The Algebraist by Iain M Banks
Template:Infoboxsort Iain Banks writes "proper" (which is not perhaps the best word to use for an author whose list includes Wasp Factory) literary fiction. Iain M. Banks who, on the surface of things, just happens to be the same person , writes mind-blowingly grand space opera.
As many a big name in sci-fi and fantasy, Iain M. Banks created a future world in which most of his stories take place - these are so called Culture novels. The Algebraist is not a Culture novel, though to be honest it's hard to actually work that one out and only the actual absence of Culture itself as well as the fact that AI is banned rather than one of dominant life forms make this clear (there are even readers' theories that it might be pre-Culture or post-Culture story). But for anybody but the most anal of fans it doesn't really matter much.
The Algebraist has all the trademarks of a Banksian space opera: it starts mysteriously, seemingly in the middle of the story (it isn't really, but as there is none of your usual introductions, it feels like that), explains nothing and leaves the reader to try to frantically work out what can be possibly going on, who is who and what is what, as well as who is what for at least 100 pages. Not that that much more is explained later: things get revealed through the plot and the interaction and introspection of characters but there is no lecturing unless totally justified by the context. That's one of the reasons Iain M. Banks is, as far as sci-fi goes, a rather demanding read; but that's one of the reasons why it's such a great one too. He avoids the temptation to present the rules of his world and its compact history, geography and sociology in the first chapter. He knows that one of the main attractions of a sci-fi novel, even more so then following a plot is exploring and explaining the world. And what a world (and, incidentally, what a plot, too) we have in The Algebraist! It spans thousands of light-years of space and billions (yes!) years of time, it involves complications of several human and alien societies whose cultures Iain M. Banks invents from scratch (no, not really, of course as all are based on some features of societies that exist or existed on Earth).
Fassin Taak is a human 'Slow Seer' working with the Dwellers of Nasqueron - a gas giant in the system Ulubis. Seers look for information in the Dwellers' massive but somehow haphazard data stores (and memories). Dwellers can live billions (!!!) of years and don't care about the fleeting concerns of short-lived 'quick' races, dominated by the Byzantine structure of Mercatoria. Fassin stumbles on a hint of a clue to a start of uncovering of an ancient secret of Universe-wide (would it be 'universal'?) importance. Invasion by the evil Luseferous keen to snatch the secret looms and Fassin reluctantly joins security forces to try to get the secret out of the Dwellers and save his world.
Of all the creations in The Algebraist the Dwellers are, undoubtedly the best. Totally over the top, physiologically and physically impossible, they are truly delightful. Most ancient races in most sci-fi are portrayed as wise and spiritual or decadent bordering on evil. Dwellers are whimsical, playful, strange and impenetrable; with a value system based on gathering 'kudos' and very much interested in extreme sports (Gas Clipper Races or Formal War) and hunting and definitely not in the fate of humanity. It doesn't need to be said that they are, of course, not entirely what they seem to be and that the unravelling of their Big Secret (as well as few smaller ones) is fantastically exciting in the best adventure story tradition.
Definitely recommended for fans of the genre and those who can cope with uncertainty for many pages to start with. In some ways it's not a bad novel to dip into sci-fi for a person who normally reads higher-brow stuff; though less baroquely complicated offerings from the Culture series (Look to Windward, Inversions) will be a bit easier on the brain.
It goes without saying that this book is well-written. The skill shows less on the level of words and sentences - these are transparent, without visible technical fireworks - and more in the construction, suspense building, managing characters who are both topical and believable and effortless juggling with the convention of space-opera.
A lot of ambitious sci-fi is very dark, and there is a bit of that here: Byzantine politics, cynical characters, war and genocide; but less of the darkness of human insanity that can be found in Iain Banks's mainstream novels or writings of authors like Harlan Elisson or JG Ballard, or even some of the Banks's own Culture novels ( Consider Phlebas)
The Algebraist is a piece of dazzling entertainment, a grand sweep of a novel, exciting, tantalising and engaging for a reader who makes an effort to try and work out what's going on. The vision is huge, the politics complicated, the science totally implausible, the human characters presented in depth and believable and engaging, and the social set-ups suitably varied; while the Dwellers are something else altogether. Is there any deeper meaning or sense to it? Probably not, apart of course from it being great, escapist fun. True to the cover blurb, Iain M. Banks sets the standard by which the rest of sci-fi should be judged.
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