The Algebraist (2004) by Iain M. Banks

TheAlgebraist

Around the time this blog was born, the science fiction world lost a giant. Iain Banks had died, and sentiments flooded the social media landscape. It was a bookmark moment for me, and a reminder of yet another author who I meant to read and never did. At the time, The Algebraist sounded like the coolest.

I finally got around to it.

Fassin Taak is a Seer who studies the Slow Dwellers of the nearby gas giant Nasqueron. The system in which he lives is under threat of invasion by sadistic warlord Luseferous, and Fassin is assigned to use his connections with the Dwellers to investigate the existence of a mythical list of secret Dweller wormholes. But Fassin’s best informer, a Dweller scholar with a rare interest in human affairs, is dead. And the invasion fleet is getting closer.

The Algebraist is a strange science fiction novel in that it delivers exactly what one might expect from a galactic thriller with space squids on the cover, but delivers it such a way that it feels insincere. With a playboy antihero, his gritty friends, and strange lifeforms who are too frustratingly different from humans to help solve the mystery very quickly, the tropes are practically prepackaged, and presented on a silver platter of cliché, lending the whole tale a manufactured feel that permeates the novel… as if the manufactured feel is in itself manufactured.

Which might be the case because, combined with that manufactured feel, is an overall silly attitude that doesn’t quite match the style of a somber space thriller. Banks describes the quarters of the evil, sadistic warlord as “New Brutalist” architecture [193], and when Fassin’s uncle approaches death, he enters “the chamber of Provisional Forgetting” [16]. Moments like these occur often, and both charm and grate, much like a Terry Pratchett novel.

Yet a title like The Algebraist promises a deeper conceit, some challenging concepts. Maybe a few scribbled equations on a napkin. Some sort of figuring out to do. But that doesn’t happen, and there’s just not enough hook to make the struggles of the characters feel at all real or important. The stakes are high, yes, but they’re resolved through anti-climactic moments (the dreadful torment of Luseferous is no match for the shrugging indifference of the Dwellers). And who cares when the people are caricatures of every SF character ever, and the reader is reminded of that with every wink-and-nudge from the author? (I’ve noticed similar issues with the novels of Charles Stross.)

It’s a shame, because the ideas are cool enough. Gas giant lifeforms, like the Dwellers, are fun to imagine. Banks has some brilliant ideas, although, again, they don’t quite mesh with his silly characterizations of these unconcerned, languid curators of galactic culture:

The implication of this was that they could think quickly when it suited them, but most of the time it did not appear to suit them, and so – it was assumed – they thought slowly. [21]

But then they talk like this:

‘So, Fassin, good to see you!’ Y’sul said. ‘Why have you brought this little dweller with you? Is she food?

‘No, of course not. She is a colleague.’ [208]

And later:

‘Gracious! Not a child?’

‘Or food. I asked.’ [220]

Funny, right? But the Dweller behavior contradicts the not-slow-but-methodical-thinkers that Banks prepares us for. Some authors can convey drama and comedy in one story, but the lines don’t quite match up in this one.

Still, the manufactured artificiality of the tale could be fun to engage with if it wasn’t so bogged down by unnecessary and repeated detail. The narrative relies on so much exposition, it chokes on its own thick atmosphere:

The Dwellers didn’t need or show any sign of using wormholes. Being Dwellers, they naturally claimed they were experts… they just didn’t see the need for them. [113]

Hmm, that sounds familiar. Maybe because two pages earlier…

The Dwellers didn’t need wormholes and the near-instantaneous travel between systems that they offered. They lived for billions of years, they could slow their metabolism and thoughts down as required… [111]

Oh, and here, on the burgeoning, nihilistic religion of the Truth:

This might be the truth behind the Truth, the religion Luseferous had been raised within as an obedient member of the Mercatoria: that nothing you did or seemed to do really mattered, because it was all – or might be all – a game, a simulation. [199]

That’s interesting enough to remember the first time, but we get it again:

The Truth was the presumptuous name of the religion… it arose from the belief that what appeared to be real life must in fact – according to some piously invoked statistical certitudes – be a simulation being run within some prodigious computational substrate in a greater and more encompassing reality beyond. [247]

As a reader, I prefer to spend my time in a book figuring this stuff out for myself. Everything is spoon-fed. Sometimes twice!

