Paperback Î Consider Phlebas MOBI æ

The war raged across the galaxy Billions had died billions 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 surrenderWithin 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


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    Welcome to another edition of 'Notable Genre Author Fails to Impress Some Guy on the Internet' I'll be your host some guy Like so many highly lauded authors featured here Banks has been haunting my shelf for quite some time now Countless are the times I have passed this book before bed letting my eyes linger longingly on the spine relishing the notion that I will actually read this book some day There have even been those occasions where I thumbed it down peering at the cover carefully comparing it to others knowing that I must be the final arbiter of posterity to choose one eschewing all others to a cruel and unknown futureAs always I was prepared to be impressed or even blown away and to tell the truth it started off with some promise The prose is fairly solid and that title it's a doozy Unfortunately the title's suggestion of literary intertextuality soon wilted on the vine so I dialed back my expectation to 'amusing rollicking adventure' Now I would be lying if I suggested that there wasn't some breed of rip snorting adventure in here but unfortunately it's all smothered beneath the cold damp pillow of Too Much ExplanationIt is a lamentable condition which affects nearly four quarters of all science fiction authors and in many cases proves uncurable I can understand the temptation you create this big crazy world and you want to share all of it with the reader all the time But what sci fi authors make up for in enthusiasm they lack in structure plot and characterWe are given long asides about the world the politics the war and the characters' thoughts the onmiscient narrator going on excitedly about tangents and small points to the detriment of the plot Truly there is no insight too small to be explicitly stated even things we already know like the fact that taking in an enemy and keeping them around is dangerous or that the decision whether or not to shoot someone has two outcomes one with shooting the other with somewhat less shootingPeople have described this book as an 'intellectual Space Opera' but when I picture an intellectually engaging book it's not one that tells me that kissing is nice that people with guns are scary or that losing loved ones is sad It's like the 'adverb problem' many writers suffer from in the sentence What did you say? John asked questioninglyWe have a redundant description questioningly that adds nothing to the story but needless length A good writer doesn't tell the reader things they already know and they certainly don't tell them the same things over and over I found the repetition particularly inexplicable On one page we're told that the character won't die of thirst because he's floating on a freshwater ocean We are told it again on the following page from the same character's internal monologue on the same day It just felt like bad editing at that pointBut the worst thing about these kinds of overt explanations is that they make books dull and tedious All characters go through similar struggles and for the most part react to them in similar ways people like pleasurable things they try to avoid pain and they're afraid of the unknown What gives characters personality is how they experience these common reactions It's in the little details The you take advantage of these little details the personality your characters will haveAnd it actually works the same with the plot the way you reveal events and information the way things unfold the little details of writing create the tone When an author wants to demonstrate something a character's personality the progression of a relationship some point of politics or philosophy he designs a scene to illustrate this point So if you want to show that your character is afraid of snakes you might set up a scene where he sees a rubber snake and freaks out and maybe he feels embarrassed and holds a grudge over being fooled It not only reveals the fear it also reveals other aspects of the character their pride and capacity for resentmentIt's the old writer's adage about 'showing instead of telling' When you show what a character does you're demonstrating a distinct personality when you tell us 'he's afraid of snakes' you're just describing a generic trait Remove the need to show how characters react and you lose the best way to make them unique and intriguingIt makes it hard to connect with characters when they are mainly a list of traits and it's even worse if the author doesn't actually have them demonstrate those traits If a character is constantly described as being 'strong willed' but is never shown actually behaving that way then the author has failed to write the character they intended If you show the audience something that looks feels smells and tastes like an apple they aren't going to believe it's a banana no matter how many times you tell them it is Because of this conflict between how the characters were described and how they actually behaved they never developed into real personalities and their actions rarely made sense except that they facilitated the plotAt one point we are told at length how much the character is worrying about some friends of his if only he could get to them The moment he gains the ability to reach