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Consider Phlebas (The Culture)

Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks This is the second Culture book I read but the first one Iain M. Banks wrote. One of us did something wrong, because I liked The Player of Games a lot more, and yet my reasons for not liking Consider Phlebas are almost all about what the book isn't.It isn't about the Culture, for one thing. Sort of. Not really. The other books in the series are from the perspective of a citizen of the Culture, which is difficult to define succinctly so I will just say, imagine if you lived in a universe where you were practically immortal and super-smart robots took care of pretty much everything, leaving you free to live your own life to the fullest existential extent (do you want to be an artist? a writer? do you like orgies?).The main character in Consider Phlebas is Horza, a rare shape-shifting dude who haaates the Culture, which he considers hedonistic and base and godless &c. Partly he objects to the Culture's policy of interfering with other civilizations, whether to "uplift" them (not to mix my sci-fi metaphors) or to eliminate them if they pose a threat to the Culture's, well, culture. This is basically the opposite of Star Trek: TNG's vaulted Prime Directive, which I, as a reader, don't really have a problem with. Personally, if benevolent artificial intelligences want to pop by an offer a few helpful corrective suggestions that will put a stop to, oh, take your pick or check out whatever is on the front page today, I, for one, welcome our robot overlords. Just as long as they don't start using humans for batteries or anything.But Horza instead throws in his lot with the Idirans, a xenophobic and deeply religious, deeply warlike society that is at major war with the Culture. I don't want to get too into the nitty-gritty of the plot, because it does offer up some nice set-pieces, but basically, he's off on a mission to capture a new breed of "Mind," which is what the Culture-ruling machines refer to themselves as. This Mind is stranded on a hostile world that, conveniently, only Horza has access to, but getting there will require some Ocean's 11-style adventures first.So here is my problem: I read this after The Player of Games, which offers you the inside view of the Culture, both the good parts and the bad. It is also a very fun book, despite some dark themes: the smart-ass Culture Drones, even just the mind-boggling concept of sentient, continent-sized worldships that you can have a chat with. Just a lot of cool stuff. Consider Phlebas gave me very little of what I wanted: only one Drone. No talking spaceships (wait, no, there was one, but it was a small one). By necessity, it is a darker, angrier book, and by the end, very nearly an abusive one. I get what Banks was going for thematically, I'm totally on his wavelength, but the ending of this thing just punishes the reader.On the other hand, it is still totally crazy, which is, I am starting to suspect, Banks' modus operandi, and so you have a few largely inconsequential narrative pit-stops that are nevertheless awesome, like when Horza gets trapped on an island with a horde of technology-fearing cannibals (you don't even know, it's so gross and intense). Or a high-stakes card game involving telepathy and actual human sacrifice. Both concepts are pretty rad, as is the writing throughout.So which one of us messed up? If I had read this first, and hadn't spent most of the book looking for the Culture and not finding it, would I have enjoyed it more? Or was it a bad idea for Banks to start the series with an unbalanced, action-heavy, black-as-tar nihilist downer of a novel?Considering he's super rich and probably the most popular sci-fi author in the U.K. today, I'll kindly request that you not answer that.