The time is 4034 A.D. Humanity has made it to the stars. Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, 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.
The story revolves around a species of aliens called Dwellers, who have been around for ten billion years. The protagonist, a young 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.
So what is this 534 page travesty about? It’s a space opera set in the year 4034 A.D. but that hardly matters since the book doesn’t distinguish very well between relative time and “compressed” time which is a conceptual time that passes slower but doesn’t seem to make consistent mapping back to real time so the main character, the human Fassin Taak, is either around 30 years old or 2000 depending on how you read this drivel. Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer which is sort of an cultural archaeologist studying an old race called the Dwellers. The Dwellers are an advanced ancient civilization that live in gas giant planets and live for millions of years and the species has existed for billions of years.
The book also introduces a complex and interesting galactic empire of varied races but it falls into the shadow of the books main content: HORRENDOUS SOULLESS PLOT. The story involves a situation where the system that Fassin Taak lives in gets cut off from the rest of the galactic empire and is attacked by some random pirate like priests. There is nothing else that happens in the book, the characters are all two dimensional and aren’t developed at all and the end…. I don’t want to talk about the end. This is basically a case of taking a thin “back of a napkin” plot that would be a fair premise for the first 50 to 100 pages of a novel and stretching it to death until nothing is left except my anger of having forced myself to finish the book.
This book has made me question my stance on not burning books, please do yourself a favour and don’t go anywhere near it, let alone read it unless you are a religous Banks fan.
I purchased "The Algebraist" because I like epic space opera and I was intrigued by the book's setting in a gas giant. I'd never ready or seen any SF media set in a gas giant (unless you count Cloud City in Star Wars), so I wanted to see how it was done. This did turn out to be one of the highlights of the book. Once you get to the part of the book which occurs on the planet Nasqueron, Banks treats you to some inventive world-and culture-building.
The other upside pertains to the way the book defies the reader's expectations. "The Algebraist" is not what it appears to be. I was expecting a story about an unlikely protagonist helping to defend this planetary system against a massive invasion led by an evil dictator. Quite far into the book, you learn that the somewhat inept protagonist is actually a spy for a hostile organization which is *also* attempting to invade the planetary system and may be supporting the evil dictator. The stage for this revelation is set by a gut-wrenching and maddening flashback sequence which describes his involvement with the current planetary government during his rebellious student years.
Speaking of which, Ian M. Banks is surprisingly adept at writing gut-wrenching scenes. This turns out to be one of the major problems with the book. A scene which riles up the reader and makes him/her feel disgusted can have its place in fiction, if judiciously employed in service of an important plot point or concept. If used too liberally, it turns a novel into a catalog of disgusting, unlikable weirdos doing nasty things. Banks' evil dictator, the preposterously-named "Archimandrite Luseferous," is so pointlessly cruel and vindictive that you must wonder how he ever could have achieved a position of any power or authority in a technologically-advanced society. His evils go from exaggerated to patently absurd. When Banks' informs the reader that Luseferous has modified his penis to inject truth serum or deadly poison into those he sleeps with, I knew that this book was not for me.
Although no character is as far over the top as Luseferous, quite a few characters do unpleasant things, and by the middle of the book, there are no "good" characters left: they have all been killed or turned out to be evil, to varying degrees.
Another problem with the book is its slow pacing. A lot of the action doesn't actually have relevance to the story's plot. For instance, visits to various places in the gas giant are included as necessary steps enroute to a further objective. In real life, sometimes you do have to stop somewhere (e.g. at the gas station) before going to your destination. In a novel, you can and should eliminate such scenes unless they serve a purpose. There are many meaningless elements in "The Algebraist," giving the book a meandering feel. Even if novels possess interesting worlds, the best novels don't stop the plot to give the reader a tour. They tie the interesting elements of the world into the plot, allowing the reader to experience both at once. Banks fails to do this.
The last issue with the book is its implausibility. Implausible elements include: everything concerning the evil dictator, the protagonist's selection as a spy, the supposed technological sophistication of the erratic and silly natives of the gas giant, and even the important MacGuffin (a book listing wormhole locations, which are in the immediate vicinity of populated planets yet undetectable by any existing technological means).
Although the book's inventive setting and unexpected political twists bring it up from 1 to 2 stars, I'm afraid I can't give it any more than that.
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.
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.)
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.
Banks is without doubt an excellent author, his writing is what you would call high standard though a little difficult to follow at times because in a fifteen line sentence you tend to forget what the subject was in the first place. Even the story was not so bad, it even was interesting at times if the author didn’t actually get lost in descriptions and matters that had nothing to do with the plot.
Overall I would say that it could have been so much better if instead of being a 600ish pages book it had stuck to 3 or 400 pages. As said earlier, Banks is a good writer but I’m not sure I’m such a fan of his writing style. I found it difficult to follow and sometimes had to re-read a whole page because it turned out my mind had been wondering elsewhere. This is weird because I loved the creatures called Dwellers and was eager to uncover the mystery around the famous Dweller list but this book required a lot more concentration than others and I’m not quite sure that was a good thing.
The first question that springs into mind after finishing this book would be: where the hell was Banks’ editor when they published The Algebraist? Did he even bother to read it? There are so many things that if cut out would have not only lighten the book but also freed the main plot. It’s a shame though because I found the first pages attention grabbing but there were things on which I would’ve liked the author to pause and further explain but they never seemed to be the things he thoroughly explained. For example, there was that subplot involving Sal and Taince. I would’ve liked to know if what happened in the end was the reason why she decided to come back in the first place and why she felt she needed to be the one to punish Sal and also why end her life as well… all this I felt where interesting points which deserved to be developed.
I would be very careful as to who I recommend this book, perhaps only to hard core Banks fans because what I thought was a promising space opera turned out to be a long and boring book.
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.
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, 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.
"It was generally held that seven billion years' lack of practice probably accounted for the sheer awfulness of Dweller spaceship design and building 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.
"Space opera" and hard science fiction really don't blend together all too well, considering that life isn't the heroes kind of 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.
One problem is the characters. I found Fassin to be a largely uninteresting character 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.
If and when the indecision goes on at home when it is time to prepare the Special Meal (hungry already, not at my best at all), the easy way is to put it all together, hoping for the best. The result usually isn't the best. The good stuff is still good, but the result is less than the sum of its ingredients. And you know that all the way.
The Algebraist by Iain M Banks is that meal. There are lots of good things in it. I really admire his imagination, his ability to create societies, cultures and lifeforms, and story (of a search for a secret network of wormholes, the fastest way to move about in between solar systems and galaxies in a universe where hyper space has not been invented) isn't bad either, some of the twists are clever, some feel cheap, and the best are such that you can not decide which one it is.
I often thought there was a bit too much of everything. There were loose ends, character development that did not develop and a few tedioud descriptions of this or that dwellers of one or other planet. And it all adds up to zero...