Author: Iain M. Banks
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Culture Book One
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The Culture is at war with Idrian Empire.
After a Culture ship is destroyed by the Idrian's, one of the Culture's Mind's escapes to Schar's World. The being's incorporating Schar's World will allow neither the Culture or the Idrian's on the planet. Bora Horza Gobuchul is a changer, a human who can change their body to impersonate anyone else, and changers were once stewards on Schar's World. Horza's hatred of the Culture finds him siding with Idrian's, and soon working with them to retrieve them missing Mind.
(Some spoilers in the review below).
From the get go, Horza's quest to retrieve the Mind, turns into a series of rotating adventures after his ship is attacked by the Culture. From there Horza has to survive a death rites fight to join a group of mercenaries, he has to survive being imprisoned by a cannibal like cult and their Jabba-the-Hutt like leader, and he learns about a high-stakes game called Damage that gambles in real time about the results of an on-going battle.
These different adventures offer a glimpse of the variety of different cultures that are going to be caught up in the Idrian and Culture war. On paper it's a bad idea, since it creates a back-loaded plot. Horza getting caught up in one near death experience followed by another is boring and tedious because the reader already knows he has to get to the Mind. So he can't die yet.
Even worse is the poor character development. Horza is a changer, it's an ability that screams interesting character development potential. A character that can literally change itself into any other character could create multiple interesting personalities. Unfortunately Horza doesn't have any interesting personalities. He is literally just another generic sci-fi ship captain with a dose of masculine bravado. He is literally one of the most boring and bland characters to ever fly through space.
The supporting characters don't fare much better. They look a lot more stupid, especially when the hold Horza in any kind of reverence, which they seem to do quite often. Worst of the worst is Yalson, who manages to develop a relationship with Horza, which happens suddenly and with little fanfare. It reaches a low point though, when she decides to stick with him after she discovers he's killed her mercenary captain, Kraiklyn, and has changed into his physical appearance. Yalson's still for Horza after this, and amazingly so is the rest of the one dimensional crew.
Horza's rival is the Culture agent Perosteck Balveda, whom like Horza seems to have the ability to keep surviving all these death defying scenarios. Pretty early in the novel Banks establishes Horza's views towards the Culture, and they're extreme to say the least, and they leave little wiggle room for Horza's beliefs to change. Not surprisingly they do change, especially when it concerns Balveda, and especially when it's convenient for the plot.
The bright spot of Banks's novel is the Culture itself. A paradise, as it's described, for humans and other intelligent species'. Humans can be genetically engineered to live much longer lives, turn off pain at will, and experience pleasure inducing drugs. The most questionable part about the Culture is the machines, and hyper-intelligent machines called Mind's, that are controlling it. Contrary to popular sci-fi storytelling, never does the reader get the impression that the machine's are going to turn on the Culture's sentient life forms. If only Consider Phlebas was a story as promising as its world.