The Algebraist
by Iain M. Banks

Review by Jim Mann

Ian Banks is not only a very good, very literate writer; he is also one of the masters of modern baroque space opera. It's baroque in two senses. It's full of all sorts of wonderful detail and elaboration. It also has very complex - sometimes overly complex - plot twists and turns. The Algebraist is his latest.

First, a bit on the story's background. In the far future, the galaxy is very populated: humans and aliens of many varieties live in most star systems. Sentient life can be roughly be broken down into two broad categories: the slow and the quick. The great representative of the slow are the Dwellers. They have been around billions of years, and have remarkably long life spans. They are called the "slow" because time seems to flow more slowly for them; they are an old and patient (or so they are described; more on this later) species who has filled the whole galaxy and seem to travel between the stars at slower-than-light speeds. The quick are the humans and aliens who have much shorter life spans and whose lives seem to go by much more quickly.

Most of the galaxy is under an alliance called the Mercatoria and most planets are connected by a wormhole network. The novel starts in a system near the edge of the galaxy, one that was separated from the rest of the civilized galaxy about two hundred years before when its worm hole portal was destroyed by a group called the Byworlders. The system is mostly known for its gas giant Nasqueron, inhabited by dwellers who allow limited alien (human) contact by people known as slow seekers in special contact suits.

The main character, Fassin Taak, is such a seeker. He had been given what was purported to be a book of Dweller poetry years ago, and it had been broadcast and translated. But several groups have concluded the appendix contains information about the legendary Dweller List - a list of secret Dweller wormholes connecting millions of systems - and that the key to this list is in another volume. The result is a major war, as various races try to find this key. A huge war fleet under an insanely sadistic dictator heads off for Fassin's home system, and Fassin himself (when they are warned that this fleet is less than a year away) is sent back to Nasqueron to see if he can dig out the truth of the matter.

It's all fascinating, thanks to the influence of Jack Vance and other classic SF writers, but at the same time pure Banks. The search for the key to the wormhole list winds around Nasqueron and eventually to the galaxy (of course secret wormholes exist) and Taak and comrades run into various interesting cultures and situations. It's all quite good, and provides much of what I come to expect from Banks. I wanted to say this up front because even though I found it to be a good book, I do want to look at its flaws.

To start with, there are a few subplots that really didn't need to be there. In particular, the story of Taak and two friends of his youth and how this plays out between the two friends - really doesn't add much. It could have just been dropped.

Second, Banks really likes having something exceedingly nasty happen in many of his books. Anyone who has read Consider Phlebus will remember the excrement cell the changeling is being executed in. In The Algebraist, the insane dictator engages in similarly gruesome punishments for failed assassins or others he does not like.

The book also wanders more than it should. In a way, this is a forgivable flaw, since in wandering we encounter some fascinating parts of Nasqueron and of the universe as a whole. Vance has the same flaws. But it does make the whole thing feel a bit formless when one is done.

Finally, I really had mixed feelings of the Dwellers. Before we meet our first Dweller, Banks has described them as alien and unpredictable. But when we meet them, they are unpredictable all right, but more like flakey humans. Yes, their culture does some strange things (ritualized war, for example, or a military that's really a social club), but while interesting, they are a bit of a let down at first after Banks's descriptions before our first encounter. I grew to like some of the Dweller characters so I got over this disappointment as the book went on, but I did expect something more alien.

On the whole, the book is good, mid-level Banks (which means it's better than 80% of what is published), but not up to his very best work.


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