Tag Archives: Imaginary wars and battles – Fiction

Consider Phlebas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Consider Phlebas [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Iain M Banks, book 1 in The Culture series.

Banks Consider Phlebas

I had been intending for many years to read Iain M. Banks science fiction series The Culture, of which Consider Phlebas is the first volume. Because of this persistent aspiration, I collected several of the books before even beginning to read.

Considering how lauded The Culture is, I was surprised at the extent to which the book is pretty conventional space opera, but I certainly enjoyed it. The increasingly intelligent handling of interstellar travel in recent decades of sf seems to have left me with an allergy to FTL “jump drives,” although Banks does a little better than pure handwavium for the technology. The plotting and structure are not ordinary, and those who want straightforward adventure with triumphant endings might find this book unpalatable. The worldbuilding is ambitious, and it’s easy to see from just this one (of what I am assured is an extremely varied series) that there will be many interesting environments and large-scale events in these books.

Consider Phlebas is focused on a “short” half-century war between two interstellar powers, the Culture and the Idirans. The chief viewpoint character works as a spy for the Idirans, but there are “State of Play” chapters that offer the Culture perspective on events as well. A documentary conceit to provide greater narrative unity to the text is supplied in an epilogue. . . . . (Hover over to reveal spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The use of “A.D.” dating in the “historical” appendices is a curious choice. It does demonstrate that the Culture is older than modern terrestrial civilization, and that the events of the book are actually within our historical period although elsewhere in the galaxy. It does not establish what relationship, if any, the “humans” of the Culture have with Earth.

I expect to continue with The Player of Games fairly promptly.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ambergris [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff VanderMeer, a combined volume with City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch.

Vandermeer Ambergris

Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris is named for the fantasy city in which the three component volumes transpire, one that compares to the Well Built City of Jeffrey Ford and the Viriconium of M. John Harrison. This “New Weird” setting is introduced in a kaleidoscopic fashion through a collection of shorter pieces in City of Saints and Madmen, each written in a different documentary register. One of these, “The Strange Case of X” involves some transformations of veridicality reminiscent of the fantasizing technique in Paul Park’s Roumania and the John Crowley stories “Conversation Hearts” and “Anosognosia.”

There is a sort of talmudic textuality to the second book Shriek: An Afterword. Janice Shriek claims to be writing a biography of her brother Duncan, and she includes excerpts from his journals. But he has reviewed and annotated her MS, although she seems to think he is already dead. Another editorial layer is added at the end. The “Afterword” is (at least initially) supposed to be end-matter to Duncan Shriek’s “History of Ambergris” pamphlet that forms a portion of City of Saints and Madmen. In the course of the biography-cum-confession the reader is introduced to a tension between “Nativist” denial and the Shrieks’ acceptance of human contingency and the mysterious mycelial agenda.

The third book Finch is a sort of noir detective story with an espionage substructure and Cronenberg horror esthetics. It reminded me of Mieville’s The City and the City, and I also detected something shaped like the corpse of Fleming’s Casino Royale with psychedelic mushrooms sprouting all over it. It is divided into seven long chapters named for the days of the week over which the story takes place, and I serendipitously fell into the rhythm of reading them on the corresponding days of the last week of April.

This Farrar, Straus and Giroux omnibus reprint is a beautiful book, and it provides a long and satisfying read. I did take pauses between each of the three books within. I gather that some editions of Ambergris: City of Saints and Madmen under its own cover have additional content not included here, and I would be happy to spend time reading that at some point.

Still, it was the library of his dreams. Wesley imagined an ancient time, centuries ago, long before the building became Astoria’s library, when armies from around the world took turns storming the gate, each determined to obtain the treasures hidden within. It was that kind of place. It stirred something inside of him.

Eric Hobbs, The Librarian, Book One: Little Boy Lost [Amazon, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hobbs The Librarian Little Lost Boy library dreams treasures hidden within stirred something inside him

The Past is Red

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Past is Red [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Past is Red

This book reprints the story “The Future Is Blue” from the Drowned Worlds anthology, and follows it with a further novella “The Past Is Red.” The latter was written about four years later for the author Catherynne M. Valente (in late 2020) and ten years later for her protagonist Tetley Abednego (sometime after 2133).

Tetley is an irrepressible survivor and an unreliable narrator who hails from Garbagetown on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, evidently one of the largest of remaining human communities in the 22nd century. The first story accounts for her becoming a hated outcast by age 19, and the second gives the saga by which she matures into a “trash Plato” (138) in her third decade.

The Garbagetowners have an ambivalently hostile envy for their antediluvian ancestors (i.e. us), to whom they consistently refer as “Fuckwits.” In light of the current situation in US society, it’s not hard to read this sentiment as the Millennial/GenX view of Boomers writ large.

Valente herself compares Tetley to Voltaire’s Candide (148), and there’s a little of de Sade’s Justine there as well. But the tone here is not so satirical, and the concerns of the parable are remote from those of the philosophes. The afterword and the acknowledgements claim an independence for Tetley, whom her author has gradually come to know, and the character does have an engaging voice to draw the reader into and through her world, which is enchanting to her, and ultimately, only differently horrible than ours.

The whole book is wonderfully weird but sadly feasible cli-fi that I read in about three sittings: a speedy read and a satisfying one.