Over the top villain. Check. Strange and funny alien races. Check. Quest for singular object that leads through space. Check. Multitudes of battlecruisers, space wings, and dreadnaughts converging at a single point. Check. Boxes ticked, Iain M. Banks makes no bones about it: The Algebraist is unabashed space opera, for better and worse.
The Algebraist, the 20th novel and 8th sci-fi offering in Bank’s oeuvre, tells the story of Fassin Taak, a scholar who spends his time in the atmosphere of a gas giant interacting with the native species called Dwellers. A smaller version of the blimp-like floaters Banks created in Look to Windward, the Dwellers live for millions and billions of years, accumulating knowledge, enjoying life, and remaining aloof of the cyclical rise and fall of power humanity and other species experience. When word gets out that the Dwellers may be owners of a secret document containing the coordinates of wormholes which would interconnect the whole universe, multiple groups and species head to the gas giant, Nasqueron, to get their hands on it – by coercion or violence. Among them are the ever-evil Luseferous (complete with diamond teeth) and his Empire-esque rebel horde who hope the document will pave the way for their rise to dominance. Ordered by the “good” guys to be the first to lay hands on the document, Fassin’s adventures begin when his affinity for the Dwellers comes at odds with his mission, Luseferous and crew closing in fast.
The narrative at times is so loose and free, it appears Banks set no limits for his pen while describing the universe of ‘The Algebraist.’ A leaf falling free, the language, thought, and descriptions roll off the page in real-time. Less planned and therefore less thematically honed than Banks’ CULTURE novels, The Algebraist comes across as exceptionally detailed entertainment with little commentary. A secondary result of this tactic, or lack thereof, is that the story often lacks focus. There are more than a few random plot digressions. Moments of poignancy that stylishly carry the storyline oscillate with improvised, rambling thoughts which do nothing except highlight Bank’s self-indulgence. Certainly some readers will revel in the worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, others may find it tedious and ignorable.
As is the norm with Banks, The Algebraist is filled with gorgeous set pieces — the main strength of the novel. The gas giant Nasqueron, where most of the story occurs, comes to sulfurous, swirling life. The time/space feel of space travel is also presented well, particularly how a human would have to adapt to survive the relative effects and forces of a gas environment. Fully at home in this setting, riding in his gel-filled gas-craft, Fassin and his plight take center stage for the majority of the novel, and Fassin’s character is more developed for it.
What lacks development, however, are the secondary characters. The antagonist Luseferous is just evil for evil’s sake and comes across as more of a Superman style villain than the more serious, mature events that Fassin experiences would seem to allow for. Furthermore, the Dwellers, while often stated as an intelligent species, are nevertheless portrayed as Dionysian clowns, wholly detracting from Banks’ strong effort at world-building and content. The tweedle-dee tweedle-dum twin Dweller which appears does not help matters. Worse yet, the sub-stories of Fassin’s friends, especially his fiancé, are so poorly fleshed out that they do not even deserve mention. Banks would have done better to stick with his hero in linear fashion, concentrating on space opera for space opera’s sake, rather than foul the airwaves with his indecisive attempts at adding story depth and seriousness through additional characters and forced outcomes.
In the end, fans of Banks’ other science-fiction novels will at a minimum not regret reading The Algebraist. Likewise, fans of Simmons’ HYPERION CANTOS, Peter F. Hamilton’s universe, James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, or Lucas’ STAR WARS may be interested. But if worldbuilding and space battles are your thing, by all means have a go. Be warned, however, Banks’ earlier CULTURE novels have much more focus to their plots and emphasis on balanced characterization. If you’ve never read Banks, I would recommend Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, or Look to Windward first. Though it has been years since The Algebraist’s publishing, I should also note that there are strong indications that The Algebraistmay be the first in a series; not all the plot threads are resolved. That being said, though I do not regret reading The Algebraist, due to its digressive nature and ineffective characterization, I will probably wait until the series as a whole is published – if ever – to read more…