Consider Phlebus by Iain M. Banks

I should have known. The term “consider Phlebus” comes from our old friend T. S. Eliot. And on the very first page of Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebus, there is a quote from The Waste Land. It was stupid of me to pick this book up, right? Well, yes and no.

As the lead to this article says, Consider Phlebus was a strong influence on the Xbox game Halo, specifically the design of some of the Halo worlds. Fans of either this book or the video game would immediately notice the similarities, but that’s about as much as they need to be mentioned.

Instead, there are two amazing things about Consider Phlebus. One is how unbelievably boring the first two-thirds of it is and the other, conversely, is how enjoyable the last third of it is. Considering what the main character goes through, the monotony while reading it is striking. In the first 150 pages alone, our hero experiences:
– Being executed by drowning in a septic tank
– An explosion in the wall of said septic tank
– An attack on his spaceship
– Getting hit by a ray blast or something (whatever it was, it was supposed to be lethal, according to the other characters)
– A fist fight to the death
– A raid on a temple with some heavily-armed monks, in which no fewer than four other characters bit the dust
– A giant spaceship hitting an even gianter iceberg while he is walking on it (imagine the first scene from Spaceballs, except not funny)
– His spaceship crashing into the ocean, in which another character dies
– A three kilometer swim to shore
– And another execution, this time by being eaten alive (he actually ends up losing a finger so… that counts, right?)

His is Bora Horza Gobuchul, but his name should be James John Bruce Bond McClane Wayne, the Highlander. And although that list sounds like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie marathon on TNT, it was really difficult to read. I mean really bad. It wasn’t so much about where the plot was going, but that it seemed to be taking forever to get there. I marked out one paragraph to illustrate the leaden flow of Phlebus, but after reading it again, I think I’ll spare you.

And then, somehow in the final third of the novel, Banks manages to turn the style completely around. I read the last 150 pages of Phlebus within a day. I could have read it straight through in a couple of hours, it was that interesting. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. And I don’t know how my feelings about reading Consider Phlebus went from thinking it would never end to hoping it would never end.

Phlebus is Banks’s first sci-fi novel, and the first one of a series. It is also credited with reviving the space opera sub-genre of science fiction literature. But even his fans will admit that it is only interesting to those who have read his later works, especially those later in the series it kicks off because reading Phlebus feels like going from an opera to a ZZ Top concert.

Both of which, however, are better than reading T. S. Eliot.

Up next: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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