But the exposition is almost worth the trudge, just to acquaint oneself with the imagination of Iain Banks. Perhaps the most intriguing and central idea to the tale is that the universe is made up of two standard lifeforms: the Slow and the Quick. Short-lived beings, like Humans, are part of the Quick; long-living Dwellers make up the Slow. This is the first time I’ve encountered this vocabulary, although it’s probably not a new concept.

TheAlgebraist2And what’s most notable about this novel is, aside from the cool Dwellers, The Algebraist is a clear example of a 9-11 influenced SF tale, with its constant references to “background micro-violence that people had started calling the Hum” [92] and “the authorities admitted much later—much later—Mistakes Were Made” [90]. The wormhole portals are natural attractions for various terrorist acts, and, as the universe is linked, it feels smaller, causing lesser civilizations (The Quick) to rub shoulders, bump elbows, and blow each other up. Despite its galactic stylings, the overall theme is more narrow and closer to home.

I’m disappointed that my first experience with one of SF’s space giants didn’t pan out. Perhaps I went wrong, and should have started with Consider Phlebas. There wasn’t any algebra in this one, anyway.

 

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41 thoughts on “The Algebraist (2004) by Iain M. Banks

  1. Rabindranauth says:

    Well that sucked. Sounds like Consider Phlebas will have to be my first Banks.Though I do hear a lot of good things about The Wasp Factory.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I hear good things about The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, too, and, while I’m not crazy about “people doing things space because DANGER IN SPACE” stories, without any overarching meaning, I’m certainly not giving up on Banks yet.

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        I’ve never even checked the blurb of those books, lol, they just came so highly recommended I figured they were worth the shot.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Sometimes it’s better that way. I hardly ever read about the books I read… unless I get so confused I have to look up what the hell I’m reading.

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          • But enough about Gene Wolfe.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Dying right now. 😀

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          • Rabindranauth says:

            Lol! It can really backfire sometimes, though. I started The Book of Strange New Things with absolutely no clue what it’s about, and it really ground on my nerves those first two or three chapters. Main character’s a breed of person I hate the most, period; the constantly-proselytizing conversionist. Turns out he’s a minister, but it’s still really aggravating to read.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I saw your Strange New Things review on Goodreads, but I can’t remember if I ever saw it on WordPress. Your feelings about it described the exact reasons why I was reluctant to read it. Glad that one stayed off the award shortlists so far.

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          • Rabindranauth says:

            I just posted something short on GR, I think. It seems decent and all, but it just rubbed me too wrong to enjoy it, after that start. Oh well. It’s still on my Kindle, so I may take another stab at it sometime.

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    • The Wasp Factory was my first (and only) Banks so far. It is really weird, but somehow felt like a good place to start.

      Now I am left with the question of where to start in the Culture series. I thought Consider Phlebas too, but a lot of people have said no! player of games first instead! What to do what to do?

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        Reading in publication order always seems like the best way to go for me. The Wasp Factory is weird? Hmmm. I think it just bumped a few places up my TBR, then 😀

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Publication order does seem to be the way to go, although I also enjoy starting with the most critically acclaimed and working my way into the back catalog.

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          • I did start with Wasp Factory with some vague idea of reading in chronological order. Then I thought, meh, I’ll read em as I feel like it. Today I started my second Banks, Walking on Glass, and from the date it appears I have accidentally moved on to his second novel. So chronological order it is.

            Rab: It’s not weird like Mieville creature weird or Jeff Vandermeer weird, but the ending is just…I still don’t even know what I think about the ending.

