After due deliberation, I have decided to return to the forum. My idea is to slowly reread (in deference to Deep Black's reading abilities—though he mentions getting audiobooks from the library which may speed things up) and discuss all the Culture novels in chronological order. Oh, if you're a newby just reading CP for the first time, you're welcome too. So on to Consider Phlebas.
Banks' first published SF novel (1987) introduces us, though at some remove, to his central, magnificent idea, the Culture. The Culture, a far future galactic civilization with a post-scarcity, utopian veneer and peace as it's way of life, has been rudely thrust into the horror of total war by an implacable, fanatical enemy, the Idirans, bent upon the total destruction of all the Culture is and stands for. The story itself deals with a singular Idiran shapeshifter agent, Bora Horza Gobuchul, and the mission his Idiran masters order him to undertake. It is basically a quest novel, following the mission and the psychological growth, or lack thereof, of the main character.
CP holds the distinction of being widely declared the book that launched modern space opera. Written in a fairly straightforward style, it introduces the Culture, without being Culture-centric. Banks sort of dances around the Culture, no Minds are introduced, and only a couple of the peripheral characters are Culture citizens, though there is some exposition explaining the Culture. It is a book full of action set-pieces and not that much philosophical to do, exposition aside. I've always wondered why this novel hasn't been made into a film. It has everything Hollywood wants in a space opera, thrilling space battles, lots of individual action sequences, good versus evil, compelling characters, the list goes on. Instead we get ever more episodes of the moribund Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, which proliferate like bland fast food restaurants, and are probably as bad for your mind as fast food is to your body. Probably the reason has to do with its decidedly leftist, socialist stance. Oh well, can't always have sterling American values of democracy and capitalism underlying your SF.
Enough of an introduction and overview, I'll be back with more after I've finished rereading CP, there'll be lots of spoilers, so start reading already.