Saturday 5 June 2010

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks has established himself as one of the most highly regarded SF authors of the current generation. Unusually, he switches between genre and mainstream fiction (the latter under the name Iain Banks - without the M) and is equally successful at both. His SF books focus on a far distant future when mankind has spread across the galaxy. Most of them are set in the "Culture", a time of enormous wealth for all, managed by immensely powerful artificial intelligences.

The Algebraist is not a part of the Culture series, but it is still set in a galaxy-spanning future. Humanity and various alien races co-exist, using huge artificial wormholes to connect star systems. There has been a long history of inter-human conflict in which AIs have been banned. The action is set in one distant system which has been cut off from the rest of civilisation by the destruction of its wormhole in such a conflict, and can only be reconnected after a sub-light-speed fleet has spent centuries travelling from the nearest high-technology system. To add to their problems, the system is vulnerable to attack by dissident human cultures who are planning an invasion. A Jovian-type gas giant within the system is a home to the Dwellers, a galaxy-wide race which have been around for some ten billion years and who can individually live for up to two billion. They have no great interest in other races but permit occasional visits by human scholars.

One of these scholars is Fassin Taak, the hero of the novel. He is summarily recruited into the military/religious order which rules the system and sent to the gas giant to investigate an ancient rumour that the Dwellers know of other wormholes which could end their isolation. The action focuses mainly on Taak's adventures among the Dwellers, switching occasionally to other characters in the system, in the rescue fleet and in a dissident invasion fleet which are both racing towards the system.

Like all of Banks' books, The Algebraist is not really a page-turner. The pace is slow and deliberate and at over 500 pages of a rather small font, the book requires some dedication to read. I must confess that it took me quite a while to get into, but I stuck with it and eventually became so engrossed that I read the last third in one sitting.

The main point of interest in the story is the Dweller race, which lives in the atmosphere of gas giants. They are famously disorganised, appear to have no government, and normally use a relatively low level of technology. Banks makes them intriguing but perhaps too human-like in their attitudes and conversation; despite their vast age, strange habitat and decidedly non-human physical form I didn't find them as alien as I would have expected.

I found this book to be well worth reading, but while I admire Banks' works (with the exception of Feersum Endjinn, which I abandoned in irritation at the extensive use of an invented dialect) they never quite hit the bullseye with me. I'll still keep reading them, though.


AJ said...

What is your definition of a page-turner book? And can you list a few samples?


Anthony G Williams said...

Ann, my simple definition of a page-turner is one which is so gripping that I find it difficult to put down. As I do most of my fiction reading in bed, in extreme cases I can't stop reading until I've finished the book in the early hours!

One of the ingredients of a page-turner is certainly pace, with lots of things happening, and tension: the urgent desire to know what's going to happen next. I think another important element is identification with the principal character; if I don't like him/her, I'm less likely to care what happens to them.

Of my recent reading, I would certainly list the Laumer and the Cherryh as page-turners; both fast, exciting and quite short. All of Laumer's books were like this, but Cherryh's more recent work is not - it's longer, slower and more thoughtful. That doesn't mean that it's not still a very enjoyable and worthwhile read.

Incidentally, one of the best current writers of page-turners is Dan Brown. Now I'm critical of many aspects of his writing and wouldn't hold him up as a model to follow, but I have to admit that once I get into his books I find them difficult to put down despite noting the faults on the way (there's a review of one of his books on this blog).