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  2. There wasn’t any algebra in this one, anyway.

    What? Removing this from my list posthaste.

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  3. wildbilbo says:

    Interesting. I *just* started (yesterday) Bank’s ‘Transition’ novel and 30 pages in I’m… I’m reserved. At this stage I’m just not loving the voice and the intro seems to be designed to be confusing and impenetrable. I don’t mind complex books or ones that jump around etc… but this isn’t hitting it for me.

    Again – 30 pages in. It might be just about to get awesome. I’ll let you know.
    KT

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Interesting. The prologue to The Algebraist is also intentionally confusing and, now that I think about it, it was rather irrelevant. Hmph.

      The rest of the story is pretty prosaic and linear. Not confusing at all. Just lots of explaining things that I could probably figure out in fewer pages if the characterization and plot had been more nuanced. I’ll watch for your final opinion!

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    • Dude, maybe we’re going to end up founding the generation of readers who thought Iaian Banks was awesome but then didn’t really like him once they finally got around to reading him. I HOPE NOT. I’ve already bought almost all of his books (used, but still, the outside world has me THAT convinced that I will love them).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. romeorites says:

    First time i read this, I was very much its cheerleader, so to speak. I reread it a couple of years ago and … Nope. So much nope. It thinks its more clever than what it actually is, I feel. I haven’t read any of the Culture novels but I hear they are widely praised.
    Now, The Wasp Factory. That’s a bit good.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Ah, your nopes have validated me! The power of the nope!

      Maybe it felt more genuine to recently shell-shocked post 9-11 readers, with its commentary on terrorism and military bureaucracy? But ten years later, we’ve heard it all before, so the rest of the of the novel feels noticeably contrived and two-dimensional?

      But now I have The Wasp Factory to look forward to!

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  5. Joseph Nebus says:

    Iain M Banks is a writer I keep meaning to try out, since everything I hear suggests he writes the sorts of things I ought to like, but somehow I keep shying away from his writing, in the library or the bookstore. I don’t know what it is keeps me away although maybe that mention of the text being charming-and-grating gets it.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      This being my first Banks, I could be wrong, but I suspect this “nudge-and-wink” style might be a late career development, and perhaps his Culture novels aren’t like that. Maybe some veteran Banks readers will comment and clarify this for us.

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      • Jesse says:

        I would not have recommended starting with The Algebraist, nor would I recommend Consider Plebas, per se. It’s not that they are terrible books; they are enjoyable enough in their own right. But they don’t fully display the qualities that make Banks who he is. I would have recommended the pure, unadulterated sense of wonder of Excession, the tighter-plotted action in the onion world of Matter, or the biting social commentary of The Player of Games. Bear in mind throughout, however, that politics are a part of Culture novels but come second to trying to be as unique as possible within the space opera sub-genre. Banks is a great scene setter, has some sway with character, imbues nearly everything with a sharp sense of fate, and has an imagination built for sci-fi. But ambition to artsy or literary stories are not his goal.

        And The Wasp Factory? Meh. Sensationalized killing ending on a ‘twist’ that even Banks admitted is a juvenile first novel. Brilliantly written, however. It’s style compels you to read, and this I think is what all the rave is about. But in terms of concepts you can sink your teeth into, most of the Culture novels have more to chew on – maybe not a whole lot more, but something.

        In other words, I hope you don’t let the mediocrity of The Algebraist deter you from trying Banks, again. He’s not the greatest of his generation, but he is significant for the uniqueness of his imagination, i.e. the beach not the classroom.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Thanks for the great Banks recommendations. It sounds like he’s a more versatile writer than The Algebraist suggests, but he probably won’t ever be my favorite author. Now I have some ideas of which Banks I might read next.

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  6. Well this is thoroughly off my to-read list then. I have all my fingers crossed that I don’t end up feeling this way about more of his novels. As per my comment above…

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  7. I like the idea of alien intelligence that seems thoroughly alien. Exclaiming “Gracious!” does not seem alien. It sounds like an English nanny.

