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The Algebraist is the welcomed return of Iain M Banks (aka Iain Banks) to science fiction and Im glad to say he has continues where he left off producing another intriguing and cerebral piece of fiction.
Iain M Banks is best known for his novels set in the Culture universe (The Player Of Games, Consider Phlebas) dealing with the development of human civilisation thousands of years in the future where machines have been completely integrated to the point where they have become sentient beings achieving equal footing with humans.
The Algebraist is different, the Culture does not exist (or maybe has not yet developed) in this universe in the year 4034 AD, thinking machines are seen as abominations actively legislated against and destroyed if found. Humanity has spread far and wide throughout the universe but only with the help of other alien races older and more advanced than us. The eventual result is a hierarchical economic and interracial galactic empire the Mercatoria its many branches separated by the vastness of space and only tenuously connected to each other by wormholes gateways.
Outside this sphere of influence lie other life forms in many different alliances, one of these is collectively known as the Beyonders who amongst others are antagonistic to the Mercatoria and do their best to disrupt the smooth running of the galaxy by regular attacks on outposts. Sometimes in such attacks the destruction of the wormholes cause extended period of isolation for particular branches of the Mercatoria, isolation that can last for centuries until a new wormhole gateway is constructed.
All these races those within the Mercatoria and those beyond are collectively known as the Quick due to their relatively small lifespan and their transient nature of their civilisations. Other far older inhabitants who measure their life spans in millions of years and who can trace their history in billions of years also populate the universe. These species are known not surprisingly as the Slow since to them considering and taking action over a span of centuries or millennia is like a blink of an eye to us. The most successful and most wide spread of these Slow beings are the gas-giant Dwellers. They live in the inhospitable swirling gas clouds of the giant gas planets all over the universe. They interact little with the rest of the universe and while being extremely advanced choose not to show it in any way the Quick races might recognise. Over the years the Quick races have learnt that the Dwellers are not to be antagonised or threatened but they have also learnt that the Dwellers huge reserves of experience and wisdom are valuable resources to be accessed if possible usually at the whim of the Dwellers.
It is in this capacity that we are introduced to our hero Fassin Taak a Slow Seer the name given to individuals who spend their life in prolonged contact with the Dwellers finding out what they can and accumulating what knowledge the Dwellers are minded to give them.
Shortly after the wormhole to the quiet backwater star system of Ulibis is destroyed intelligence is acquired indicating that the forces of the evil galactic despot Luseferous are going to attack and invade the now isolated star system, the Mercatoria is thrown in to crisis. It is realised that the real target of the attack is a mysterious code or key held by the Dwellers on the planet Nasqueron in the Ulibis system. If this valuable secret falls into the hands Luseferous it will enable him to overturn the galactic order and become the dominating force. Taak is given the task of contacting the Dwellers and try to retrieve the secret information before it is too late. Will the Dwellers give up their knowledge before the invasion and are there other forces at work?
Once again Banks has written an extremely involved and highly imaginative space thriller reminiscent of the great novels of science fictions golden era in the 1930s and 40s by virtue of its sheer breath, ambition and imagination. If you think of the majestic space operas of that period such as Asimovs Foundation Trilogy and later additions youll have an idea of the feel of Banks vision of the distant future.
The narrative is not simple it jumps around through a series of flashbacks to earlier events in Fassins life that we always suspect will be tied into the present crisis. Banks once again excels in his imaginative vision of the future and how different alien races will come to interact.
There are plenty of gadgets and mind-boggling ideas to marvel at including as very sensual way to pass on secret messages between covert agents (sorry youll have to read the book!). His vision is awe inspiring as we see the far reaches of the universe being travelled to by gargantuan space cruisers and specialised habitats artificially created around existing planets. Theres even a luxurious villa constructed on a massive waterspout supported by the natural force of the water rushing out of the ground. It is to Banks credit as a writer that he manages to convey all these inspiring ideas is such a matter a fact way that we never question their believability we only marvel at their ingenuity.
One of the main faults that can be levelled at the science fiction genre is the lack of subtlety in the story lines. More often than not a very black and white scenario is presented, good against evil, in The Algebraist Banks avoids this. Our hero Taak is a prominent member of the Mercatoria but this is not a utopian future that is imagined. There have been a lot of technological and medical advancements the inhabitants of the Mercatoria live in comfort and economic prosperity but there is an overlying stifling authoritarian control exerted over everyone. An almost religious fervour exists towards the existence of intelligent machines with draconian punishment for anyone who transgresses the law. People are allowed freedoms rather than having a right to them and all this comes at a price. Suppression of ideas and opposition to the consensus is common and torture or murder is committed in the cause of protecting the principles by which Mercatoria exists. As one character states
Society is control: control is reward and punishment. Reward is being allowed to partake in the fruits of that society and, as a general rule but not unbreakable rule, not being punished without cause.
