Monday, June 10, 2013

Consider Phlebas

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                 Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

from The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot

I've been reading less than I used to over the last few years, but despite that whenever there's been a new Iain M. Banks book out I've been quick to get it. It just so happened that when I heard the news earlier this year that Banks was suffering from terminal cancer I was reading his latest Culture offering, The Hydrogen Sonata. And now he's died.

Banks has been one of my favourite authors in both his science-fiction guise and mainstream fiction. My formative sci-fi education as a teenager was pretty much all from reading my dad's Clarke and Asimov books. That was until I came across Banks' first sci-fi book Consider Phlebas. It opened up a more gritty, adult and far more richly charactered world than I'd previously enjoyed. His Culture universe was such a fantastic setting that I was quick to read his other available novels and eagerly anticipated each new release (Culture and non-Culture). Back then my book collection was limited, so I re-read some of his earlier novel several times (The Player of Games was my favourite book for many years and still remains one of my top recommendation), always getting more out of them and enjoying meeting and re-meeting the always excellent Culture Minds and Ships. Indeed the non-human(oid) (non-biological) ships and drones were always a huge draw of the books.

I have Banks to thank for opening me up to a whole new range of modern sci-fi and fiction in general (I think Complicity may have been my first non-sci-fi novel that I'd read other than books I was made to read for school work, and The Crow Road amazed me that I could be so drawn into a book about a Scottish family). I'm lucky that I haven't exhausted reading all his works and can still enjoy seeing what else he has to offer. I'd recommend anyone start reading his works and if you've never read any sci-fi before you'd do far worse than to start with some of his - try the short story collection The State of the Art for a dabble.