After enjoying the Wasp Factory and My Exploding Granny immensely, I felt I was missing a whole other side to Iain Banks – the side with an ‘M’ in it. I’m sure I’m not alone in being compelled to fill the space-opera-shaped gap in my reading list. Was it any good though? Well, yeah, it was excellent. There are still traces of Iain No-M but the environment is obviously very different from some Highland castle or coastal village.
I mean – it’s in space.
As a bookseller, I’d occasionally encounter a certain breed of reader who wouldn’t entertain or tolerate science fiction of any description. Most of these people would remain pretty rigid in their prejudices but, on more than one occasion, they could only be swayed by the Culture novels simply because Iain Banks had never let them down before.
What’s the best thing about Consider Phlebas? Well, the first thing I recall is the Vavatch Orbital. Horza, the changer (what it sounds like) and our hero moves from calamity to catastrophe and ends up falling in with a group of space-pirates. If you enjoyed Firefly, by the way, then this is definitely a book for you. This motley crew decide to pull off a bit of cosmic theft on the orbital, a huge o-ring floating in space. The orbital belongs to the Culture, a super-advanced civilization at war with the Idiran Empire, a race of almost-immortal three-legged warriors. In a kind of folly that only war can generate, the Culture are so worried that the Vavatch Orbital might fall into Idiran hand that they decide to destroy it.
Woah, woah, woah! What the hell is an orbital?!
I was thinking the same thing myself for a while before I finally worked it out. It’s pretty self-explanatory when you think about it but the sheer impossible scale of it prevents you from accepting it. The orbital is a hu-fucking-mongous circular space habitat. It’s about fifty squillion parsecs in diameter and 9 googol football pitches wide (Revision: 4.5 million km in diameter 35,000 km wide). The orbital spins in space just fast enough to mimic the effects of gravity with centrifugal force. If you’ve ever swung a bucket of water around in the name of science, then you’ll get the picture.
If, unlike me, you have the right edition of the book, there’s a picture of the orbital on the cover as a hint of what it might look like. Imagine walking around on that! You could look spinwards (?) and see what should be the horizon stretching up into the sky and somewhere, you might see a thin band of darkness on the opposite side of the ring, still enjoying their night. Maybe it wouldn’t look like that, but it’d still be cool.
That’s what stood out for me but it’s hardly the only reason to read the book. Within the classic quest-to-find-the-thing-first plot, there’s plenty of political intrigue, war, spies and violence. Also, if you like random acts of near-comic tragedy that will suck the breath out of your lungs, then Consider Phlebas should be on your to-read list. If you like the sound of that, look out for the first death on the megaship.