A review for SciFiQuest 2107

This section is spoiler free: a warning will be provided when this changes.

The Algebraist is Iain M. Banks's 10th book, Iain Banks's 22nd book, and the third book of Science Fiction that Banks has written outside the world of The Culture. Banks takes the genre of Space Opera and looks at it from a total history of the universe and galaxy. The universe is billions of years old and life on Earth is only 500 million years old, and at a factor of a thousand less, humanity is only about 100,000 years old. Banks takes this fact and says the story starts at the beginning, that is when time begins, that is when history begins and from there assumes that history utterly permeates the galaxy. The story told in the Algebraist is a sliver of that history, a mote, but one that is important to the slightly wider range of some of the background species which populate it. It is a major point that the characters deal with, the fact that they are so unbearably tiny in the whole of the cosmology of both space and politics.

The setting for the specific story is a little regarded system populated in large part by humans and a handful of other species, ruled by a generally well regarded King/Bureaucrat and home to the Gas Giant Nasqueron, home as most Gas Giants are to the Slow species known as Dwellers. The Dwellers, like all Slow species, are a very old race that spend most of their time in a state were they perceive everything to be moving very very quickly all around them. This is what has lead in large part to the longevity of their species, now 10 billion years old. An individual of this species is capable of living for 2 billion years. They live so long that they view major galactic wars as minor nuisances and view the Quick species as poor short-lived animals that come and go like the seasons. A significant galactic government, considered long lived by many might only last the length of a really good board game between two middle aged Dwellers. Dweller society is spread across the galaxy in what is arguably the largest meta-civilization in existence. The humans here are one of the few species in existence that the Dwellers have authorized to be allowed to interact with them. Three centuries before the story the system was cut off from the galactic civilization's hyperspace gate network when terrorists destroyed the wormhole portal.

The main character is one of those people, a Seer, by the name of Fassin Taak. A young, brash Seer with a penchant for physical delves and widely known for the time he disappeared to live with a band of adolescent Dwellers. The reason that he is the main character is that he has found something, something big and something that both the galactic Navy and a separatist group are flying toward the system to get. A prize big enough that the AI hating galactic government risks sending near intelligent computer messages in order to keep the secret from being spilled, including a virtual version of one of the Admirals in the fleet being sent to save them. The race is on and Taak has been deputized into the near religious order of AI destroying zealots in order to assist them in finding it.

SPOILER WARNING: From here and up to the end, no holds barred.

The Algebraist contains many elements that are reminiscent of Dune, a wide galactic civilization with a limited form of FTL controlled by Imperial forces and a religion based around hating AI and machines. But in my opinion Banks is merely influenced by Herbert's ideas and takes a number of them further than Herbert ever did. There is a feeling of reality in the Algebraist that is heavy and unshakable. The feeling of fantasy within every SciFi novel or story is presented as a psychological problem amongst the characters who feel overwhelmed every now and again being humans thousands of light years away from the world of their genesis, living with a host of alien species, in a galaxy that eats up and spits out one civilization after another. It's as if Banks wants us to shake our heads at the fantasy along with the characters and then focus on what matters to the same characters. The effect, if it works, can seriously ground the reader in the topic of the book.

Banks sends Taak to navigate the intricacies of the Bureaucracy that controls the galaxy as he knows it and with Taak he sends a soldier of the Shrievalty Ocula to Nasqueron to be the alien voice with whom the reader can identify. Banks seeks to juxtapose the gilded pomp and arrogance of the galaxy at large with the outwardly nonsensical foppishness of the Dwellers while suggesting slowly over the course of the book that the Dwellers possess cunning and secrets as significant as their longevity.

One other thing I noticed, toward the end of the book, was a scene reminiscent of many of Banks's work where the broken, lonely and tragic shell of the main character, so confident early on, walks into what looks like a trap. Taak has just returned to Nasqueron through the core-portal system and has had his recent memory wiped from him. He rediscovers, despite the memory wipe, the secret of the Dwellers and walks into, what had earlier been revealed, to be the hands of one of the Dwellers who would kill him without a thought to stop the secret from being revealed. Now as a fan of Banks both in Fi and SciFi, I have seen him open scenes like this before. Like the A Song of Stone or Consider Phlebas, the characters are about to finish their odyssey that has ripped their souls from them and in their joy to be done with their Herculean tasks make a mistake. In Song of Stone the protagonist kills the person who had made his life a purgatory and the soldiers she once controlled run amok and drag him to Hell. In Consider Phlebas Bora's final mistakes lead to the death of the woman he loves. Here Banks lets the hero walk, drunk on victory into the hands of his enemy and just for a second makes it look as if Taak has become another of his tragic heroes. But instead Banks writes Taak into a space ship, remotely controlling his encounter suit, flying away as fast as its drives can carry it. The ending says a great deal about the way Banks has changed as a writer over the years.

