Home > Literature, Reviews > Review of The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

Review of The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

If you’re familiar with Iain M Banks’ science fiction Culture stories, you’ll know what to expect from The Algebraist: clever, quirky space opera. However, this novel isn’t a Culture book (or is it? – at one point there is a playful reference to Banks’ utopian, er, culture).

The galaxy it takes place in is a baroque confusion of religious, military, administrative etc organisations within the Mercatoria – the corrupt, autocratic, hierarchical government. Artificial intelligences are illegal and are hunted down ruthlessly. Galactic travel is usually achieved via wormholes, but people live long enough to make slower-than-light travel feasible. And there are the Dwellers – gas giant-dwelling beings that have been around for billions of years and live nearly as long – who have little to do with the Mercatoria.

The main character, Seer Fassin Taak, is a human who studies the Dwellers. His home solar system has been cut off from the rest of the galaxy since its wormhole was destroyed centuries ago. In the course of his work he stumbles across a clue to a vast, secret, Dweller-built network of wormholes and triggers a war that will see his home turned into a battlefield.

The Algebraist is Banks’ most ambitious story. As always, his style is engaging and informal, if slightly smug; but this and the fact that little time is devoted to the minor characters means that it falls somewhat short of being a satisfying epic. In some ways, the cleverness of the plot and the inevitable twist at the end outweighs the emotional drive of the characters. Also, many sections of the narrative are taken up with slightly tedious summaries of what characters have done recently.

Still, The Algebraist has a lot to recommend it – the story is very good, with flashes of humour and horror, a colourful range of species, and the ‘Culture-gone-bad’ that is the Mercatoria is a great piece of world-building. One of my favourite aspects of the book is the range of names: there’s the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect (E-5 Discon, if you’re in a hurry), which is ruled by the Archimandrite Luseferous; Fassin is seconded to the Shrievalty Ocula; and at one point there is a ship whose class is Planetary Protector (Deniable).

On the whole, this novel is more likeable than otherwise. If you like SF stories that are clever, funny and encompass the epic and the intimate, then you probably won’t be disappointed with The Algebraist.

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