I found this book while on vacation in Banff, Canada... it was raining (luckily the only day it rained) and I needed a break from hiking. I headed over to nearby Canmore, Canada where I heard there was a decent used book store and unearthed some literary nuggets: Raymond Williams' The Country and the City, Kenneth Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight and Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas (for a total of $12 Canadian, definitely a bargain).
As an undergraduate I had read Scottish author Iain Banks' first novel The Wasp Factory (for pleasure, not assigned) and was searching for his later novel The Bridge (anyone have a copy?). I had recently found out that he writes science fiction books under the slightly different name of Iain M. Banks and was intrigued by the huge series he had developed around his fascinating concept of "The Culture". I wanted to start with the first book, but all I ever found were the later books.
So it was a pleasure to come across a trade paperback british edition of Consider Phlebas (a much more beautiful cover than the current American version). I would hike all day to the point of exhaustion, eat a wonderful meal, have a cigar and scotch/bourbon with everyone and then later curl up with this book until I passed out. What an amazing universe Banks creates in this book. The book is centered around a war that is taking place between two galaxy-spanning empires, "The Idirans", imposing, militaristic, religious, ordered, tripeds and "The Culture", a human culture, built upon anarchist values, dependent on technology in the form of sentient machines, and lovers of freedom/pleasure (this is a very simplistic reduction of these two cultures, especially since I have only read the first book). Of course this book resonates with our current times, but do not make the mistake I have read from other readers' comments, The Culture in no way can be compared to the U.S., I mean come on, The Culture has no use for private property or money--does that sound like capitalist America?
Moving across this large interstellar canvas is cold, calculating Horza, a changer, who serves The Idirans (because he fears the machine dependence of The Culture--strikingly, Horza is, himself, very machine-like in his determination and abilities), and is searching for a wounded, lost, sentient machine mind that is hiding out on a desolate planet. Once again, this is a simplification of this amazing novel ...
Banks deftly changes tones in this novel, defies genric expectations (a very particular example that can only be discussed with those who have read it), includes ideas that could be fleshed out into various novels (I'm still freaked out by the horror of chapter 6 and intrigued by a minor character Fal 'Ngeestra, a Culture Refeerer, that never entered the main action of the novel) and creates vibrant, complex characters.
Now I have to find the second novel The Player of Games
Anther tidbit for science fiction fans. Octavia Butler, one of my all-time favorite writers (Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents and Xenogenesis series) is releasing, through the important independent press, Seven Stories, her first novel in seven years, Fledgling.