakes card game on the eve of a giant space Ring's destruction. Also some of the humor was actually funny. I did not feel like the book ended well at all, however. Up until the end I was lost in useless detail, and a climax that was completely unexpected and underwhelming.

Looking back, I would not have started the series with this book, because now I'm not sure if I want to read any more or not.

A plus note: The narrator did a fantastic job with what he had. His normally British accent, very pleasant to hear in the narration, turned into a plethora of amazing voices with different characters. Alas, if only the characters had been written as well as they'd been narrated!

16 of 19 people found this review helpful

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Welcome to the Culture

This is the first novel Iain Banks' Culture series and actually one of the first novels penned by the beloved author. It's a Space Opera set during the Idiran Culture War, but past that it's difficult to explain the plot without spoilers.

Honestly, this is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, Banks plays around with some fascinating concepts throughout the book, such as the practical costs of maintaining a technological utopia. On the down side, it's very clear that he's still learning his craft and as a result the first two thirds of this are a bit of a slog to get through. That said, the final third of the story really picks up and I'm definitely interested enough to keep going. Also, Peter Kenny turns in a terrific performance. If you're a completionist, I'd recommend this. If not, you might want to start with Bank's second Culture novel, The Player of Games, instead.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Andrew
  • Madison, WI, United States
  • 11-29-13

Good universe, crummy story

I listened to this because it was included on several lists of the best sci-fi of all time. The world building was amazing, consistent and interesting space-opera setup.

The main character was pretty interesting too, at least at the start getting into all sorts of scrapes and meeting interesting people (and killing them).

The problems kicked in about half way through. The super-proficient cyborg mutant killer suddenly becomes plot-blind to EVERYTHING. I was thinking he might die by peeing in the fusion drive because his brain fell out. And then a suuuuuper forced plot point involving a pregnancy that I think was supposed to make the characters seem more likeable but just made them seem like simpering idiots all of a sudden. Every chance to let the antagonists continue to be antagonists it taken gleefully. Every chance for the antihero to make terrible choices is also taken. Oh, and the primary driving question for our antihero (why does he work for who he does, and is he right to do so) is dealt with vaguely and unrealistically until a postscript that basically says "Oh yeah, the right answer to that complex moral question was X because it was not actually complex I was just wasting your time".

I don't know the rest of the authors work but based on this book I would say he can make a kick-ass worlds but can't plot/character his way out of a wet sack.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Carl
  • Buffalo, NY
  • 09-24-12

Not my favorite Culture book

Genre: Sci-Fi space age far future

Rated: R- violence, sex, and language, though none of it was disturbing to me

1st or 3rd Person: 3rd 1 main character and 5-6 side characters

Static or Dynamic: The first half is dynamic and rapidly moving but the last half just dragged on...

Art or Entertainment: Entertainment. This is the only Culture book I've read that wasn't more artistic than it was meant to make your time enjoyable. It might be considered a mild thriller whereas "The Player of Games" or "Surface Detail" which are in the same universe (Banks' Culture novels) are considerably more thought provoking and inspiring. This is the first book in the collection of Culture novels but, it, like all of the other novels are independent of each other entirely except for their general setting. I think this book, being the first, was Mr. Banks exploring the idea of what the Culture is and how it works.

Linear or Non-Linear: Linear. Unfortunately towards the end it got into the "this happened then this happened and then this happened" rut. A lot of the story was a little predictable but that's not necessarily a bad thing as it was still very enjoyable to listen to.

Narrator: Peter Kenny is a God among other voice actors. Guarantee you'll love him.

Plot Outline: Horza is a spy for the Idirans (sp?) who are fighting a war against the Culture. The Idirans are sort of a traditional empire whereas the Culture is a decentralized anarchic continuum of genetically redesigned humans and their sentient machines. The plot is an adventure story that revolves around Horza trying to find something that both the Idirans and Culture want badly. He runs into some people that help him along the way and there is some romance throughout. He's a complicated character and fun to travel besides as a listener of the book. I would recommend the book if you are a die hard Culture fan and want to flesh out some of the background of the Culture or if you're up for some relatively pros story telling. The few parts that are thought provoking are intense but brief so you don't have to spend to much brain juice.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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More like a TV series with forgettable characters.

Any additional comments?

The plot could never focus on anything long enough to become solid. Whiplash between jumping from one explosion to an island vacation, to another explosion, to a resort world vacation with little tying them together was frustrating. The main characters have no character development, thus are flat and forgettable.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

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This book got me hooked on Iain M. Banks!

This was my first Iain M. Banks book, just took a chance and now on my sixth Culture audiobook. Peter Kenny's narration is top notch. The world created for you is just amazing and leaves me thinking about it long after.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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