Review: Consider Phlebas

I don’t believe I’ve read anything by Iain M. Banks before, and after Consider Phlebas, I’m not sure I want to.

Now, this isn’t a matter of a terrible novel that made my eyes bleed, or some horrible techniques that drove me insane. I’m not even sure Mr. Banks writes books like this as a matter of course, or simply in a study on methods to cripplingly depress his readers. The worst part of this is that it’s very well written and highly engaging. It’s just… so revoltingly hopeless from approximately every aspect, I’m certain this book has lead to the suicide of at least one person.

Which is unfair, because this novel has everything I normally like. A massively advanced AI is being pursued across the galaxy and narrowly escapes. And it’s up to Horza, our shrewd anti-hero, to retrieve it from its hiding place. He’s a shapechanger, you see, and excels at that kind of thing. It also helps that he’s been on the protected planet where the AI absconded with itself. Along the way, he literally nearly drowns in a latrine, is shot, stabbed, blown up, abandoned in space, loses everything he’s ever loved, and ultimately fails in his mission.

I actually wanted all that to happen, by the way. Horza is probably the worst being alive, as portrayed here. He’s working for a race of aliens who are basically acting as the police of the universe, only because they haven’t developed and are consequentially not “ruled by” AI. He’s a bigot against all things artificial, and is willing to take part in events that lead to the deaths of billions, based on that premise. But Banks does such a good job making him a sympathetic character, I actually felt bad for the worthless bastard. He doesn’t really know what’s right, and admits he might be wrong. He’s the underdog in a lot of ways, and lost everything pursuing his decision.

It’s not even really his fault. He comes from a race despised by the rest of humanity because we’re apparently a bunch of superstitious asshats, so his entire race basically threw in their lot with the aliens who consider humans much like we look upon ants. His shapeshifting is nothing but a convenient tool, to them. He openly mocks their religion, and hates everything else about them, but their disdain for AI is enough to garner his loyalty. I really, really wanted to hate Horza, but I found myself secretly hoping he’d succeed.

Which is what makes his eventual (highly expected and anticipated) failure even worse. He emotionally connects to his pursuers, goes against his own biases, and eventually becomes a likable character. After a fashion, anyway. You get to watch him mature, and then after being teased for hundreds of pages, it’s all for nothing. The Culture, the AI society that created the advanced AI that started this whole mess, even admits its capture won’t change the final result of the war. So why? What was the point? It was a minor skirmish in a war that apparently lasted for decades and killed untold billions. Why did we just read about the pursuit of one inconsequential AI during the end of the war, told from the perspective of one unlikable and ultimately doomed patsy?

Because it’s not the destination that matters, but the adventure in getting there. Except I hated this adventure. The only thing that kept me reading was want for a resolution, and I didn’t even get that. The writing itself is fantastically engaging and does Banks credit, but it’s so fantastically depressing and pointless, I actually wish I didn’t read it at all. It’s like almost every novel by V. C. Andrews; a space opera need not necessarily emulate a soap opera.