Iain M. Banks, already a successful author of literary fiction, arrived on the science fiction scene in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, the first novel in his long-running series about the Culture, an anarchist, utopian, post-scarcity society. Oddly for the series, Consider Phlebas is told mostly from the point of view of a staunch enemy of the Culture, giving it a very different feel from the rest of the novels in the cycle.
There's a lot of plot and a lot of names in this novel, and it can be very dense at times. Many people recommend its follow-up, The Player of Games, as the best novel in the series to start with because it actually takes place in the Culture, but the outsider's perspective offered by Consider Phlebas is still a good way to ease yourself into this universe. It's often cited as one of the weaker novels in the series because structurally it's a fairly conventional space opera, but considering how rare that particular sub-genre was in 1987 it's easy to forgive.
And frankly, for all its flaws, it's an incredibly entertaining space adventure that's very hard to put down. It's quite episodic, as Horza and his ship's crew go from place to place trying to eventually get to Schar's World. There's a shoot-out at a temple on one world which goes spectacularly wrong and an encounter with an insane cannibal - an extremely unpleasant sequence which you shouldn't read before eating. Shortly afterwards, Horza flies his ship out of a Culture GSV, a ship which can hold millions of people and is the size of a small country, in a breathless, white-knuckle sequence which ranks as one of the most purely exciting of all Banks' novels.
The final showdown over the Mind is also nothing short of spectacular, a masterclass in building and building and building tension over the course of three chapters, eventually released with a cataclysmic scene of destruction which hits the reader like a nuclear warhead. It's not quite as good as the ending of Use of Weapons, where Banks almost starts writing a horror novel with one of the most truly horrific things in modern science fiction, but it's not far off.
To be sure, though, it's a flawed work. The fact that the plot is so episodic does detract from the overall arc, and it's certainly not as focused a story as some of the later novels. It does succumb to the failing common to genre fiction of concentrating on incident and plot over character. Horza is an interesting, complicated antihero, but few of the other characters leave much impression, with the admitted exception of Unaha-Closp, a long-suffering, very funny drone who uses almost all of its dialogue to complain about how stupid everyone else is.
It's quite common in Banks' science fiction for the AIs to be among the most memorable characters, and that's true here, which makes it a shame that almost none of the Minds appear as identifiable personalities. They often take centre stage in the later novels, so this is only really a problem in Consider Phlebas when you compare it to something like Surface Detail, but it's still a bit of a pity.
None of these flaws are deal-breakers, fortunately. Banks is a remarkably vivid writer, and his enthusiasm for his fictional universe - particularly how much he revels in the little details - is more than enough to get you through the weaker parts of the book. Yes, it may be a fairly standard space opera in some regards, but when it's this good to read it just doesn't matter.