This was a re-read, as I wanted to sample this novel again before giving it as a gift. And wow, Consider Phlebas is still really, really good. Let me just start listing off superlatives: hugely inventive, great detail and descriptive scenes, memorable characters, intelligent themes and layering of themes and variations of themes, exciting action, uh, and I think that covers most of it. Banks has this wonderful quality where he will just create huge, generous streams of character and detail and scenery; it is like walking through a ticker tape parade, where as most authors will just throw a sad handful of confetti at you. For example, take the recent read _The Goblin Emperor_, which was not a bad or uninventive book. Two weeks after reading it, I would be hard pressed to describe many of the main characters, except as general statements about their personality. His wife? Uh, likes astronomy and kind of nice? His secretary of state? Helpful, trustworthy, tactful, traumatized by that one land owner. Whereas with Phlebas, I could give more detailed descriptions of at least a minor dozen characters. Banks has a very crunchy & memorable writing style, the closest thing I have to it today is my favorite RPG blog, Goblin Punch.
Anyway! In terms of what the book is actually about, it is about a galactic war, and one small episode within the war. Two agents on opposite sides of the war are trying to claim an AI core that has been stranded within a planet owned by a neutral and powerful elder race. There are adventures through out the war zone, and then again within the neutral planet. People die. There are explosions, nuclear explosions, anti-matter explosions, and love making. Why, why has no one turned the Culture novels into a series of movies? They are just begging for it. Hmm, perhaps because the books are depressing? Despite the action-movie nature of the book, it is really an extended reflection on the loss and pointlessness? waste? tragedy? of war, and of downward seeking behavior in general.