them he forgets about them and goes off to check something else out Then a bit later this character who has been shown as deliberate conniving and calculating throughout suddenly behaves erratically and does a bunch of short sighted stupid things for no apparent reason except that it lets the author put in his Big Chase SceneUnfortunately since the characters were shallow and undeveloped the reason for the chase a sudden bout of stupidity and the stakes for the chase unclear it made the whole thing tedious when it should have been a high point Many authors and summer movie directors seem to assume that pure action and explosions are exciting but without purpose and pacing to back them up they are just filling spaceBut then the whole book had flawed pacing and not just because it was chock full of tangents and redundancies Mostly the problem was a common one the 'back loaded McGuffin' A 'McGuffin' is just a generic thing that moves the plot along usually something a character wants Some common examples are the diamonds the plans the one ring the magic sword the launch codes In general it doesn't matter what the thing actually is they're mostly interchangeableBanks tries a few times to make his McGuffin pertinent to the plot but it's a pretty standard 'the thing' When I talk about a 'back loaded' plot I mean one where all the action is constantly focused on the final conclusion Now it's good for a story to progress toward this conclusion but you've got to put smaller arcs and motivations along the way Really there should be a fairly clear goal for each distinct scene otherwise all of the build up all the tension all the motivation is pointing at one spot all loaded on the back which that doesn't make for a very balanced story Plus no conclusion will ever be good enough to live up to four hundred pages of 'wait for it'What's worse is when the climax is already pretty clearly outlined and the author keeps stalling If the reader can see what the conflict is where it's going to take place and or less how it's going to play out stalling is only going to annoy them Sure you can take a minute to have everyone watch the game winning hit with fear and apprehension you can even do it in slow mo with the outfielder running to the wall hoping to catch it But if you keep cutting back to the wide eyed faces the outfielder running the ball soaring the faces again the ball the crowd the ball well it all starts to get pretty stupidThat was how I felt as the book 'neared' the climax It was pretty clear how it was going to play out because we could see the stuff that needed to happen before we could move on but Banks spends a hundred pages stalled out at roughly the same moment going from the team to the bad guy to the team to a guy thinking to the bad guy just showing us incrementally smaller bits of the same stuff back and forth over and over He seemed to be trying to build tension but there really wasn't much tension to build A half pat of butter will not spread over a whole loaf of bread no matter hold long you rake it with the knifeAt this point since he's constantly returning to the characters sitting around and talking waiting for something to happen he actually begins to develop some personalities for them but I quickly began to suspect that he was only doing this so he could shoe in some emotional connections before killing some off in the climax in an attempt to make their deaths poignant Unfortunately that just just meant that the emotional action was telegraphing the plot if a character is suddenly revealed to be interesting makes a connection to the protagonist and then finds peace with life you can be sure they're about to bite itBanks also telegraphs the plot when he tries to increase tension because he will tell the reader through exposition about future possibilities He'll talk about how if the prisoner escapes and gets a gun it won't be good for the main characters as if that were some kind of revelation but in every case these are just red herrings so it becomes easy to predict the outcomes of the book by assuming that anything the characters worry about won't happenNow there are some smaller arcs in the book too so it's not all back loaded and some of them were okay but they suffered from the same structural problems as the rest of the book Many of these scenes were gory which some people found compelling but I didn't feel were particularly disturbing Sure there was violence unpleasant people cannibals shit drowning cracked carapaces snapped limbs laser wounds shrapnel and all that stuff but it was just flash It might not have been pleasant but it didn't open up any unsettling psychological implications As with personality and tone it's not the bare fact of violence that is disturbing but its specific treatment its implications Just as explosions don't equal an exciting plot slasher gore doesn't equal tensionThe weirdly effusive voice of a nominally neutral omniscient narrator was only one part of a rather silly tone in the book I found most of the ship names quite cleverly funny but in general the jokey tone was a poor match for a brooding book of life or death consequences The whole epilogue actually hinges on a tacked on punchline which made me wonder if this book wasn't just the longest Shaggy Dog Joke I've ever readThis book also hit another genre trend the protagonist collecting women You can always spot it when a woman walks in the room and gets a description several times