Home Reviews Shorts Search

Iain M Banks – The AlgebraistReview: The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

The Story: The Algebraist tracks the progress of Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer (a kind of sect that studies the so called Dwellers), in his assigned quest to find some information on the supposed system of galactic wormholes used by said Dwellers. Dwellers are inhabitants of Gas Giants across the galaxy; they live extremely slowly, but to a ripe age of billion of Earth years, and have developed a rather unusual civilization and social structure. To fulfil his task Fassin needs to `dive' into the Gas Giants in a special `Gascraft' that supports him in this harsh environment, and slow his own speed down to the level the Dwellers exist at.

Several other strands intersect with this main story arc, and provide background on the main characters, on the social and political system, and allow for parallel but dependent strands of developments in the story. The main ones are the questionable hunt for Artificial Intelligences by the humans and their allies, as a remainder of a long-ago won war; the threat (and later brutal reality) of an invasion of the local system by a sect (led by a brilliant but despotic leader), who are not part of the main multi-species alliance in the galaxy; and, as the most long term one, the story of Fassin and two childhood friends, linked together by an experience in a forbidden abandoned spaceship, which forever shapes their relationships and lives.

The Book: Iain has 21 books to his name as this is written - 11 fiction ones, written as Iain Banks, and 10 Science Fictions ones, written as Iain M Banks (an "attempt on the Most Penetrable Pseudonym world record" as he puts it). The Algebraist was nominated for two 2004 BSFA awards (it didn't win either, but two of his earlier works have) and is shortlisted for the 04/05 Hugo Awards.

It is an engrossing book, fascinating in parts, mainly in the depiction of alien cultures. It is also overly long, mainly due to lots of tangents trying to explain the history and background of the characters and their environment, and because the author again and again succumbs to the temptation to render long, elaborately meaningful conversations in all their nuances, which neither helps the flow of the story nor the character development. The characters, despite all the attempts at developing them, remain two-dimensional clichés one doesn't identify or emphasize with. You know, men are men, women are women, and small furry aliens from Betelgeuze are... ah, but I digress. I'm sure you get the picture.

On the brighter side - the aliens, their culture and morphology, and especially the Dweller culture within which most of the main strand is played out are very well executed, fascinating, and worth buying the book alone.

Also commendable is that, despite all the stereotyping, none of the characters are truly `good' or `bad' - it's all a question of degrees, viewpoints, shades of grey. The closest to innocence is likely Fassin himself, and not even he is completely without shadows and hidden secrets.

Definitely worth the money - and for once an Iain M Banks books which is not part of a series, but can be read on its own! Recommended.

More Iain M Banks

Title: The Algebraist
Author: Iain M Banks
Reviewer: Markus
Publisher: Orbit
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: July 4, 2005 (Paperback)
Review Date: March 31 2005
ISBN: 1841492299
Price: 12.99 UKP
Book URL: 1841491551
Author URL:
Pages: 544
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF


Iain Sinclair - Radon Daughters


Doris Lessing – The Sirian Experiments


Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow


S.P. Somtow – I Wake from a Dream of a Drowned Star City


Thomas Pynchon - Slow Learner


Somtow Sucharitul – Starship & Haiku


Ken MacLeod - Cosmonaut Keep

Andy Weir - The Martian


Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me


Ian Sales – Adrift on the Sea of Rains


Peter Watts - Blindsight


Somtow Sucharitkul - The Throne of Madness


Doris Lessing - Shikasta


Lavie Tidhar - Central Station


Sydney Padua - The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Powered by Mambo!; free resources by SiteGround