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  8. I’ve read a high percentage of Bank’s novels, that brought down mostly by his non-M titles. I wouldn’t recommend “The Wasp Factory” as a first pick for spec-fic readers; it’s a potent character study, but far from his best work. I might call it his weakest, but it’s a divisive novel and lots of people may love it (weirdos ;-)). All things considered, I’m not much of a fan of his “mainstream” fiction, but his space operas are high quality overall.

    If you’re a scifi fan, “The Player of Games” is a good place to start (it is where I did). It presents the Culture (Banks’ principle story-civilisation) in a clear, accessible manner while also hitting the sometimes extreme, semi-post-human quirks that make it so interesting, as well as some striking future worlds; you also get the politics, both within the Culture and in their relations with other civs; plenty of high-stakes game-strategy and espionage-y action; but most important of all, TPoG has a relatively straight-line narrative. Some of his others novels are a lot more twisty, so I’d say this one will give you good context for the rest, get you up to speed so Banks can fire you out into space hard.

    If you like weird fic (for example, China Miéville’s “Perdido Street Station” – the only thing by him I’ve currently read), then “The Bridge” would be a good starting point. Along with TPoG it was one of my favourite books (20 years ago…); it starts with the most hoary of old tropes – the protagonist who wakes to a strange world without memory – but what follows is strange and rich, at least as I remember it (don’t WikiP it – lots of spoilers there).

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Will add The Player of Games and The Bridge to my potential next Banks list. I haven’t heard about either of those, but they might be a good place to go next. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Couch to Moon reviews The Algebraist by Iain M. […]

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  10. […] The Algebraist (2004) by Iain M. Banks […]

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  11. […] a grim trip to Atlanta and the bumpiest return flight I’ve ever had in my life. As for The Algebraist, I think I need to read a better […]

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  12. liminalt says:

    So I actually just searched your blog to see if you’d reviewed any books by one of my favourite SF authors, and you picked The Algebraist! Yeh definitely not the best nor the place to start. I’d second The Player of Games as a good intro to The Culture. Consider Phlebas is fun, but doesn’t shine as much as the next few. So I would go for Player of Games first, followed by either Excession or Use of Weapons. Excession is huge fun and very good. His dark masterpiece remains, in my humble opinion and a lot of fans, Use of Weapons. Inversions many Banks’ fans seem not to like, but I thought it very good and I think you’d appreciate it. It’s technically a Culture book, but takes place in a society vastly removed from it. The later novels I have found very enjoyable, but sometimes in need of a bit more editing. Look to Windward is technically a follow-up to the events in Consider Phlebas (but a standalone). I found it a little uneven, but for all that it was ultimately quite moving. Matter paced very slowly until towards the end, where it got insanely page-turney. Surface Detail I liked (but there’s a lot of horror in there, and some characters that come close to pantomime). The Hydrogen Sonata I thought was very good, but strangely didn’t like so much: perhaps just not quite my cup of tea. As for his non-science fiction, I’ve only read The Wasp Factory and The Bridge and didn’t like either! (Not liking The Bridge makes me a heretic amongst the fandom, btw).

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    • I was JUST thinking I should explore more Banks. When the Clarke list dropped this week and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet placed on it, I wondered if I should read more space opera first. I’ve never really warmed to written space opera, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed quite a bit of TV space opera. I think I’ve just been reading the wrong things, and feedback is unanimous that I picked the wrong Banks to start with. Player of Games, it is!

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      • liminalt says:

        Hoorah! I’m now worried you won’t like it 😛 I’m not a massive fan of a lot of space opera – I generally find it can be too action heavy for me, falling flat on character or simple thoughtfulness, but I think Banks generally does a pretty good job on that. He also has a notable bias towards female protagonists (though not in Player of Games, now I think about it).

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