as long as any male character Often this description will be repeated or echoed every time that female character reenters the room while many male characters will persist throughout the book in a vague featureless hazeThese women always start off cool and distant but keep coming to the protagonist bantering with him adversarially but playfully there's never any real conflict between them just enough tension to sweeten the pot I found the central romance particularly disappointing because it comes out of nowhere I actually appreciated at first how the characters seemed to take a nonchalant almost awkward approach it made sense considering all the other things they had on their mind but then suddenly it's all lovey dovey and everyone is spouting awkward platitudes What she did not know about him was only what he did not know about himself but that he told himself was quite a lot still Perhaps she even knew him better than he knew himselfThere is never anything resembling real thoughts or emotions in the entire relationship and it rather reminded me of Scriptshadow's observation about the film Aliens namely that love stories don't fit into every scenario particularly not tense difficult ones where characters are thrown together under constant stress and plot takes a backseat to worldbuilding In such a case an attempt to add a love story is always going to feel like an extra shovelful of clutter tossed on the pileI said earlier that the prose wasn't bad but the figurative language smacks of trying too hard it's not a natural part of the authorial voice but an intrusion of forced poetics a thousand kilometer peninsula sticking out into a frozen sea like some monstrous fractured limb set in plasterA lot of the figurative language is written weakly without confidence as the 'like some' above indicates whenever you see 'like some kind of' or 'it almost seemed as if' you know an author was struggling with their voice Unlike William Gibson's direct assertive style Banks' metaphors are often vague Metaphors are intended to provide the reader with a clear and physical comprehension of the world not with a cloudy possibility of 'some' resemblance We also have He put his head back to her chest nestling it between her breasts like a huge delicate eggand a couple pages later of a different woman same protagonist taking his hand and bringing it to her mouth kissing it stroking it as thought it were a small defenseless animalSo in one fell stroke we have redundant repetition awkward metaphors and cheesy romanceNot only are the emotions flat due to the expositional method of characterization they're also surprisingly modern and staid especially for a story about alien cultures Love gender pride religion and most other traits are played fairly straight We do have a noble warrior race in there but that's hardly less cliche just being the sci fi version of the 'Noble Savage' Banks will sometimes talk about purported differences in personality but as usual these are never actually demonstrated by the characters themselves This isn't necessarily a problem if you're writing a light accessible Space Opera story but it's detrimental to a ponderous meandering book that relies on a complex unusual setting The actual science elements are also rather unremarkable even for the period Much of the plot relies on a strict delineation between robots and humans focused mainly on a false dichotomy of emotion vs logic I've always found this silly not just because emotions are logical you can't have logical thought if the emotional center of the brain is damaged but also because there is no reason that humans won't progress along with robots as technology increases In all likelihood humans and robots will progress toward one another as time goes on until there is no functional definition which separates one from the otherNow some of this is meant to be overplayed in the book we're not supposed to fall entirely for this point of view which is nice I appreciate the ambiguity Yet Banks doesn't have any new insights about the similarities and differences between robots and humans eitherLack of insight was a general problem There were very few moments where I felt surprised or spurred to thought by Banks' story Everything was laid out in front of me explained repeated and followed the basic rules of the genre without introducing any new innovation Yes the narrator was morally ambiguous but I would have appreciated that if it didn't merely seem to be a symptom of ambiguity in generalIn some ways ways it resembles The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but without the humor It has the big set pieces characters hopping all over a rather silly self aware tone and a lot of asides about the universe but lacked the style and satirical insight that made that series such a delight Unfortunately the most interesting and intellectual part of Consider Phlebas is the title and the rest never manages to live up to that promiseAs far as Space Operas are concerned Hitchhiker's Guide is earlier intelligent and fun with better pacing and writing This book had about 230 pages of plot character and world buried in 500 pages of redundant explanations appendices exposition explosions gore gross outs and digressions I wasn't wowed by speculative insight intrigued by unpredictability or amused by an exciting story I found much of the book dull and overwrought which may have made for a quick read but not a particularly enjoyable one