The Algebraist Paperback – 15 Jun 2006
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In The Algebraist, Iain Banks returns to spectacular space opera but not to his familiar Culture universe. His new setting is a complex, war-torn galaxy with an entirely different history going back almost to the Big Bang...
For short-lived 'Quick' races like humans, space is dominated by the complicated, grandiose Mercatoria whose rule is both military and religious. To the Dwellers who may live billions of years, the galaxy consists of their gas-giant planets--the rest is debris.
Our human hero Fassin Taak is a 'Slow Seer' privileged to work with the Dwellers of the gas-giant Nasqueron in his home system Ulubis. His life work is rummaging for data in their vast, disorganised memories and libraries. Unfortunately, without knowing it, he's come close to an ancient secret of unimaginable importance.
Though Ulubis is currently cut off from the galactic wormhole travel network, two interstellar battle fleets are racing for this secret. The hissable arch-villain Luseferous--whose tastes run to torture, atrocity and genocide--seems bound to arrive in overwhelming strength before the Mercatorian rescue squadron.
So Fassin is reluctantly conscripted into security forces, and enters the hell of Nasqueron's atmosphere to seek the magic key (code? signal frequency? equation?) that might save everything. Even at their most helpful and charming, though, Dwellers are maddeningly elusive. For ancients, they seem bumbling and whimsical, far more interested in hunting, kudos, and extreme sports like GasClipper Races or Formal War than in saving humanity's skin. Their ramshackle transport and awesome yet run-down floating cities suggest that Dweller legends of hypertechnology are sheer bluff. But are they keeping something dark?
Fassin's journeys and discoveries are exhilarating, witty, sometimes mind-boggling. Exotic weaponry abounds. The Dwellers are engagingly eccentric, like AI Minds in the Culture books--but the Mercatoria has banned artificial intelligence as Abomination, and this too is a plot strand. Additionally there are human revenge, intrigue and betrayal subplots; surprises and upsets; and the mother of all shaggy-dog revelations. Once again Banks is having enormous fun with space opera, and his exuberant enjoyment is infectious. Highly readable stuff.--David Langford --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
There is now no British SF writer to whose work I look forward with greater keenness (The TIMES)
Confirms Banks as the standard by which the rest of SF is judged (The GUARDIAN)
Explosive (Sunday TIMES)
Gripping, touching and funny (T.L.S.) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The plot revolves around a mysterious artefact which the lead human character must find amidst an alien species. He - and his whole society - are in a great hurry, as there is an invasion fleet (also human) incoming. However his alien hosts may be genial and superficially co-operative but they are also, as befits a four-billion-year-old race whose members live many millions of years, devious, inscrutable and ... incredibly ... frustratingly ... slow. In scaling back to the pace of his hosts our protagonist discovers a perspective on his own culture which pushes him to reconsider what that culture, in which humanity is just a minor player, is doing (and has done) to the human race.
On the down side, this contains many of Banks' stock plot devices. There are huge, galaxy-spanning civilisations and a small-scale relationship catastrophe among friends/lovers. There are wizzo interstellar battleships and convoluted human politics. Speaking of politics, there's an arch and not particularly subtle parody of current and potential near-future political structures here on dear old Earth. And of course there's an alien race who at first seem comical but turn out not to be. So far this could be a review of "Excession" with no modification at all. However, my take on this book is that Banks decided not to struggle for radical new concepts but instead to explore the ones he has sprayed out profligately in previous novels and give them room to breathe.
One of the reasons (I suspect) why this walloping great lump of a book has not found universal favour with Banks' existing fans is that it's not what they expect of him - narrative-driven, pacy, compelling dramas such as "The Player of Games" (which, to be fair, is in my desert island Top 10). Instead, there are huge sections which don't develop the narrative at all and either, according to your taste, a) develop an idea more fully than he usually does or b) beat it to death on a rock.
A good comparison might be Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon". To anyone who came to this from his first hit, "Snow Crash", the sheer scale of that book may have been unwelcome (though to be honest "The Diamond Age" gave them fair warning). Instead of tech ninjas in cyberspace you got brilliant passages about cryptology, wisdom teeth and furniture porn. I am one of those who think that the result was Stephenson's best work so far.
Probably the best advice for tackling "The Algebraist" is... just relax. Don't flick the pages looking for the next major plot development, take time to soak it all in, especially the world of the gas-giant Nasqueron Dwellers. If something doesn't immediately make sense just file it until it does. Read in that way, this novel is one of the most rewarding of Banks' recent works. Recommended - if you can give it the time and the brain-space it needs.
The ending is a real let-down. Banks succeeded in creating a particularly loathsome and fascinating villain: the Archimandrite Luseferous is one of the best nasties to ever exist in a Banks novel, but his come-uppance is disappointingly downbeat.
This is an OK sci-fi novel.
We have a delightfully evil boo-hiss villain in Luseferous, who has a particularly inventive mind when it comes to devising methods of extreme torture. We have a sumptuously observed exotic alien species in the Dwellers; near-as-damn-it immortal, this arrogant, hedonistic race can switch from an irritating blasé aloofness to endearing earthy (or Nasqueron-y perhaps?) humour at the drop of a hub-kilt. We have a cunningly evolving plot with machiavellian twists, double and triple-crosses, sacrifice, redemption, heroism, further insights into the machine soul (a theme explored oft-times before by Banks), shocks, thrills, many laughs, a little sodomy, battles on an unimaginable scale and enough technical minutia to keep the geekiest of sci-fi addicts more than happy.
The sheer humanity and ordinariness of the hero - Fassin Taak, means he strikes a chord with all of us and we can empathise with his experiences throughout the story, whether he be reliving the tragedy in the derelict spacecraft, gulping the chill of gill-fluid in preparation for his "delve", or merely strolling through his garden with the vast bulk of the gas-giant filling the sky above him.
The measured pace of The Algebraist perhaps delivers /slightly/ less visceral thrills and visionary wonder than the pure genius of Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons or Look to Windward, but it certainly won't disappoint the faithful and just might turn new readers onto Britain's best living sci-fi author.
The elegiac epilogue was genuinely profound and moving, and rang faint echoes of Voltaire's Candide - "Il faut cultiver notre jardin".
So many people have written "I'm a great Banks fan", and then trashed The Algebraist.
But I loved it. A superb story, full of new ideas, and a break from standard culture.
"I'm a great Banks fan, and have read all his books, however I think that 'The algebraist' is one of his best ever works."
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