Book: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Very good, but not quite among Mr Banks's best

Iain M. Banks
The Algebraist
Orbit, 2004
ISBN: 1 84149 155 1
UKP 17.99
534 pages

By way of background, Iain Banks writes both science fiction books and more traditional (though hardly ordinary) fiction. When he's writing science fiction, he uses his middle initial, M (for Menzies).

The Algebraist is very good. And I confess that that disappointed me slightly. Even though I was distinctly lukewarm on his book about scotch whisk[e]y, I think Mr Banks is one of the finest science fiction writers I've read. Excession, Consider Phlebas, and Use of Weapons are brilliant, and I think most of his other science fiction books fall between very good and excellent. The arrival of a new Iain M. Banks book is as good as a holiday for me, and I was hoping that The Algebraist would be another brilliant book. Alas it's not, but I enjoyed it quite a lot.

In the book, Fassin Taak lives on a human-habitable moon above the gas giant planet Nasqueron. It seems that all or almost all of the gas-giant planets in the galaxy are inhabited by a species called Gas-Giant Dwellers or just Dwellers. And it seems that Dwellers have been around for many billions of years, during which time many other species, mostly from rocky planets, have come and gone. And Dwellers haven't just been around for a long time as a species; individuals have very long lifespans as well. In all that time, Dwellers have accumulated a lot of useful information.

The Dwellers in many systems don't tolerate human visitors, but the Dwellers of Nasqueron do. Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer; his job is to dive into Nasqueron's atmosphere in a tiny single-person craft and interact with Dwellers. Amusingly, Dwellers act a lot like P.G. Wodehouse characters. They have vast libraries, but they're very badly organized. And it's very hard to tell whether a Dweller is telling the truth or exaggerating or joking. In addition, Dwellers don't need to work for a living; anything that a Dweller might want, up to and including a spaceship, can be had for free. Dwellers compete only for a sort of formalized social standing called "kudos".

As for the plot, it seems that on Fassin Taak's previous "delve" (as Seers' trips into Naqueron's atmosphere are called) he returned with a manuscript called The Algebraist. He didn't know it at the time, but something in it implies the existence of a follow-on manuscript that contains some information that a great many people would like to have. And some of those people aren't very nice. But the details of the plot aren't really what the book is about or what makes it as good as it is. What's best about the book is the fabulously-detailed and wonderfully-imagined universe that Mr Banks invents for us.

The Algebraist isn't one of Mr Banks's "Culture" novels. It seems that it's set in the same universe, probably long after the culture that called itself the Culture has disappeared. Still, like the Culture, Dweller society isn't organized around scarcity.

Some time and place shifts in the narrative are marked by a typographical ornament between paragraphs. Others are marked only by a blank line. I found that a trifle confusing. And I'm pretty sure that Mr Banks means "high" rather than "low" when he refers to the pressure lower in a planet's atmosphere (p. 305).

Posted: Wed - December 1, 2004 at 09:01   Main   Category: