Fiction Reviews

The Algebraist

(2004) Ian Banks, Orbit, 17.99, hrdbk / 12.99, trdpbk, 534pp,
ISBN 1-841-49155-1 (hrdbk) / 1-841-49239-6 (trdpbk).


It has been four years since Iain Banks' last SF work, Look to Winward, was published. Therefore this one has been, for Banksie fans, eagerly anticipated.

OK. So it is not a 'Culture' novel (Culture physics and timeline both preclude that), but so what. His non-Culture SF is just as good and besides Banks has said that he has at least one more Culture novel in him, so we have that treat (or treats) to come. Instead this is set in a universe that could be a cousin of the Culture's with a Galactic civilization and humans playing a significant part. However in this universe one or two fundamental constants (Planck, Boltzman's or whatever) are just ever so slightly different. In this Algebraist universe it is impossible to travel faster than light and so you need entangled wormholes. (Don't ask but the past decade has seen this become a standard SF trope. I personally blame those researching photon quantum state transference irresponsibly including the word 'transportation' in their papers and in turn hold accountable Star Trek but, hey, them's the science breaks.) Of course a bod from the Culture would say that such teleportation was all wrong (or at least expensive and unreliable as per Player of Games) and that FTL was perfectly possible.

Anyway, we have this well-established future human colony (civilization really) throughout a distant planetary system. Humans are on the system's Earthlike world, in orbiting habitats and (importantly for us) on many of the moons orbiting the gas giant 'Nasqueron'. Nasqueron is inhabited by an alien species called the Dwellers. It transpires that gas giant Dwellers are fairly universal throughout the Galaxy (and it is suggested, beyond) and they belong to a family of 'Dweller species' who have been around since close to the big bang and shortly after planetary formation. Anyway, these humans on this moon belong to a guild (Sept they call it) that delves into the gas giant, either via remote sensing or using small one-man space craft, to establish relations with the Dwellers. Nasquoron is one of the few Dweller planets whose long-lived residents talk to 'Quick' species like humans.

Then one day there is an attack on the system portal and the system is cut off from the rest of the civilised galaxy. Meanwhile the attackers' allies are on their way at light speed as are - from another direction - the defendants' allies/superiors (those who currently rule much of that part of the Galaxy). All are after something that seems to be located in Nasqueron's Dweller civilization. In the years it takes for the attackers and defenders allies to arrive sub-light at the now-isolated system, Delver Fassin Taak is tasked to find this thing and the race is on.

Now I wont spoil the book by going further into the plot save to say that everything and everyone gets together, and not without unleashing many Vendeka Joules in the process. But then that's what happens when you have a right royal, system-wide scrap.

So, that's the basic set up. However, as with anything Banksian it is all a little more complicated than that with an intelligent galactic history backdrop and plenty of high-tech toys with which to play, and, yes, we do get to have some fun.

This is the second brilliant space opera to cross my desk this year (the other being Stross'). However I don't know whether it actually comes ahead of Stross' as I have only just completed this one and so being fresh in my mind generates current enthusiasm. Either way it is certainly one of the best space operas of the year. Heck, it's probably one of the best SF books (in the traditional sense) of the year. I say 'traditional sense'. Remember them golden age stories that contained a puzzle? WellThe Algebraist has one and you are given all you need to know to work it out in the first third of the book. (However I did not figure it until the last third: I blame my being caught up in the action... That's my excuse and I am sticking to it.)

Talking of 'thirds' brings me on to size. At 534 pages this is Banks' biggest SF book to date. (Phlebas was 471pp.) I was barely 50 pages into The Algebraist when I was beginning to feel a little daunted about the size. Aside from the fact that I am not fond of large books (as most writers have so much padding), but The Algebraist is tightly written so that any trimming might undermine the story. (And indeed there is one framing character with whom I would have liked to have spent a little more time.) The Algebraist's first 100 pages flashes backwards and forwards like nobody's business and you really do have to pay close attention to keep track of what is going on. My fear had been that Banks was going to keep this up to the end. After all, Use of Weapons had the alternate forward's backwards timelines from the book's culmination running right the way through to its.. er.. culmination, though that was easy to handle being on a chapter-by chapter basis. Fortunately for readers after about 100 pages The Algebraist settles down to a more linear presentation. Your take-home message here being to stick with it even if you find the initial chapters a little harder work than usual and, even if you find it a breeze, ensure you pay attention because references recur later and you may miss points of significance that add to the book's enjoyment.

