The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks

Orbit, 2004, 534 pages, C$30.00 tpb, ISBN 1-84149-239-6

Space opera is no simple thing. In its purest form, it’s science-fiction for science-fiction’s sake: Tales of rocket-ships and squids in space, written by genre SF writers for hard-core SF fans. Give a space opera story to someone who doesn’t know anything about the clichés and assumptions of science-fiction (even in its most distilled Star-Wars fashion) and they won’t understand a thing about it. It seldom relates to today’s world, isn’t meant to represent a likely future and seldom has any intention other than entertain the reader. Space-opera is to SF what sword-and-sorcery is to fantasy. While I may not be the ideal fantasy reader, (see review of The Year of our War, below), I’m an outspoken (outwritten?) science-fiction fan. Space Opera is the distilled essence of my favourite genre.

I surely found what I was looking for in Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist. At its core, it remains pure science-fiction for SF fans, riffing with common SF ideas like playing a variation on a well-known tune. In this case, it’s a tale of space empires, strange aliens, galactic secrets and big weapons. The antagonist is pure caricature, the aliens are suitably inscrutable and the plucky hero does his best to hang on from adventure to adventure. Plot is almost irrelevant when the real kick of the novel are the throwaway ideas and the way Banks uses well-worn tropes in a slightly different fashion.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about The Algebraist is how it casually throws away a bunch of neat ideas, as if the novel had better things on its mind than to spend more time on this kind of stuff. In this space-operatic universe, the galaxy is a buzzing hive of sentience, with slightly-different spheres of consciousness co-existing alongside each other. The very notion of galactic empire has a well-worn feeling to it in this novel, as galactic history is filled with dozens of successive regimes, flaring up briefly when set against a backdrop of a million years. Even Earth-borne humanity end up in a fascinating position, being confronted with another human empire designed by alien abductees. Eschatology (with Tippler-point refinements) makes its way in the novel as the religion of choice for this current galactic empire. And so on: ideas are the raw stuff on which this novel runs.

Banks’ centrepiece creation in this novel are obviously the long-lived Dwellers, gas giants-based aliens with a very different outlook on, well, everything. They regard children as nuisances fit to be hunted down. They live unimaginably slow lives, letting empires rise and fall around them (in theory; for dramatic reasons, you won’t be surprised to learn that they don’t do much of that in the novel). They may look slothful and ritualistic and anarchic, but don’t push them too far… One of the novel’s best scenes shows what happens when omnipotent Zen masters meet an ultra-aggressive tyrant: British unflappability has a long future ahead of itself. (“Hmm, I do hope you have enough people.” [P.489])

My previous experience with Iain (M) Banks’ fiction had been mixed. The amusing thing about his novels is that they invariably sound better when they’re explained than at the moment of reading them. The Algebraist isn’t an exception, though it’s better than most: When Banks gets cracking, the results can be amazing. Funny, literate and slick top-notch SF. But too often, the novel loses steam for pages at a time, until another good idea or another interesting scene grabs our attention once more. I never gelled to the “four teenagers” historical subplot and I found that the novel could have lost fifty, maybe a hundred pages without too many problems.

But that doesn’t matter much when the rest of the novel is so rewarding. For a serious space-opera, it’s often unbearably funny. While it may not be accessible to just anyone (and so remains a pure SF novel, destined and limited to ghettoized genre readers), The Algebraist is close to being the state of the art in genre SF. It reconciled me with Banks’ output, gave me a few laughs, expanded my ideas, forced me to forward a lengthy quotes to a few friends (see below) and entertained me for a while.

While most of Bank’s SF output so far has been set in the so-called “Culture” universe, The Algebraist is an exception: A standalone novel set in a brand-new far-future universe, this novel allows new readers to hop on the Banks train and see why few other writers do space opera better than him. Few surprises, then, if it managed to earn a spot as a Best Novel Hugo Award Nominee for 2004.

Still not convinced? Read this perfect one-sentence paragraph:

Picking a fight with a species as widespread, long-lived, irascible and -when it suited them- single-minded as the Dwellers too often meant that just when -or even geological ages after when- you thought that the dust had long since settled, bygones were bygones and any unfortunate disputes were all ancient history, a small planet appeared without warning in your home system, accompanied by a fleet of moons, themselves surrounded with multitudes of asteroid-sized chunks, each of those riding cocooned in a fuzzy shell made up of untold numbers of decently hefty rocks, every one of them traveling surrounded by a large landslide’s worth of still smaller rocks and pebbles, the whole ghastly collection traveling at so close to the speed of light that the amount of warning even an especially wary and observant species would have generally amounted to just about sufficient time to gasp the local equivalent of `What the fu-?’ before they disappeared in an impressive if wasteful blaze of radiation. [P.160]

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