In the last book I wrote about here, Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens, Mr. Hitchens claimed that science fiction was not of great interest to him. It must have seemed to him that the realm of real life presented such an array of brutality, misery and buffoonery that a tour of the merely speculative was not worth the effort.
But, Consider Phebas, by Iain M. Banks, is a space opera in the best sense of the term–passionate adventures, life and death struggles, romance, alien creatures, technological wonders–all set in a vast and fascinating universe, with a story that rushes mightily along with the power of an enormous train.
While this is a great adventure story, a really fun thrill-ride, it is framed by the larger story of two ruthless inimical civilizations, blasting one another apart with astonishing, grotesque weapons over the course of generation after generation of destruction. It is tempting to damn the excesses of these two civilizations as the follies of the faith-based. The cataclysmic war between them arose from a conflict between their two proselytizing philosophies, carried forcefully and stubbornly across the galaxies.
This frame for all the action is great, nourishing stuff for the more thoughtful reader, but Consider Phlebas is also a great thrill for those who enjoy the roller-coaster read, with the hairpin turns and hair-raising drops. It is great fun.