The other thing of note is that Banks really went over the top on using the 'Fornication-Under-Consent-of-the-King' word. Now I am not a purist but this word crops up again and again (and there is one use of the 'c' word). In fact the over-usage was wearing its impact a little thin. Could Banks be trying to tell us something? Probably not. I would like to be able to say that as 'freedom' is a theme of the book that the use of the 'f' word did have some relevance due to the history of the term 'Fornication-Under-Consent-of-the-King' but I did not pick up anything definitive to confirm this. The term 'sept' is also used as in the sense of a professional 'guild' and possibly one that owes allegiance to the ruling community. The Concise Oxford defines this as meaning a 'clan' especially Irish, but Iain Banks is Scottish and there are sort of Scottish 'sub-clans' who owe allegiance to big clans and these smaller clans are known as septs. The 'Cowie' clan is one such sept (from Banffshire in case you're interested), 'Banks' for all I know is another. Meanwhile Banks has dedicated The Algebraist to a family of MacLennans who may themselves be a Sept, and even which may or may not be related to Banks' (they could be fellow Septs to a common Clan), but I suspect they are just friends. Anyway, here you have a Scottish dimension from the Scottish author.

As usual Bank's SF is peppered with casual scientific-type observations. Here is just one. That the champagne two of the protagonists were drinking released bubbles of the atmosphere of Earth 20,000 light years distant reminded me of a gin and tonic made with Greenland ice-core of ice 100,000 years old (which if considered in light years places it right the far side of the Galaxy). I had always thought of the experience in terms of age (bubbles from Neanderthal times) and not distance, so Banks enriched my life with this bit of whimsy and an astronomical perspective. However much of Banks' science observation in the The Algebraist comes from his descriptions of the gas giant, its ecology and weather which largely result from internal systems and not solar radiation.

The Dwellers themselves are simply delightful and hell bent on doing their own thing in their own good time (which given their millions of years longevity can be a while). Often this manifests themselves in getting slightly out of their minds. (SFDA rules.) Less likeable attributes? OK, so Dwellers hunt their young, but get this in a lifetime perspective. In comparative terms to our human lives it is like saying we are subject to being hunted for less than an hour out of three score years and ten, and besides it is necessary for a stable population if you are dealing with a long-lived species whose reproduction has, what ecologists know as, more of a tendency to 'r' (exponential growth) as to 'k' (more logistic). This child-hunting is simply cultural demographic regulation (and before you think we humans are not so harsh bear in mind that you are probably not reading this in small-hut in parts of Africa, or a shanty town on the edge of one of a few South American cities) or for that matter in Dickensian London. Aside from their attitude to youth, Dwellers have a very relaxed attitude to life. Their military is a sort of interest club for hobbyists and their internal 'wars' are kind of games. However they have been around a while and it is best not to upset a Dweller lest, long after you have thought the dust well and truly settled, they casually wipe you out. They are very capable of meaning business if riled.

There were two things from the science side that Banks could have sorted out (other than his view of naked anti-matter in space). The first is this business of elemental cycling and that of heavy metals in the gas giant's biosphere. Where does all the elemental substance that make up Dweller ecology and technology come from? Banks even says that metal was considered precious as ancient Dwellers of old relied on meteorite falls for their supply? Now I do not want to go further down this line as the discussion comes close to a plot line I do not wish to unravel but I felt that this could have been done and done deftly. Nonetheless biosphere science is something that SF writers need to get up to speed with if they are going to explore gas giant ecologies as some stories are beginning to do. After all, the days when you could get away with ecological superficiality (such as in the excellent Dune (1965) which is rightly noted for highlighting a biome in its plot but whose ecological portrayal is a tad wanting) are over for those who wish their works to be taken as serious hard SF. ('Heresy, heresy' I hear the die-hards cry.) Banks is not alone in this ecological failing and so should not be blamed for it: I simply point it out as one of the areas in which SF has plenty of room to grow. After all hard SF should not just mean a brush up on astronomy, physics and computer science but include the natural and life sciences. (Jack has something to say on this aspect of the genre.)

The second science problem is that Bank's 'appears' to have mis-interpreted how Einsteinian relativity works. He uses a large spaceship travelling near light speed to pass by the system wormhole/portal entrance with the ship's relativistic 'extra mass' disrupting flat-space time and so the portal's function. Relativity doesn't really work like this. Now this apparent flaw is interesting as with more judicious wording he could have got by. The fact that it is a flaw should not be of concern as neither does it undermine the story (one can easily invent a similar rationale that does work), nor does it undermine the book as stimulating science awareness as one can discuss this specific aspect of the book with others. (As indeed some of us on the Concat' team have.) It is though a shame that Banks did not run his plot by a competent physicist...

Anyway, I digress but I do seem to have covered most of the points I wish to say in an introductory review.

So to sum up. The Algebraist is hugely (in a Jovian sense) entertaining, and it is intelligently crafted even if a couple of aspects are not well researched. In short, a thoroughly engaging work that affirms Banks as being currently Scotland's leading SF author. (One probably has to go further south than Berwick-on-Tweed to find an equal.) Are we going to have to wait another four years for more? I'm not a Dweller you know.

Jonathan Cowie

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