Aug 23 2008

Consider Phlebas

Published by at 8:34 am under Books

Speculative fiction by Iain M. Banks

This is the first book in Banks’ Culture series and the only one I have read. It is an excellent “space opera”: a grand adventure moving among the stars of our galaxy with ease, describing immense constructions, and including action on both a grand and a small scale. The story was fun and moved alone at a good pace with surprises, near misses, and almost resurrections from impossible circumstances. I was quickly drawn into the story. As is typical, the “people” are only sketched as needed for the plot, but the main characters were sufficiently described to be interesting. Somewhat atypically, most all of the important` characters do not thrive or survive.

From an ideas point of view, “The Culture” is the name given to Banks’ imagined society which is really the main “character” in the series but it is only slightly sketched out in this book the main protagonist of which is fighting against The Culture. The future portrayed is distant with many massive changes (improvement?) from today. Rapid space travel is possible and there are many worlds and stars that can be exploited. Energy and resources are abundant and readily available. “People” and other beings have evolved or been engineered, not clear which, to have a variety of capabilities, and there are also many non human species in the galaxy. So a lot of ‘oddities’.

Machines have developed past the point at which they can think better and faster than people is most ways. Machines are portrayed as sentient with desires, goals etc. Some are super smart and some are less capable and do simpler tasks, but all are self aware and treated by The Culture as beings. Fortunately for the story, these super capable machines work with other beings and the story of The Culture seems to be the story of a society with abundant energy, abundant resources and abundant brain power (That’s sure not where we are now). So where will the series go with these main problems solved?

These books were written before the currently popular concept of a knowledge “singularity”; a time at which increasing computer power overtakes human capability, but the Culture and its artificially intelligent machines sound like an attempt to describe a situation long after such a singularity occurs.

I intend to read at least the next book in the series and see how it develops.

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