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Iain M. Banks
The Algebraist
Orbit / Time Warner Book Group UK
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 1-841-49155-1
Publication Date: 09-28-2004
534 Pages; £17.99
Date Reviewed:10-18-2004
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004

Index:  Science Fiction

I suppose that everyone has gaps in their reading, authors they'd love to have read but have not yet got round to. I grew tired of science fiction in the 1980's and didn't really return to the genre with any enthusiasm until the late 1990's. The authors who first really caught my eye — Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton with their great cranking space operas — both mentioned Iain M. Banks as a primal influence. But by that time, Banks' Culture series was well under way. Though I bought the first couple of entries, both as trade paperbacks and even, more recently, in a first edition hardcover, I never got round to actually reading the work of the writer who cast such a large shadow on my new favorites.

Thanks then to Iain M. Banks himself, who neatly solves the problem for me and others like me with his most recent novel, 'The Algebraist'. Finally I get to see what all the fuss is about. In a word (or two): great writing. Banks brings a huge imagination, vivid scenarios, head-spinning speculations, fascinating scientific information, in other words all the expected bits. But it's the unexpected that we really expect in a novel like this. That frisson of surprise, the shock of the new. What could be shocking in space opera, the genre that has everything in the universe? Sex? Nah, zero-g and inter-species, it's been done and overdone. Violence? Heck, George Lucas blew up planets nearly thirty years ago. It was a yawner then, it's more so now.

What about wit? Wit — true wit, actual smarts manifested in cleverly written prose, now that always manages to shock no matter how outrĂ© or bland the subject matter. Iain M. Banks will shock the heck out of you in 'The Algbraist' with nothing more than a sharp mind, and he'll do so continually, surprisingly and in ways that will make you laugh out loud. Now, funny science fiction isn't all that unusual. But Banks' humor is not the broad satire of writers like Douglas Adams. Banks manages to meld his sense of humor with his sense of wonder. The humor never undercuts the awe, but oddly enough, contributes to it. His characters, confronted with the ultimate don't just sit there with their jaws dropped. They make a joke. They bicker. They needle one another. And what could be better? If you must blow your mind, the least you can do is laugh.

'The Algebraist' begins — after some framing shots — with Archimandrite Luseferous, Executive High General of — well, what turns out to be a bunch of well-armed starships traveling nearly the speed of light to conquer Ulubis, an unarmed and relatively obscure portion of the civilized galaxy. In the system of Ulubis, Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer, a human who has been trained to speak to the Dwellers, a nearly immortal race of beings that live in the gas giants throughout the galaxy. An easily broken system of wormholes connects some of the Mercatoria, the civilized planets, and the wormhole to Ulubis was recently destroyed by Beyonders. A fleet from theMercatoria is heading to fix the wormhole. Soon, Fassin Taak finds that his ability to speak to the Dwellers has unleashed a series of events that threatens to overturn galactic civilization.

Banks quickly offers up some fascinating ideas and runs with them in 'The Algebraist'. The Dwellers, who experience time at a slower rate than humans and other races throughout the galaxy are a fascinating thought experiment. Banks lays out and layers his presentation of a civilized universe with consummate skill. One of the true pleasures of reading space opera is the reader's slowly unfolding understanding of the universe created by the author. 'The Algebraist' manages just the right combination of "what-the-hell?" and "oh-my-god!" revelations as to how things work in Banks' vision. Banks knows when to zoom in and knows when to pan out. He goes from microscopic to telescopic as the situation demands. Much science fiction uses the devices of mystery, carefully holding back information from the reader to keep them guessing as to the true nature of things. Banks does this so well, one suspects that he might have a fantastic mystery novel out there somewhere. The plot grips the reader in the opening and moves at a steady, entertaining clip.

But where Banks really shines is in his ability to evoke subtle, satiric swipes at the world we know within the universe he creates. Much of this is down to great characters and witty dialogue. From their description — ancient and slow — one might suspect that reading about the Dwellers could be a tedious business. But nothing is further from the truth. Banks is practically antic as Fassin Taak speaks with the ancient creatures, who offer some of the best space slapstick you're going to find this side of the 'Hitchiker's Guide'. But it's also utterly unlike the more typical broad satire readers are used to in science fiction. His humor comes out of character and dialogue, the satire out of his conceptual societal relation and the dialogue. Readers who pick a space opera only to escape will find that being reminded of the Real Word by a master of science fiction space opera can indeed be a pleasant experience.

Banks doesn't stint on the awe and wonder however, nor does he hold back from offering full-scale space battles that have yet another twist of imagination and invention. The set-pieces in this novel are exciting, visually grand and quite inventive. Though some of the characters do seem to get a bit of a short shrift in the grand scheme of things, Banks is good enough at misdirection to keep the readers' eyes where he wants them to be. If you've not read Banks — or recent space opera — then 'The Algebraist' is a fine place to begin. It successfully offers nothing less than universe - with a few well-placed laughs.

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