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The Algebraist
Iain M. Banks
Orbit, 534 pages

The Algebraist
Iain M. Banks
Iain M. Banks was born in Dunfermline in 1954 and lived in North Queensferry, Fife. He was educated at Stirling University (1972-1975) getting a degree in English. He worked as a non-destructive testing technician for British Steel and later for IBM. He settled in Faversham, Kent, in 1984 and later moved to Edinburgh in 1988. Iain M. Banks (as opposed to Iain Banks, his name for non-SF fiction) is the popular author of the Culture novels, including Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Look To Windward
SF Site Review: Excession

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

The cover of the advance reading copy of The Algebraist boasts: "The Most Eagerly Awaited Science Fiction Novel of the Decade" -- advertising that would seem tough to live up to. This reviewer, for example, had never read any of Iain M. Banks' previous novels, never mind awaiting a new one. Nonetheless, I decided to give it a try.

Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer who studies the most ancient alien race in the galaxy -- the Dwellers -- who inhabit gas giants and have extraordinary lifespans of billions of years. A small number of humans who are tolerated by the Dwellers sift through their archives for pearls of data that might transform a civilization. Taak is one of these, a youthful rebel who prefers "Real Delving" in a tiny life support craft, rather than using remotes to dive into the clouds of the gas giant while his body remains safely in orbit.

Taak is not unduly concerned when the wormhole portal to his home Ulubis system is destroyed and the system becomes isolated from the rest of the Mercatorial galaxy. Slow Seers live a long time, and eventually a new portal will be shipped and set up, allowing normal communications to resume. But the situation becomes critical with news that an invasion force is coming from the Disconnect and will almost certainly reach Ulubis before the Shrievalty fleet can arrive to defend them.

To Taak's horror, the Complector Council orders him to dive into the planet Nasqueron in search of the "Dweller List" -- a collection of coordinates of secret Dweller portals that would turn the war in their favour. Trouble is, Taak isn't sure the list has ever existed; much less that he can find it.

The word that came irresistibly and repeatedly to my mind as I trudged through this heavy volume was INTERMINABLE. Over the course of 534 word-packed pages, I saw many indications that Iain M. Banks is a gifted writer. However, this meandering, hugely expository, self indulgent space opera needed a ruthless pruning that it did not receive.

Another word that occurred to me was UNEVEN. Some elements of The Algebraist are absurdly over the top -- for instance the villainous Archimandrite Luseferous, leader of the invasion fleet, who makes an appearance every fifty pages or so to torture another poor victim, thus reminding us that he's really truly extremely evil. Unfortunately, he does hardly anything else -- something that becomes increasingly noticeable as the book drags on.

By contrast, other elements of The Algebraist have serious dramatic potential. Among the plot threads is the story of Taak's uneasy relationship with a group of friends who were bonded in youth by a tragic accident. That story is irrelevant to the larger plot, but far more compelling, and it is one of several intriguing bits that are largely lost in the deluge of material.

About a third of the way into the book, Fassin dives into Nasqueron, and almost all the rest of the novel is a prolonged sort of Gulliver's Travels through the gas giant, meeting various whimsical and eccentric Dwellers who appear completely disinterested in forwarding the plot.

The very effective epilogue of The Algebraist, arcing back to an early story element that was subsumed in subsequent verbiage, merely served to remind that this could have been, and should have been, a far better novel.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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