Iain (M) Banks is one, or should I say two, of my favourite authors. It’s been a while since I read any of his Culture novels, so I went back to the beginning with Consider Phlebas, the first in a series of standalone novels in this shared setting. If you are not familiar with Banks, this is a great place to start.
The Culture is a galaxy spanning symbiotic civilisation of humans and sentient machines, living decadent post-scarcity lives. Consider Phlebas is set during their war with the Idirans, militaristic theocrats who see the Culture’s blend of organic and machine life as an abomination and may have underestimated the willingness and ability of the soft citizens to put up a serious fight.
While other novels in the series are mostly told from the perspective of members of the Culture, this one centres an enemy whose point of view questions the values at the Culture’s heart. Horza is a shapeshifter mercenary working for the Idirans, tasked with capturing a Culture AI that is hiding in tunnels beneath a sequestered planet where Horza previously served as a caretaker.
As he works his way towards Schar’s World, Horza has a series of encounters and adventures that would make a fantastic movie if someone had the enormous budget necessary to do it justice, culminating in a tense and claustrophobic hunt.
Banks was only able to publish this novel after his success at literary fiction, but once he broke down that door a flood of intelligent space-opera followed, from Banks himself, his friends, and many others. This is a vital piece of an important literary legacy.