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'UNCULTURED' SPACE OPERA AT ITS BEST
The Algebraist - Iain M. Banks
Member Name: Mauri
The Algebraist - Iain M. Banks
Date: 31/10/06, updated on 31/10/06 (238 review reads)
Advantages: Great plotting, intriguing story
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 Dweller’s 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 1930’s and 40’s by virtue of its sheer breath, ambition and imagination. If you think of the majestic space operas of that period such as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and later additions you’ll 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 Fassin’s 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…you’ll 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. There’s 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
Summary: Riveting space adventure