Tuesday, 4 October 2005

Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist (2004)

Edition: Orbit, 2004
Review number: 1304

Iain Banks latest is an addition to the growing list of his non-Culture science fiction, though it has the same flavour as those set in that universe. It is set far in the future, in a galaxy filled with many kinds of lifeforms. These are generally classified as either Quick (those who evolved mainly on rocky planets, including two kinds of humans) or Slow (those who live with much slower metabolisms who often developed in gas giants, which include the other major species we meet in The Algebraist, the Dwellers). The Dwellers are somewhat mysterious and incredibly long-lived beings (some individuals are older than entire races) who have a history dating back to very early in galactic history. They hardly communicate with members of other species, and those who are permitted to communicate with them, known as Seers, are often completely confused by what they are told, especially since the Dwellers are prone to jokes which mean that much of what they say can't be trusted. One persistent story which is widely disbelieved by the galaxy as a whole is that there is a key to a document known as the "Dweller List", which seems to describe a large number of portals (the instantaneous travel mechanism which makes Banks' galactic civilization possible), but which cannot be decoded.

The Dwellers seem to me to be the major conceptual link between The Algebraicist and the Culture novels. They take the insouciant, anarchic way of life of the Culture to an extreme. They are the highlights of the novel, the source of many humorous touches: they are the only aliens I have come across in the whole of the science fiction genre who are given convincing dialogue that is reminiscent of the tramps in Waiting for Godot.

The central character of the novel, Fassin Taak, is one of the most successful Seers, and it is he who brings back from one of his trips to the gas giant Nasqueron a work of literature which is later discovered to have a clue to the Dweller List hidden in an appendix. This is so important that it provokes an invasion of the planetary system by some really nasty villains, which in turn forces Taak to return to Nasqueron to try and persuade the Dwellers to give up the rest of the secret before the destruction of his home world.

The Algebraist is a fun novel, very enjoyable to read, though not really covering new ground for Banks despite the different setting. Indeed, it is now quite some time since Banks has produced anything as innovative as his early novels, and he is now apparently content to write polished variations on the themes that make up his mature style (perhaps this is something that can be said of most authors who have a career of any length). Maybe moving away from the Culture is an attempt to bring back some of the early originality, in which case it has not really succeeded. There are now of course many writers who have been influenced by Banks, particularly by his science fiction; The Algebraist reads in places almost like a novel by yet another admirer than by the man himself. Here we really have the novelist as craftsman rather than artist; very welcome, very satisfying, and only disappointing because the reader knows that Banks is capable of much more.

One very small point: when I studied mathematics, those who concentrated on algebra were known as "algebraicists" rather than "algebraists".

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