The Algebraist

by Iain M. Banks

Paperback, 2005



Call number




Orbit (2005), Paperback


The time is 4034 A.D. and humanity has made it to the stars, but Fassin Taak will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the year as he searches for a secret that has remained hidden for half a billion years.

Media reviews

It is almost impossible to do justice to the breadth and scope, sheer entertainment value of The Algebraist, so . . .. Read and enjoy!

User reviews

LibraryThing member azoni
I picked this up wondering if I would have time to finish it, and much to my delight it proved to be the sort of book which begs to be read whether or not I have time.

The story revolves around a species of aliens called Dwellers, who have been around for ten billion years. The protagonist, a young
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man called Fassin, studies the Dwellers. He is unexpectedly called away by the military to complete a top-secret mission regarding a fabled system of connected wormholes, controlled by the Dwellers, which could save Fassin's home system from an attack by a power-hungry rebel cult.

The best thing about this book was definitely the Dwellers. Inhabiting most gas giants in the galaxy, they live for a billion or more years and are shaped like two tentacled wheels connected by a fat axle. They glibly deny having any military prowess or inter-gas giant infrastructure, but the Dwellers are much more than they seem, with hilarious personalities to boot. These personalities, indeed the characterization of the entire species, much resembles a very exaggerated version of English society - posh, condescending, but with a little bit of an alien twist - Dwellers don't feel pain, physical or emotional, as far as I could tell. This of course is exactly why the Dwellers are hilarious. They are similar, but not quite similar enough to English people to detract from the novel.

I was also impressed by the way the main plot and the subplot intertwine. The subplot mainly serves to enhance the main characters and explain the connexions between them. Although this book is most definitely science fiction, unlike a lot of sci-fi the characters in this one are pretty round. The interactions between the main characters give the book some drama and emotional appeal. I cared about the fates of these people, which was a huge factor in why I read the book so voraciously. Fassin, the protagonist, is a likeable fellow. Not without flaws, but he changes a great deal over the course of the book and I felt like I knew him.

I was a little bothered by the fact that Fassin's lover girl from the Beyond seemed to switch loyalties at the drop of a hat. First she's with Fassin, then with Fassin's very rich and famous (and annoying asshole) school friend Saluus. First she seems to be on Fassin's side, then on the side of the invaders, with minimal explanation and not very many emotional reactions to these varied situations to give the reader a clue what she's really thinking.

The other thing that bothered me was that, although truly great fun and wonderful to read about, the Dwellers were a little too consistent. It was fun to find out all these really cool Dweller secrets and hidden depths to their society, but I felt a little bereft of any Dweller character twists, or developments, or anything about the emotions of Dwellers.

On the whole, though, this book is excellent. It was so much fun to read and definitely rereadable. When I wasn't reading, I thought about the book, and when I was reading, it was mostly with a smile on my face.
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LibraryThing member johnnyapollo
I had a tough time starting this book - there's a lot of set-up for the various story threads that take development until the main action starts. However once things get going this book becomes a joy to read and difficult to set down. There's already much said regarding the general plot lines, the
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Culture (and how this doesn't belong), the space opera aspect, yadda yadda so I won't delve into that (pun intended). What I really got from the book as I read, was how Swiftian the rolling events become - very "Gulliver's Travels" in that the reader is introduced to so many species, races, cultures, etc. that are interesting, each with its own motives that the novel is enriched instead of being distracting. The other aspect I absolutely loved were the battle scenes, especially the gas giant scenes with frigates and battleships exchanging fire - very Horatio Hornblower - and the Dweller species is so like-able for its quirkiness one get completely drawn in. I've now read a handful of Culture books and this has become my favorite, even if it doesn't belong in that cannon.
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LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
The Algebraist is a full-bore space opera with a galactic setting, plenty of exotic alien intelligences, interstellar warfare, political intrigue, espionage, melodrama, and a surprisingly generous helping of slapstick. It is divided into six chapters of about eighty pages each, but these are not
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component novellas. It's very much a single novel with a unified arc from start to finish.

The far future described here takes place long after the "Arteria Collapse" that broke up the wormhole-networked galactic community. The focus is on the particularly remote Urlubis system. This peripheral locale is still subject to the Mercatoria, which imposes its multiracial but highly authoritarian hierarchies across much of the galaxy, along with a crusade against autonomous AI.

