The Algebraist


Iain M. Banks


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 21, 2006

Some of the books by Iain M. Banks are just terrific - for example, I really enjoyed Look To Winward and Consider Phelbas. Inversions was good too. But some of his other work is merely okay, such as Use of Weapons. And some of his novels I did not like at all: Against A Dark Background revolved upon a lame plot device called the Lazy Gun. I was hopeful that the Algebraist would be one of Bank's great books, but unfortunately I thought it slipped into the "just okay" category.

Algebraist has a bunch of plot threads, and they don't really intertwine well. For example, the first section of the novel tells a long story involving Fassim, Sal, Taince and Ilen inside an ancient ruined spaceship. Ilen falls, and she must be rescued. But the events in the spaceship really having nothing to do with the rest of the novel, other than to introduce Fassim, who is the protagonist of this book. Sal, Taince and Ilen get a few cursory mentions after that initial section, but those paragraphs could have been editted out without any loss of plot.

We are introduced to an arch-villan Archimandrite Luseferous - Banks seems to delight in painting him as the most evil, ruthless character imaginable. Luseferous is bringing an invasion fleet to Fassim's solar system - but (other than a brief encounter with Sal) the story of Luseferous and the story of Fassim don't intersect. The arch-villan doesn't meet Fassim, nor even knows learns Fassim's name. It seems there is a secret inside the gas giant Nasqueron - and both Fassim and Luseferous are searching for it - but if you are searching for a secret, would you bring an army and invade a country to find it? The motivation for Luseferous seems thin - indeed, he turns out to be a decoy.

Fassim rides around in a "gas-craft" - a clever vehicle that immerses him in a gel that provides for all his physical needs while protecting him from the crushing atmospheres and radition in the gas giant. Fassim is a Seer - his career is talking to the Dwellers - a billions-year old race that inhabits gas giants throughout the galaxy, and might hold the secret he is looking for. The Dwellers were a disappointment to me - for beings that are supposed to live for millions of years they seem like a bunch of scatterbrained fuss-budgets.

Sometimes Banks gives us great visions - such as his descriptions of galactic civilizations based upon wormholes, or epic battles between organics and AI, or the bit about the aHumans and rHumans. He hints at a civilization called the Beyonders, and of their unending war with the Mercatoria. This book reminded me of Hyperion, potentially epic in sweep, but without the great story to make it classic.

Fassim spends most of the novel encased in his gas-craft, flying around in the atmosphere of Nasqueron, or flying aboard the Dweller starship. This could be a nice way for Banks to give a tour of wonders about the galaxy, but he is not interested in that. Indeed, Fassim's starship journey turns out to be a wild goose chase, and it never becomes clear why anyone is making the journey. The Dwellers seem incredibly cavalier about showing their secrets - how did their weapons and wormholes remain a secret for so long?

There are some interesting parts to this novel, but this is not a classic. It is an okay read.