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Geek Lit. 101

-by Callahan


Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Macmillan, London, 1987.

Scottish author Iain M. Banks first gained notoriety for his 1984 novel, The Wasp Factory, which established him as a generally nasty fellow, what with his interest in animal cruelty and the murder of innocent children and all.  Critics condemned the brutality of his fiction, but the novel soon reached cult status, and propelled Banks to super stardom, where he has since been ensconced, surrounded by lovely women who delicately feed him ripened grapes.

Well, okay, that last bit isn’t true.

But The Wasp Factory was a significant enough success to allow him to quit his stupid day job and become a big shot full-time novelist.  It also branded him as a “horror writer.”  But, he’s not.

He’s a mainstream novelist, you see.

But wait, he’s also a science fiction author.  Under a different name...

He’s a sneaky guy, that Iain.  When he publishes a mainstream (albeit bizarre) novel, he goes by the name of Iain Banks.  With his science fiction novels, he uses the completely different Iain M. Banks.  The “M” clearly distinguishes him from his alter ego.  But, IT’S THE SAME GUY.  Amazing.  He’s clearly a genius.  It’s like the whole Superman/Clark Kent cover-up, but simplified.

Once you get past the obvious confusion over his true identity, you can, however, read some wonderful novels.

In particular, I heartily recommend his first “Culture” novel, Consider Phlebas.  Many of Banks’s sci-fi novels take place in a shared universe, where the hedonistic, technologically advanced Culture reigns supreme, or at least makes a solid effort.  Part of the fun with the Culture, beyond the fact that it is quite the opposite of the stereotypical inter-galactic empire, is that the enormous, sentient mega-ships have unimaginably appropriate names: GSV Irregular Apocalypse, GSV No More Mister Nice Guy, GSV So Much for Subtlety, and GCU Jaundiced Outlook, just to name a few.  For Banks, science fiction is all about expanding the mind, not hyper-serious reflections on the future.  His playfully imaginative universe hearkens back to the absurd spirit of the earliest days of cheap sci-fi pulps, but he plays it straight, and takes you on a thrilling ride.

Consider Phlebas, named after a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” thereby granting it automatic literary merit, tells the cosmic story of Horza, a Changer, and his “motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries.”  It’s not that simple of course, but the guys that write the back cover blurbs don’t get paid enough to actually read the novels. 

Horza’s adventures, just trying to stay alive in the middle of the Idiran/Culture war, take us from a crystalline temple, to a primitive inhuman world where sentient jellyfish conduct bizarre ritualistic murders, to a ship, on the verge of destruction, where the universe’s most dangerous game is played.  His mission, which he isn’t even sure he’s still supposed to complete, involves retrieving a Mind from the fabled Planet of the Dead, but of course, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Not that it sounds easy, anyway.  But it’s even harder.  Trust me.  Bad stuff abounds.

If this brief plot outline seems campy, or too space-operatic, that’s merely because a mere summary of his work cannot hope to capture the flavor of his fiction.  The charm of Consider Phlebas is Banks’s writing.  He is a beautiful prose stylist, on the level of Nabokov, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and his ironic voice never gets in the way of the fast-paced action, and the fast-paced action never gets in the way of his subtle irony.

Banks never holds back, never settles for little explosions here and there.  He writes what I shall, from this moment forward, call “catastrophe fiction on ecstasy.”  And it’s brilliant.

Consider Phlebas is currently unavailable in the U.S. because, well, we’re dumb over here.  We like our running lawyers and our killer clowns that live in the sewers, and we like our sci-fi simple and unimaginative.  But, thankfully, you can find all of Banks’s novels at, and with a mere click of a button and a couple digits from your credit card, you too can actually read something good for a change.

And remember, that’s Iain M. Banks, with an “M.”  Don’t confuse him with that other guy.

Copyright©2000 GrayHaven Magazine and contributors