The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
Iain Banks is something of an odd one; he’s achieved significant critical success through his ‘mainstream’ novels such as his 1984 debut The Wasp Factory. Critics with nothing but contempt for science fiction and fantasy adore him, yet he lives a secret double life as a strong candidate for the greatest living writer of science fiction. All of his sci-fi is published under Iain M. Banks, with his ‘mainstream’ literature released without the ‘M.’ The majority of his science fiction take place in a utopian galactic civilisation known as ‘The Culture’, beginning with 1987’s Consider Phlebas up until 2010’s Surface Detail. The links between these novels are relatively tenuous, with the odd cameo from a character from a previous novel or oblique references to the events of other novels forming the only real continuity. The Algebraist is the first science fiction book by Banks that I have read not set within The Culture, and Banks uses the new setting to craft a story which simply couldn’t happen within the confines of The Culture, whilst retaining much of what made the Culture books so entertaining.
The Algebraist takes place around two thousand years into the future, and humanity has reached the stars, entering into the benevolent tyranny of the Mercatoria, a bureaucratic empire built upon the belief that the entire known universe is a simulation and that when half of the population of the galaxy converts to this view, we shall be freed from it and enter into a greater reality beyond. Where AIs form a large part of the Culture books, with the sentient ships and drones generally being the most entertaining and amusing characters in whatever novel they appear, within the Mercatoria they are ruthlessly hunted down and destroyed due to an AI rebellion thousands of years earlier. Faster than Light travel has yet to be discovered within this setting, so interstellar travel is achieved entirely through wormholes which can only be stabilised within a ‘Lagrange Point’, a point where the gravitational force of two objects are equal, meaning that rather than orbiting one or another, the point stays relatively still…or something. I’m not a physics student, leave me alone! The construction of a wormhole is incredibly time consuming, taking centuries to stabilise, and so the destruction of a wormhole entrance is a major coup for anti-Mercatoria forces, leaving the system containing the wormhole utterly isolated for centuries at a time.
Rumours of secret system of wormholes, which would utterly revitalise the stagnating galactic community, leads a force from an alliance of long disconnected system which has fallen under the sway of the charismatic sadist Archimandrite Luseferous who launches an attack upon the Ulubis system, which he believes to contain the information needed to access this wormhole network, giving his fledgling empire the power to thwart even the galaxy spanning Mercatoria. The Dwellers, those who supposedly created this network, are creatures who exist within 99% of the gas giants of the galaxy (though not Jupiter or Saturn). They are a truly ancient civilisation, older than any other and one of the few independent species of the Mercatoria, with individuals living up to a billion years. The protagonist, Fassin Taak is a human ‘seer’, scholars who goes amongst the Dwellers to learn their secrets, artificially slowing their metabolism so that they may perceive time in a similar fashion to their ancient objects of study. Taak is drafted into the Mercatoria after they learn that the forces of Luseferous are descending upon Ulubis, and that the Mercatorial fleet shall not reach Ulubis for a year, as the Ulubis wormhole had been destroyed a century earlier. Taak is sent to Nasqueron, the gas giant of Ulubis, to go amongst the Dwellers and attempt to learn the truth of the secret wormhole network, so that he can lead a Mercatorial fleet to defend the system.
Phew. Sound complicated? It is. The barrage of terms that the reader is almost immediately beaten around the head with can be off putting, as it makes earlier passages utterly difficult to follow. I don’t normally like glossaries during my books, feeling them almost always unnecessary, but one would certainly help here. When you finally wrap your head around this world though, it’s utterly fascinating, and a setting which I would love to read more novels within. The plot moves along fairly briskly, although there is an utterly unnecessary revenge subplot featuring two characters from Fassin’s past. A subplot must in some way support or complement the main story, but this story line seems to take place utterly independently from it, with the conclusion bearing no consequence on the wider narrative. This story is interesting, and would perhaps make a nice little novella to parallel the main story whatsoever, but inserted as it is throughout the novel it only serves to break the pace and bring us away from the much more compelling storyline of Fassin and the Dwellers. Banks has never been the most structurally tight author, but it feels particularly evident here, but where he usually surprises us in other novels by bringing together these disparate elements into an interesting convergence, he fails to do so in The Algebraist. Consequently, the novel is about 100 pages too long, and it can be difficult to not check out somewhat during the subplots.
The writing is as top notch as ever however. The somewhat staid writing style of a large amount of ‘hard’ science fiction is absent here, with Banks exhibiting a flair for language greater than perhaps any other in the genre. The comedy of the Culture books is exhibited here in full force; where it is usually the AIs in the Culture books, particularly the ships, which provide most of the laughs, here it is the absent minded and ancient Dwellers who provide the best comedy. These millennia spanning creatures are so utterly checked out from reality and the ‘earthly’ concerns of the wider galaxy that they view the human Fassin with nothing more than a bemused benevolence, constantly amused by our fast paced and violent ways. This is certainly one of the funniest novels which I have read in a long time. Banks is not a one trick pony, he conveys some pretty horrific scenes with a wonderful compassion and eloquence, without ever feeling the need to preach to the reader.
Whilst the protagonist Fassin is a relatively bland figure, he is surrounded by some hilarious and interesting characters. Y’sul, his Dweller companion through Nasqueron, is constantly amusing and will likely end up everyone’s favourite character. The villain, Archimandrite Luseferous, is very much in the ‘Joffrey’ class of villain, a completely irredeemable and horrible sadist who is nonetheless oh-so fun to read about. The inventive tortures conjured by Luseferous upon those who defy him never cease to be hilarious in an ‘oh dear lord that is so unbelievably horrible’ sort of way. Banks has never been as much about his characters as about the world they inhabit, and his novels have never offered particularly complex character studies (with perhaps the exception of Cheradenine Zakalwe in Use of Weapons), and The Algebraist is no exception. The fast pace of the novel means that no single character is allowed much time to develop, but instead we are treated a long succession of entertaining and interesting caricatures, such as Fassin’s Uncle Slovious, who has chosen to live the remainder of his life in the form of a walrus and Quercer & Janath, a pair of Dweller minds who reside within one body. This isn’t really a problem in my opinion, but if you read novels for complex character studies, then this probably isn’t for you.
There are many things wrong with The Algebraist; it’s a mess structurally and seems wilfully difficult to read at first, but it successes outweigh these flaws. The novel is consistently funny, awe inspiring and original, with Banks dropping ideas and concepts which are always novel and interesting, showing an admirable effort to steer clear of cliché. If you’ve read other Banks science fiction and enjoyed it, I recommend this highly, it’s comfortably up to the standard of the Culture novels and easily eclipses weaker instalments such as Look to Windward and Excession. If you haven’t read any Banks before, I can’t say that this is a great place to start (The Player of Games is a far better launching point). The Algebraist is a very good book, falling just short of being great, yet I nonetheless recommend to anyone who has read Banks before or who enjoys science fiction which plays with utterly new and alien ideas.