One final note on Space Operas in general. The moment I put this book down I went and started reading Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith, the first book in the classic Lensman series. It was strange to read what could be described as one of the first books in the genre of space opera after having read one of the latest books. Both are great stories but both are so different it boggles the mind. Triplanetary is fulled with manly men, men who stomp and snort and talk as if every single piece of dialog was narrated out of a fifties era war movie, as if every time a character spoke he was stepping forward finger pointed at the sky. "TOO THE MOON ALICE, TO TEST THE NEW ULTRAWAVE AND INERTIA DEMODULATOR!" On top of that the plot can only be described as similar to DBZ, except with technologies instead of power levels. We have guns and missiles, but they have ultra cannons and invinci-shields, so we'll make hyper barrage beams and ultrawave blasters, but then aliens invade with iron powered super-ultrawaves...etc. In the Algebraist massive fleets of ships do battle and guns and beams blaze across infinity. But everyone knows that they do that so they don't dwell on it. The Algebraist has thoughts about philosophy and psychology and society and family. It delves into a world that is as alien from humanity as it can be. The character is stranded without the supports that he has relied on all his life much like humanity is out in the back of beyond. Space Operas started out much like Adams's galactic empire, with Real Men, Real Women and Real Fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri splitting infinitives that had never been split before and it has progressed to a future humanity staring into the heart of the total perspective vortex.

To summarize my opinions:
The Algebraist is a good space opera, not the best in the genre but it is a solid work. It is so far one of my favorite books by Banks, following Excession, The Bridge and Use of Weapons. If you like Space Opera, or like Banks, you will like this book.

Score: 8/10 :Good

ISBN-10: 1597800449
Published by Night Shade Books in San Fransisco in 2006.

SyntaxVorlon has a great, and far more comprehensive than my own, summary of this novel just above.

The Algebraist is a science fiction novel set in the unfathomably far future, and is penned by the established author Iain M. Banks. The plot concerns a star system being attacked by some force, (I would have written "alien force" but by this stage in the universe's history to define something as alien is rather provincial). The attack is motivated by a desire to conquer the key to secret formula which, it is believed, will reveal a large wormhole network present within that system. Access to this network would solve the perennial problem faced by all empires: communication and transport. Before the attack forces arrive, the key character, Fassin Taak, travels to the planet of a species called the Dwellers to attempt and retrieve this priceless secret, and so perhaps channel the unfolding history into another direction.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo award in 2005 for best novel.

Some comments of my own:

  • A lot of the plot involves what is essentially a scavenger hunt by Taak, going from A to B to get the next clue to C. Arguably most plots involve this familiar format, but this particular novel doesn't do much to hide it.

  • The author plays around with the novel idea of different minds operating on different time scales. Case in point are the Dwellers who can slow down their consciousness to the scale of aeons. This species live on gas planets and are ubiquitous throughout the known universe. When they choose to live in slow-time, the comings and goings, and brief wars, of the humans everywhere else appears to them fleeting. This, in addition to the fact that they can live some few billion years, means that they care little for everything that happens to anyone else.

  • Humans are differentiated into ahumans (a for advanced) and rhumans (r for remainder). This results from the common phenomenon by which advanced species kidnap a new sentient species, and form a small civilization which they technologically advance - in this case the ahumans. Thus when the remainder species (e.g. rhumans) finally make it out to space they're humbled. It's not clear why Banks chose to make this part of the novel's mythology - perhaps it's a pet interest of his, or maybe it fits into the model of science-fiction from which his stories stem. I don't know, but it is curious.

  • Because travel without wormholes is limited to the speed of light, wars are planned in terms of hundreds of years in advance. Similarly, it may be that a war is already over and (seemingly) forgotten, when a large mass of asteroids come hurtling at a battlesite at the speed of light. Advanced peoples having found that hurtling rocks very very quickly is actually one of the better ways of hurting someone. I quite liked this idea. So much science fiction feels obligated to propose advanced and incredible weaponry - but I found this to be a commonsensical (all things considered) form of futuristic warfare.

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