In the author’s own words, this week’s novel is “…about a sailor gets shipwrecked [sic], falls in with a bunch of pirates, and joins a quest to steal a fantastic treasure from a haunted island guarded by a monster.” Simple? No, that was just the author being characteristically self-effacing.
But apparently Iain Banks is now the author that Silicon Valley billionaires prefer, which is a shame, as it puts me in mind of some kind of Ayn Rand pseud. Which Iain Banks, who passed away in 2013 shortly after announcing his terminal cancer, was certainly not. Banks was a socialist-minded, anti-war protesting, drug-taking, Porche driving, North-of-the-Border, prolific novel-writing human being.
Which makes me a bit bashful to admit that it was my ongoing interest in SpaceX and their spectacular remote landing barges which reminded me to finally get started Banks’s famous ‘Culture’ novel series. Set in a future where humans live alongside sentient drones and vast spacecraft, his novels are touted as exploring questions that are directly relevant to our moment in history, such as how we find meaning when we have outlived our usefulness.
These questions aren’t new, and they came up in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which I recently reviewed. But Banks writes with an energetic, and even kinetic writing style that stops Consider Phlebas (1987) from feeling heavy-handed.
It’s the first book in the ‘Culture’ series, and our protagonist is a ‘Changer’ called Bora Horza Gobuchul, who finds himself on a whirlwind adventure to hunt down a ‘Mind’ belonging to the Culture Empire. He links up with the crew of the assault ship Clear Air Turbulence, who travel first to conduct piracy: and then to Schar’s World, a planet guarded by an entity called ‘Mr. Adequate’. Iain Banks certainly has a way with comic names.
Consider Phlebas has a glorious cinematic quality to it, and it didn’t surprise me to see in the news – while reading the novel, by coincidence – that Jeff Bezos has given the green light to a film adaptation of the novel. I hope Amazon do a fair job of it, but I think they’ve got a head-start, as the book is a ‘prime’ candidate (rimshot, thanks) for translation onto the screen. Banks himself said that he’d thought of it as reading like a screenplay.
As an afterword, Banks treats the reader to a brief history of the war between the Culture and Idiran empires, which added some depth that I found useful, being new to the series.
I’m going to continue with The Player of Games (1988) next, so if you’re inclined to read the series with me, I’d love to hear what you think.