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 , and when Fassin’s uncle approaches death, he enters “the chamber of Provisional Forgetting” . 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. 
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.’ 
‘Gracious! Not a child?’
‘Or food. I asked.’ 
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. 
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… 
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. 
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. 
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.
And 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”  and “the authorities admitted much later—much later—Mistakes Were Made” . 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.