The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2005)

Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.   

In brief:

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks is one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors.  It is filled with wonderful descriptions, fantastic aliens, great characterizations, and brilliant prose, but it’s an extremely imaginative world likely to be unappealing to those who dislike Science Fiction.  It also has a wry humor that may not appeal to some readers.  Even so, if you do like Science Fiction, however, buy this book. 


A human dominated interstellar hegemony in 4034 AD, where Faster-Than-Light Travel is not possible, but wormhole technology (technically possible under an Einsteinian model of physics) allows point-to-point near instant transport.  For this to work, the wormholes must exist in true near zero-gravity environs, such as found in deep space, Lagrange points and the like.  

In Depth:

I loved this book. There were such great ideas illustrated through flowing descriptions; I was immediately absorbed.  What is more, there were a large number of plots, subplots and themes that threaded their way through the book, and yet still managed to tie together at the end. Add to that Banks’ wry sense of humor and you have the formula for a near perfect book. 

Having said that, I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t like Science Fiction will like this book.  The reason is simple.  It’s wildly imaginative and if you don’t like reading about the fantastic, I doubt you will like reading about this book.  As with many of Banks best works, the joy in reading this book is in the journey. It is the scenery one passes on the way that makes this one of my favorite reads, for while the end is solid, fun and rewarding, it is somewhat predictable to those who know physics. Even so, it is one of my favorite novels.

In essence, it is a tale of inequality within human society played large against the background of exploring a very alien culture and environment that helps to illustrate the point.  As with most of Banks’ Science Fiction, it is a post-modern story told from multiple perspectives.  In this book, however, there is a primary point-of-view character, Fassin Taak, who is effectively xeno-anthropologist studying the Dwellers (q.v.).  He is also a member of the Mercatoria, a powerful intergalactic hegemonic state with a cast based social ranking system. 

The action begins when the wormhole that connects Fassin Taak’s solar system with the rest of the interstellar community is destroyed and the star system is threatened with invasion by a rival human culture under the command of the villainous[1] Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult. Yet this pending invasion is not just for evil imperialist expansionism.  Luseferous is after a secret of great importance,[2] a secret held by the ancient alien race that are at the heart of this story: the Dwellers.

The Dwellers are a billions-of-years old race of completely non-humanoid gas-giant dwellers whose civilization once dominated the galaxy.  Eons ago, the Dwellers gave up the game of galactic domination and now seem to lead a hedonistic and almost comic lifestyle.  Each of the Dwellers lives millions of years, assuming they survive their childhood.  Such survival is far from assured, however, since the adults hunt their young in their immature states.  Indeed, such hunts are not only culturally acceptable, but some hunts are put on with all the social trappings of a 19th Century fox hunt.[3]

When the impending invasion is discovered, the normally decades paced academic research of Fassin Taak takes on a sudden need for expedience.  He is tasked with delving deep into the Dwellers society to find the secret that has remained hidden for billions of years. 

That is the short-form set up of the plot, but it only scratches the surface of the vast number of levels and intertwined subplots that make up in this highly enjoyable novel.  What is more, my description here totally fails to illustrate the marvelous world that Banks brings to life within the text. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Interestingly, this book could serve as the introduction of a series, but at present is a stand alone novel.  I can only hope that he leaves the Culture fallow for a while and returns to this marvelously enjoyable world of class struggle and alien gas-giant dwellers. I would immediately buy the next volume, especially if it were a trilogy as he has suggested it could become.  

[1] And I don’t use the term lightly.  Now, I don’t normally like villains writ as large as this one.  I mean, even his name is OTT, but through a combination of humor and skill in characterization, Banks somehow manages to pull it off. Indeed, I would suggest that the EVIL nature of this man is a necessary element that is played for contrast against the hegemonic state that Taak belongs to…

[2] Which I won’t reveal…

[3] Though I think it’s always okay for a Dweller to hunt them. 

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Identity, Mystery, New Space Opera, Post Modern, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Stand Alone Novel, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Ultratech, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2005)

  1. Pingback: Going Past Genre: Brain Food For Academic Anorexics « judefensor

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