Humans are both old and relatively new to galactic polity, since a-humans ("advanced" or abducted) had spread quite widely after being collected earlier by other starfaring races. R-humans ("remainder") did eventually join these "prepped" populations. The story's protagonist is a human "seer," part of a research institution dedicated to learning from a somewhat standoffish race of gas giant "Dwellers" who are among the oldest and most widespread of interstellar races.

This freestanding novel was my first read in the works of Iain Banks, whose science fiction is most identified with his series The Culture. I liked it a great deal, and I will certainly wade into The Culture on the strength of this book.
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LibraryThing member Shrike58
I liked this novel as well as any Banks' SF novel I've read since "Excession," as he returns to over-the-top space opera in a melieu rather different then the "Culture" novels. Here the galactic society is authoritarian polycratic, hunts down artificial intelligence with extreme prejudice, and
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depends on worm holes for interstellar travel.

That the last are distressingly vulnerable is the hook on which this story hangs, as our protagonist Fassin Taak finds himself drafted into the hunt for a mythical stargate net alledgedly maintained by a standoffish elder race. Taak's changing understanding of this race (The Dwellers), and the coming home to roost of some touchy personal decisions, make up the core of this novel.

If I have to mark down this novel for anything, it's that I expected the plotlines of Taak, the assorted compatriots of his youth (military personage Tanice Yarabokin and industrialist Saluus Kehar), and the looming threat of this deranged conqueror (The Archimandrite Luseferous) to be better integrated together, rather then turning out to be parallel stories. But on the whole that's not a major failing, though it is the difference between 'must read' and a real good time.
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LibraryThing member pgmcc
The Algebraist is a tale of impending war, political intrigue, loyalty, treachery, subversion, dynasties, multi-species civilisations inhabiting planetary systems spanning half-way across the Galaxy, governmental manipulation, hegemony, power brokering, the anthropological study of a gas planet
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dwelling species who hunt their own young, hold formal wars governed by strict rules of engagement designed to maximise the entertainment value, and who can live to be two billion years old, and the ubiquitous struggle for freedom.

The book follows the career of Seer Fassin Taak giving the reader glimpses of key moments in his life, from his antics as a youth, through his experimental “Hippy” days, to the quest thrust upon him by a powerful military-religious order to which he is seconded to help save not just the world, not just the system, but virtually the whole Galaxy which is coming under attack from the, and I quote, “Archimandrite Leseferous, warrior priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum9 IV and effective ruler of one hundred and seventeen stellar systems, forty-plus inhabited planets, numerous significant artificial immobile habitats and many hundreds of thousands of civilian capital ships, who….”

This is a book of long sentences, galactic distances, and epochal timescales and is a tremendous, allegorical read sprinkled with serious messages for today. It contains shrewd analyses of the philosophies and tactics of the ruthless and successful, and is sprinkled liberally with wit and humour that appears in the most unexpected of places.

Iain has created civilisations, environments and technologies that appear real and he has populated them with a myriad of species and characters that enter the story naturally and create a real emotional response in the reader.

For those of you familiar with Iain’s Science Fiction work, this is not a “Culture” story. Everything in it has been created from scratch and I must say the author has worked wonders. I have always said his Science Fiction books were consistently good, but now I have to say there is one that destroys this consistency by rising above the rest. The Algebraist is a must read for all Iain M. Banks fans, and anyone else who enjoys a solid story with real (as far as they can be real) characters who inhabit environments that come across as complete and feasible.

If you haven’t already guessed, I liked this book.
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LibraryThing member RobertDay
Very wide-screen baroque space opera (to borrow a phrase from Brian Aldiss). Much more fantastical than anything Banks has previously written, the universe he puts his characters into isn't just the Culture re-written; rather, it's a whole new universe, colourful and exciting and interesting, which
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works by its own rules and succeeds immensely. Having said all that, I wonder if further novels set in this universe would work as well without the gas giant Dwellers, aliens who are very close to the !tang (from a Joe Haldeman short story) in being my favourite aliens. They are best described as immensely old arrested adolescents, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure.

The story itself concerns the hunt for a McGuffin, except that the main character finds out that he's chasing said McGuffin and the truth of its McGuffin-ness about two-thirds of the way through the book - by which time he's in far too deep to extract himself easily. If I say that this takes over 530 pages, that might sound as though there's padding in here. Far from it. With the range of characters and the universe Banks has created, it seems barely enough.