Of course Leseferous is set up as the baddie but there are enough grey areas to make the moral justification of any side at least questionable, which makes for a more intriguing read.
The Algebraist is a long book at over 540 pages and will require a little effort to get into since the story only slowly becomes clear as the narrative eventually begins to unravel the layer upon layer of complexity. In the early pages there is a lot of information to cope with as we are presented with all the different names and locations of this latest Banks-ian universe. The characterisations for a science fiction novel are surprisingly detailed and this book might even appeal to those who normally shun the genre as it makes for an intriguing puzzle regardless of its style.
Banks also makes sure to add depth to the story and the main plot is just one strand, the book is full of twists, surprises and sub plots to keep us on our toes. The over-riding tale of vast intergalactic conflict is nicely balanced with a more personal tale of human frailty and betrayal.
The Algebraist is available in paperback (544 pages) published by Orbit ISBN: 1841492299. It can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £6.39 (+ p&p) at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2006
Iain Banks writes "proper" (which is not perhaps the best word to use for an author whose list includes "Wasp Factory") literary fiction. Iain M. Banks who, on the surface of things, just happens to be the same person , writes mind-blowingly grand space opera.
As many a big name in sci-fi and fantasy, Iain M. Banks created a future world in which most of his stories take place - these are so called Culture novels. "The Algebraist " is not a Culture novel, though to be honest it's hard to actually work that one out and only the actual absence of Culture itself as well as the fact that AI is banned rather than one of dominant life forms make this clear (there are even readers' theories that it might be pre-Culture or post-Culture story). But for anybody but the most anal of fans it doesn't really matter much.
Fassin Taak is a human 'Slow Seer' working with the Dwellers of Nasqueron - a gas giant in the system Ulubis. Seers look for information in the Dwellers' massive but somehow haphazard data stores (and memories). Dwellers can live billions (!!!) of years and don't care about the fleeting concerns of short-lived 'quick' races, dominated by the Byzantine structure of Mercatoria. Fassin stumbles on a hint of a clue to a start of uncovering of an ancient secret of Universe-wide (would it be 'universal'?) importance. Invasion by the evil Luseferous keen to snatch the secret looms and Fassin reluctantly joins security forces to try to get the secret out of the Dwellers and save his world.
"The Algebraist " has all the trademarks of a Banksian space opera: it starts mysteriously, seemingly in the middle of the story (it isn't really, but as there is none of your usual introductions, it feels like that), explains nothing and leaves the reader to try to frantically work out what can be possibly going on, who is who and what is what, as well as who is what for at least 100 pages. Not that that much more is explained later: things got revealed through the plot and the interaction and introspection of characters but there is no lecturing unless totally justified by the context. That's one of the reasons Iain M. Banks is, as far as sci-fi goes, a rather demanding read; but that's one of the reasons why it's such a great one too. He avoids the temptation to present the rules of his world and its compact history, geography and sociology in the first chapter. He knows that one of the main attractions of a sci-fi novel, even more so then following a plot is exploring and explaining the world.
And what a world (and, incidentally, what a plot, too) we have in "The Algebraist "! It spans thousands of light-years of space and billions (yes!) years of time, it involves complications of several human and alien societies whose cultures Iain M. Banks invents from scratch (no, not really, of course as all are based on some features of societies that exist or existed on Earth).
Of all the creations in "The Algebraist " the Dwellers are, undoubtedly the best. Totally over the top, physiologically and physically impossible, they are truly delightful. Most ancient races in most sci-fi are portrayed as wise and spiritual or decadent bordering on evil. Dwellers are whimsical, playful, strange and impenetrable; with a value system based on gathering 'kudos' and very much interested in extreme sports (Gas Clipper Races or Formal War) and hunting and definitely not in the fate of humanity. It doesn't need to be said that they are, of course, not entirely what they seem to be and that the unravelling of their Big Secret (as well as few smaller ones) is fantastically exciting in the best adventure story tradition.
It goes without saying that this book is well-written. The skill shows less on the level of words and sentences - these are transparent, without visible technical fireworks - and more in the construction, suspense building, managing characters who are both topical and believable and effortless juggling with the convention of space-opera.
A lot of ambitious sci-fi is very dark, and there is a bit of that here: Byzantine politics, cynical characters, war and genocide; but less of the darkness of human insanity that can be found in Iain Banks's mainstream novels or writings of authors like Harlan Elisson or JG Ballard, or even some of the Banks's own Culture novels ("Consider Phlebas")
"The Algebraist " is a piece of dazzling entertainment, a grand sweep of a novel, exciting, tantalising and engaging for a reader who makes an effort to try and work out what's going on. The vision is huge, the politics complicated, the science totally implausible, the human characters presented in depth and believable and engaging, and the social set-ups suitably varied; while the Dwellers are something else altogether. Is there any deeper meaning or sense to it? Probably not, apart of course from it being great, escapist fun. True to the cover blurb, Iain M. Banks sets the standard by which the rest of sci-fi should be judged.
