On the surface, Consider Phlebas is a story about an inconsequential event that occurred during a period of the Galactic war between two major parties. The Culture, a loose federation of humans and intelligent machines, and the Idirans, a religious people, fighting for their faith.
The protagonist, Horza, a ‘shapeshifter’, is a spy working for the Idirans. He is assigned to retrieve a ‘Mind’, one of the Culture’s most advanced machines, stranded on a remote planet.
The story is a slow burn, immersing the reader in the political and social structures of the two warring parties as Horza journeys to the Planet of the Dead. Iain M. Banks’ considerable writing skills are on show as he develops a myriad of characters and AI machines inhabiting the Idiran and Culture universe. The richly detailed worldbuilding is also a delight as Banks describes the massive scale of technology developed in space.
He doesn’t shy away from the behavioural extremities of the character’s that they encounter, including cannibalism and a form of high-stakes gambling that illustrates how war leads to an inevitable devaluation of life.
Banks ups the pacing in the final chapters, where Horza and his assembled crew arrive at the Planet of the Dead and confront hostile Idiran agents, with each of the many characters carefully developed in the story facing bleak futures in a war-ravaged galaxy.