(UK 1st edition hardback note: at times, Orbit's proofreader seemed conspicuous by their absence.)
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LibraryThing member pauliharman
This book has everything you'd expect from Iain M Banks - a small group of friends that become important on a galactic scale; bizarre floating aliens that live in gas giants; large-scale space battles; and mysterious all-powerful AIs manipulating things behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, that's all
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that this latest SF book from Banks has. It's not badly written, but I found it so dull that it's taken me the best part of 2 months to get through it. There was nothing really new, just more of the same, and it was quite obvious early on what the result of the mission was going to be, and what the fate of the core protagonists would be.

Must try harder.
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LibraryThing member elmyra
This book is an exercise in lost opportunity. For me, science fiction should challenge our thinking, perception and assumptions about ourselves and the world, by taking us out of context and presening us with concepts which stretch the imagination - artificial intelligence, beings who live for
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billions of years, the effects of our own lengthened lifespan.

Well, The Algebraist certainly has the concepts; but I feel it does very little with them. The book is more of a techno-thriller than a science fiction work and if, like me you figure out the great mystery (or get it figured out for you ;-) halfway through, there really is nothing else there to keep the reader's brain working.

I would love to see the impact the newly discovered worm holes would have on society, how the Mercatorial structures will change, whether the impact is powerful enough to encourage a reconciliation between Mercatoria and Beyonders, how the Dwellers will cope with the Quick knowing their secret and WTF happens to the AIs! There is so much potential in the universe, and by far the greater part of it is wasted.

The other problem with the book is characterisation. While Iain Banks does make and effort with this, it feels rather forced. Fassin's traumatic past (both sets) is really a bit naff and feels somewhat disconnected from the Fassin we see in the "present" - they are almost three or even four separate character. And to be honest, none of the available Fassins are characters I particularly care about.

It was an enjoyable read (would have been more so had my other half not made me think about where the worm holes were and therefore figure it out halfway through) and it did provoke a lot of dicussion and some thought, but I feel it could have been much better.
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LibraryThing member kryptikrayg
Another wonderfully written galactic romp from Banks.No direct sign of the culture in here but you will find a familiar theme emerges(don't want to give away too much).Not my top rated I.M.B book but still stuffed with enough unhinged imagination to eclipse your average nova star.
LibraryThing member Black_samvara
Loved it. One of the many reasons I enjoy reading his stuff is the language he uses, I had several moments where I giggled quietly to myself.

"It was generally held that seven billion years' lack of practice probably accounted for the sheer awfulness of Dweller spaceship design and building
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standards, though Fassin wasn't convinced that cause and effect hadn't been confused here."

"As military fuck-ups went it was a many-faceted gem, a work of genius, a grapeshot, multi-stage, cluster-warhead, fractal-munition regenerative-weapon-system of a fuck-up."

...and what a universe to work in. Humanity is spread throughout the stars desperately trying to maintain an autocratic and oppressive empire called the Mercatoria while hunting down the last of the AI after a terrible war. A multitude of alien species are going about their business ranging from the impossibly long-lived Dwellers who live in gas giants to the macabre Ythyn who live to catalogue the dead.

Fassin Taak is a 'Slow Seer' and was anticipating a very long life working with the Dwellers and delving through their massive archives. He is conscripted by the Mercatoria to seek ancient and vital information and is swept into a race against time as two massive fleets bear down on his system to claim it for themselves.

I *love* the Dwellers.
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LibraryThing member m.a.harding
Of course I was disappointed it wasn't another Culture story. How sad am I? I had to take the trouble to learn a new universe. Didn't think much of the 'young students coming to mishap' plot. But bloody hell the wit is there, great scenes imagined up, great aliens, really witty mass murder scene
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(!?). Doesn't have the political resonances as some of the Culture novels. But for sure, that man has the golden touch.
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LibraryThing member tcgardner
This was my first Banks novel and I must say that I was somewhat disappointed. The story was great but the last part of the book seemed to be rushed. And the Dwellers seemed too human to be so alien.

