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.