Expectation management is key to enjoyment of a book -- I liked Lawrence Watt-Evans' Ethshar books as well as I did because I expected little out of them, and I was disappointed with Supreme because I expected more out of it than it delivered. So when I read Iain M. Banks' Consider Phlebas , I tried to keep in mind that it's not considered to be his best book -- the general advice I hear is that you can start with Use of Weapons if you want to get the high points of his Culture novels, but Consider Phlebas is where you should start if you're going for completeness.
And I'm quite the completist, so that's where I started. Consider Phlebas is a blend of Nivenesque BDO exploration, far-future interplanetary war, and generic techtopia. It's largely successful in that blending, but feels a bit too obviously sourced. There's no shockingly new SFnal concepts in the novel; it's all familiar stuff -- stirred up and mixed around, to be sure, but still familiar.
Admittedly, the same could be said of a lot of SF. But when the background is just background, the personal level of the story needs to make up for it. Lois Bujold's Barrayaran universe may not be startlingly original (though it's still more novel than Banks' universe), but the personal level is phenomenal. Unfortunately, Banks' characters are cardboard and forgettable. Their relationships are shallow, their personalities thin, and I didn't care much about their fates. Heck, I had trouble remembering which one was which, at times
And since I'm pointing out faults, I might as well mention a rather odd problem I had with the book: I could never get spatial relationships straight from Banks' descriptions. For instance, in one scene, a character is hanging onto the extended landing-ramp of a shuttle, and trying to pull himself inside. This is a tense action scene that goes on for some pages, and I had no idea what the hell was going on, because I couldn't make the geometry in my mental picture correspond in any way to the actions that Banks described. When the character finally got inside the shuttle safely, I had no idea how he got there. This wasn't an isolated incident, either -- almost every scene where spatial relationships mattered gave me the same problem. Very bizarre.
But this is coming off to be a more negative review than it should be. I liked this book, and it kept me reading at a quick pace. It's a very fine book, really -- but there was nothing special about it, nothing to make me want to give the book to other people and tell them to read it. I hold out every reasonable hope, though, that Use of Weapons will be better.