Not bad at all, but I had expected better.
LibraryThing member daniel.links
I'm a big fan of Iain Bank's culture novels and other science fiction and have not at all enjoyed his other fiction that I have tried to read. This one isn't a culture novel, but he has created just as interesting a universe - an entirely up-to-date view of how a galactic empire might look, a
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partial limitation on faster than light travel, and some brilliant gas-giant inhabitants in the Dwellers. Set against that is a brilliant narrative, which twists just as much as you'd expect, and some classically horrific villains as well.
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LibraryThing member sdemler
A fabulous intertwined plot set in a superbly detailed universe. The "just one more page" phenomena it me with a vengeance with this book and kept me hooked right till the end.
LibraryThing member TadAD
Given all the rave reviews here and on Amazon, I was a trifle disappointed. The book wasn't bad: the humor was good, the characters interesting. However, it seemed to plod a bit and I can't see the justification for the "best book ever" reviews.
LibraryThing member derekstaff01
Very intriguing concepts of alien forms and civilizations.
LibraryThing member Gkarlives
I could not even finish this book. The villians were too over the top to be believed. The story meandered all over the place and the society did not interest me. It just seemed very pointless.
LibraryThing member jerevo
As always, Ian Banks' writing is witty, immensely readable (if perhaps excessively grotesque and lurid in places), but like all his non-Culture sf novels, the plot meanders aimlessly and ultimately disappoints.
LibraryThing member laphroaig
I have always found Iain Banks novels to be, at a minimum, entertaining whereas some (such as Excession) are stunning.

Although The Algebraist does not reach the heady heights of some of his other work, it is entertaining, well-written and gripping. With the usual imaginative fare of bizarre races,
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galactic empires and meaninglessly advanced weaponary The Albegraist's plot can sometimes seem an irrelavance but despite this it carries you through to the end.
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LibraryThing member kevinashley
Another to enjoy, with a society very different from the Culture. The underlying ideas and the sense of scale are both excellent. The final plot twist became apparent to me long before it was apparent to the characters, but it is unclear how intentional this is (at least to me.) It didn't prevent
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this being an enjoyable read, with plenty of good ideas (as Banks' SF always does) and some truly alien aliens.
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LibraryThing member morven
A good, but flawed, non-Culture novel from Ian M. Banks. His imagination and creativity are working as well as always here, and his throwaway asides are often more inventive than some other authors' whole books.

One problem is the characters. I found Fassin to be a largely uninteresting character
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who's difficult to really care about; in some ways, similar to Banks characters like Bora in "Consider Phlebas". A lot of the time, he seems like simply a vehicle in which to tour Banks' settings and happenings.

Another is the pace, which at first is tediously slow. The first time I read this, I got bogged down at about a third in and left the book aside for six months before picking it up again. Things get better, but I have to agree with the reviewer who said that he really needed a tougher editor on this one.

If you're a Banks reader, there's plenty here to delight, but I can see many not being able to get past the flaws.
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LibraryThing member maledei
the new book of Banks, this time no "culture" story. but good anyway.
LibraryThing member shevek
Pleasant enough space opera, but no more than that.
LibraryThing member towo
"The Algebraist" was the first Banks novel I ever read. I found it at a local bookstore, leafed through the cover text, and bagged it. And it was absolutely worth it.

"Space opera" and hard science fiction really don't blend together all too well, considering that life isn't the heroes kind of
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thing. Thus, Banks didn't do heroes with Fassin Taak et al. Just perfectly normal guys doing their job and getting a bit excited about people shooting at them. Can't blame them.

What Banks manages with this book, that is taking your bad hard SciFi universe where battles in space are flybys at relativistic speeds and most of the fighting is guessing where the enemy will be, add some interesting characters and concepts in the mix, and then just let everything happen at a single place. It sounds bloody simple, but the author manages to perfectly blend the aspects together to a book you don't really want to put away until you're starting to read the ads at the end.

I'm only bothered by the fact that the outcome of the whole story is a bit fairytalish, thus only almost top score.
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LibraryThing member geertwissink
This book has it all - a nice main character to identfy with, some technical space-mumbo jumbo, a real sadistic villain, war, love and a beautifully drawn alien society, which after a reading for a while seems almost real. One of the best books I've read this year


Hugo Award (Nominee — Novel — 2005)
Locus Award (Finalist — Science Fiction Novel — 2005)


Original publication date


Physical description

544 p.; 7.64 inches


1841492299 / 9781841492292
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