Iain M. Banks
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Iain M. Banks's novel The Algebraist is a clear indicator of the growth of science fiction. Although it may be classified as "space opera," it is much more complex, in both content and style, than the writings of E.E. Smith which helped defined that genre decades ago. Both The Algebraist and Smith's "Lensmen" series were concerned with vast gulfs of space and the fate of the universe, however that is essentially where the similarity ends.
Banks plays with complex ideas on a galactic level, populating the galaxy of The Algebraist with a variety of different creatures, notably divided between the slow and the quick. The slow are creatures like the Dwellers, who are apparently immortal, and quick, such as humans, who live extended lifetimes, but are apparently limited. One result of this division is that the quick must travel through wormholes while the slow take the long way around. Nevertheless, wormholes must be constructed through normal space, slowing their creation.
The general action of Banks's novel is against a strange war in which the human Seer Fassin Taak finds himself using his knowledge of the quick in support of his own government and world, despite his own preference to be left to his own devices in his study of the Dwellers. Taak's own expertise is juxtaposed with the Dwellers he deals with, like Y'sul, who obviously know their races foibles, and Taak's superior, Colonel Hatherence, who lives with her own assumptions and tries to ignore Taak's advice.
While the sequences with Taak, Y'sul and others are adventuresome (early on, they set off a nuclear mine by accident), Banks allows them plenty of time to discuss philosophies of the universe. At times this does slow down the action, but it also provides a richness and mystery to the galaxy Banks is writing about. Banks's sense of humor, especially as shown through various Dwellers, also provides a strong relief from the heavier discussions.
Banks's great villain is the Archimandrite Luseferous, who would truly fit in with the evil-doers of the grand space operas of yesteryear. He has the appearance down, including diamond encrusted teeth, as well as the sadistic qualities necessary for such a villain. His desire to keep his adversaries alive for as long as possible is only equalled by his treatment of them using the technology only available in space operas such as this.
The Algebraist has a tendency to ramble and often feels as if Banks could have written a tighter, and shorter, book without losing the ideas or the feel of the book he actually did write. The ideas he presents, along with the characters, including his everyman-turned-hero Fassin Taak, are interesting and his prose is enough to get the reader through the slow patches that exist.