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The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Books hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 1841491551
Date: October 2004 List Price £17.9 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Banks has been on sabbatical for a while since his last SF offering, Look To Windward ( see review). He has released one book in this interim under his non-genre name (for which he drops his middle initial) but that too was a break from his tireless fictional output, instead being a book about whisky! Returning to the fold after his time-out, Banks brings us a new space opera entirely unconnected with his Culture novels and the result entitled The Algebraist is a challenging read indeed.

As ever Banks' sweeping plots are hard to summarize, but I'll give it a go! We're well into the fourth millennium and humanity has spread throughout the galaxies. Travelling the vast distances between planets used to be a (relatively) simple affair due to wormhole technology, but a long, drawn out war led to the collapse of the network and to the stranding of the individual planetary societies. Our protagonist, Fassin Tack has the impressive sounding title of "Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers" -- this essentially means that he is one of the few specialists allowed to commune with the an ancient species of beings that inhabit the galaxy's vast gas giants. The Dwellers are an eccentric race, slow and ponderous, and each living for millions upon millions of years. They refer to non-Dwellers as "The Quick" though they indulge the curiosity of such races. They are also knowledge hoarders, and it is Fassin's job to work with the Dwellers (a difficult and demanding diplomatic endeavour known as "delving") in an attempt to divine and unlock their wisdom. This is not made easy by the complicated, unfathomable and downright alien protocols of Dweller society.

News now comes to the Mercatoria, the governing body of Fassin's planet, that their system is to be invaded by a rather unsavoury space warlord with the grand title of "The Archmandrite Luseferous, warrior priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum 9 IV" -- Banks clearly has a penchant for such impressive sounding monikers. His name not withstanding, this chap is a typical Banksian nasty -- a bad guy par excellence. He's on his way and frankly there's not a lot the Mercatoria can do about it, given that all help from the nearest star system is a year or so away. The baddies are due sooner than that, and so the Mercatoria publicly put the planet on a war footing and privately they try to work out what the hell they can do.

On a previous delve, Fassin Tack came across an information artefact which alluded to a vast and secret wormhole network known only to (and denied by) by the Dwellers. Access to this "Dweller List" might be humanity's salvation -- an entire planetary population might be quickly evacuated out of harm's way, or an endless supply of war ships from neighbouring systems could be almost instantly imported - and so Fassin is dispatched to search for the vital piece of jigsaw, this needle in a gas giant haystack.

This then, forms the core of Banks novel and much as I enjoyed The Algebraist, (just as I have every single novel (genre and non-genre) that Banks has published), this is a novel with a thick rind and even for an experienced genre reader like me, it takes some getting into. The Algebraist is a dense and complex piece, written with the assured confidence that this is exactly what SF ought to be. I wouldn't presume to argue with this approach and certainly this is science fiction on the grandest, widescreen scale imaginable, but it occurs to me that Banks writes science fiction for readers who know what they're dealing with when they pick up a book like this. He's out to satisfy his extant fans (and most assuredly will do with this latest effort) but I'd hesitate to recommend it to someone I wanted to introduce to the genre.

In spite of this, The Algebraist is crammed with some classic IMB moments -- I know of no other author so adept at inventing such gruesome and imaginative ways for characters to die! This is a tradition begun way back in The Wasp Factory and Banks is keeping it very much alive and kicking some twenty years later. It's also worth noting what a wry writer Banks is. His talent for irony and for catching the eccentricities of character make his narratives always engaging, even with a novel as complex as this one. The Dwellers are a joy to read -- stuffy and proud, and hiding their true steel well behind their apparent bumbling.

Banks is surely the finest science fiction writer never to have been awarded any of the genre's biggest prizes. It is staggering that he's never been even short-listed for a Hugo or Nebula in his twenty year career. I doubt that The Algebraist will break this pattern, but it remains a worthy, if wordy, addition to the Banks canon.

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