And today, mine is going to be unpopular. But remember the advice from 9th grade Advanced English teacher Mrs. Muench about metaphors. Or maybe I mean false equivalency. Regardless: you are not what you like. If I dislike something you love, I am not disliking you. But you may not want to read my review, friends who love this book.
Consider Phlebas is classic sci-fi that I missed growing up. Periodically, I try to exercise my genre core, and it was with a bit of ‘read-harder’ spirit that I picked it up. Initially intrigued, I gradually lost interest as the main character, Horza, ended up in one disastrous situation after another. Horza’s a Changer, a shape-shifting species that is extremely rare throughout the galaxy, who voluntarily works for the Idiran race in a battle between the Idirans and the Culture. Disaster seems to sharpen Horza’s philosophical skills, because as he attempts to save himself from (da-dum) Certain Doom, he takes a little bit of time to compare and contrast the structured and AI-dominant Culture with that of the religious and militant Idirans.
I’ll take ‘C,’ none of the above.
Honestly, I ended up bored, and there’s no way that should happen when you are a) in a torture chamber filling with liquid waste, b) in a deep space shoot-out, c) captured by space pirates, d) attacking a monastery for a priceless artifact, e) involved in a mega-colony ship crash, f) about to be eaten by cannibal cultists, g) playing a card game to the death, or h) making a daring spaceship escape, which is where I last set the book down.
Mr. Bazan, of the honors high school Civilization class always insisted that boredom was due to the person complaining of it (the students, naturally) not asking enough questions. I’m willing to accept some responsibility here, but frankly, it feels padded with filler. Though Horza is approached with a job for the Idirans that involves returning to a planet and people from Horza’s earlier life, he doesn’t actually start that particular task until close to 3/5 through the book, having to get through the aforementioned adventures to get close to his objective. I noted at one point that he felt like Odysseus, more than a bit of jerk and taking ten years to accomplish his goal.
So the plot is somewhat meandering. Maybe the characters are interesting? Well, not really; Horza is hard to enjoy. While he is resourceful and confident, and occasionally even affable, he truly connects with only one person. He shares very little of his past, so despite reading three hundred pages or so, I can’t really tell you much about Changer culture, his childhood, etc. Although he states families are close-knit, his parents are dead and he’s the only one in his ‘clan,’ one presumes he’s been isolated by circumstance. His feelings towards other beings is largely dispassionate, strategical over emotional.
The writing failed to grab me as well, with a fair amount of description that doesn’t really advance the story or the world-building. For instance, when on the pirate ship:
“During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew. He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn’t. Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his roommate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet, and, when not eating or working, usually asleep. The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn’t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.
Dorlow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson. She was plumb, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks. She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice, which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot. He movements were fluttery and nervous.”
It goes on like that for another three pages for the rest of the crew, and this is on page 67, mind you, of people who quite possibly may be killed. The descriptions aren’t even particularly interesting; different cultures/races represented and we get that the voice was high and her eyes watered? No dialogue on discovering this? I remember reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and being intrigued by interaction with the crew members, the details that made their race/personality come alive. Banks doesn’t even have the courtesy of character preservation, so that my effort in learning these almost faceless blobs’ names might be entirely wasted.
It just didn’t work for me. Explanatory and expositionary; full of telling, a main character that was a challenge to connect to, and a rather arbitrary division between religious extremism and A.I. regulation couched in yawning philosophical dichotomies meant this was a struggle all the way through.
Sorry, friends! Always a downer when someone doesn’t love the book that you do.