Playing a little catch-up on the book-logging front, having been pretty successful in keeping my New Year’s resolution to read more for pleasure but a little less successful in keeping another: to write for pleasure more frequently. First off: Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist, which I finished some time in March.
The Algebraist isn’t in Banks’ series of books about The Culture, but feels of a piece with those novels given its galaxy-spanning narrative, supermassive structures and background commentary on the extent to which societies can survive when they’re bounded by rigid rules and hierarchies. The Culture, of course, is entirely devoid of such strictures, apart from those secret agencies necessary at the very margins, and thrives thanks to the happily accepted dominance of sentient, ultra-sophisticated machines; the pursuit of pleasure and happiness over all else; and the fact that other technology has allowed the constituent civilisations of The Culture to access energy as freely as they please. In short, it’s a bit of a Utopia.
The world of The Algebraist, on the other hand, is one in which at least two of these conditions are not met (there’s a fair bit of hedonism), and in particular where sentient machines are actively persecuted and destroyed rather than being allowed to dominate. The action takes place in and around a gas giant planet called Nasqueron, which is inhabited – like all gas giants, so it goes – by the most ancient of species, called the Dwellers. Our hero is a humanoid who is able to communicate with the Dwellers by slowing himself down to their incredibly slow pace of life, and who becomes one of the chief protagonists in a galaxy-wide battle to acquire a secret Dweller code which allegedly holds the key to intergalactic travel.
I’m a big fan of Iain M. Banks anyway, but The Algebraist was my most satisfying experience of the lot. For all their wonderful scale and beautiful complexity, some of his other sci-fi novels veer a little too far to the Star Wars ‘space battles and lasers’ end of the spectrum (Consider Phlebas, for example, or Use of Weapons, to a lesser extent) whilst on the other hand a book like Excession achieves a great deal in spite of, rather than thanks to, its conceptual density.
For me The Algebraist had it spot on: a great, big, important idea in the shape of the impact of complete loss of the means of communication – when wormholes which cannot easily be constructed are destroyed – coupled with a compelling, believable (in the context) ‘race to the prize’ narrative and, as always with Banks, richly detailed and immersive descriptions of utterly bizarre and unfamiliar worlds. It also had a fantastic villain, who delighted in engaging in the most sadistic and memorable torture, scenes of which are another transgressive hallmark of Banks’ fiction and sci-fi. All in all: brilliant.