Definitely recommended for fans of the genre and those who can cope with uncertainty for many pages to start with. In some ways it's not a bad novel to dip into sci-fi for a person who normally reads higher-brow stuff; though less baroquely complicated offerings from the Culture series ("Look to Winward"; "Inversions") will a bit easier on the brain.
Iain Banks is one of my favourite authors. His debut The Wasp Factory gripped me from cover to cover, a grim gothic novel stunningly executed; Walking On Glass blended three entirely sepearate narratives together perfectly without ever drawing all three together. Banks is hailed by some as one of the greatest authors of our time, and with that opinion I am forced to agree. He is certainly prolific, and can lend his hand to any one of a vast repertoire of genres, frequently blending more than one together with unusual but inevitably brilliant (for what is in my opinion the best example of this in his writing, see Walking On Glass). Each of his books is as good as his last, and those that are considered his weakest would be hailed as masterpieces is written by anybody else.
After having said all that, it may appear to some that this review will be somewhat biased. I hasten to tell you that this is not the case. While I am a great lover of Banks' work, up until now I had never read any of his pure Science Fiction works (which are all written as Iain M. Banks). I have never been a huge fan of Sci-Fi, the extent of my exposure being Phillip K. Dick and Orson Scott Card, as well as some of Piers Anthony's many works. I bought The Algebraist having heard nothing about it - I spotted the cover and the name in a bookshop and was immediately curious, for no reason that I can determine. As we all know, it is rarely a good idea to judge a book by its cover. However, on this occasion I took a risk.
So it was with some trepidation that I began to read, and by the end of the first page I knew this was something different. The novel begins with the words "I have a story to tell you." Pretty standard fare, it would seem. But the short introduction throws this phrase on its head in a way that I have only previously seen done by Terry Pratchett. Some will surely lambast me for daring to Pratchett's name in the same sentence as Banks', but I feel that both are masters of their craft, and have a way with words comparable with Oscar Wilde. However, that debate is for another time and place.
Banks begins the narration with the voice of the Head Gardener of the Autumn House, which is located on the moon 'glantine in the Ulubis sytem. There he introduces us to our protagonist, Fassin Taak, and his family, as well as laying some incomplete tidbits of information about the vast universe that plays host to the events of this space opera. This can be frustrating in places; we only find out the meanings of the term "6ar." on page 115, after it is first introduced on page 2 and then never mentioned again until it is defined. While revealing one or two pieces of information in this manner is an excellent way of drawing readers into the world, I feel that Banks could perhaps have used this convention a little more sparingly. His universe is obviously an incredibly rich and vibrant one, but the use of many undefined terms left me feeling too much like an uninformed spectator for a large portion of the novel. While this may possibly be because I am not familiar with his other Sci-Fi works, I am informed that The Algebraist does not take place in the same universe as his previous Culture books. As I said, though, this could simply be a case of my being unfamiliar with Banks' typical Sci-Fi conventions.
Banks also makes heavy use of his familiar 'flashback' style of writing throughout the novel, giving small pieces of information and then cutting to a scene some time in the past (in the case of this novel, some of these scenes happened hundreds of years ago) to explain it. While these jumps in time and (in this case) space are normally handled seemlessly by Banks, they felt somewhat forced and clumsy during this novel. At times it was difficult to tell whether a scene was meant to be a flashback or not, and because of this the cohesion ofthe whole novel suffered. The structure felt cumbersome in places, as though Banks was trying to force his narrative into this structure rather than letting it flow naturally.
This clumsy structure also affects the pacing of the novel. While the beginning is fairly fast paced and entertaining, the narrative slows to an almost dull pace at around 300 pages in. While the scenes with the Archimandrate Luceferous are entertaining - Luceferous is a thoroughly horrible villain, and as such is fascinating to read about - they disrupt the flow of the main plot too much while adding little to the overall arc of the story. The antics of the Nasqueron Dwellers become tiresome and grating at around this point also; rather than seeming alien and intriguing, their many quirks and idiosyncracies soon become contrite and irritating.
Despite this, however, the Dwellers are still some of the most interesting and unique races I have come across in any novel I have read - be it general fiction, sci-fi, horror, or fantasy. I have never encountered a race in fiction that has seemed at once so alien and yet so familiar. Great respect is due to Banks for breathing so much life and feasibility into this outlandish and bizarre race.
The clumsy, slow-in-places structure of the novel is also rescued by the last few pages. Banks, ever a master of the unexpected final twist, does not fail to deliver this time. I will not give too much of the plot away here, but the Head Gardener who introduced the narrative and was forgotten about by the time I reached page 150 turns out to be integral to the novel. By the time you read the final page, you will come to realise that you have been reading a completely different book to the one you thought you began, and that the moments of pain and boredom were well worth it. I will certainly be picking up some of Banks' other Science Fiction novels, in the hope that they are as well realised (if a little more structurally sound) than The Algebraist.