The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
2005, Night Shade Books
Review Summary: Overall The Algebraist is disappointing in that it fails to live up to the effort it took to continue reading on, and on, and on through the lack of any interesting forward progress, but there are a handful of ideas throughout the novel that keep it from being a complete waste of energy.
Banks writes very well, but there seems to be a pacing problem with The Algebraist which oddly enough hampers the storytelling in that everything seems to drag on interminably. The overlong later chapters don’t give the reader any sense of relaxation or relief, not that there is much high tension in the novel, but a bit of a pause would have been welcome now and again. The handful of flashbacks and interspersed segue pieces which normally would have provided such a break don’t quite do the job, being so totally irrelevant to the story or the story’s outcome, just don’t provide the needed change of pace that would have made for a more comfortable reading experience.
The segues and flashbacks meant, it would seem, to provide more depth to the characters have the potential to be interesting, but don’t go far enough to lend any further pizzazz to the characters. The main character in particular just isn’t very passionate one way or the other about what he is doing, or anything he has done it would seem. He reluctantly takes up what should be a fairly interesting career, at which he is apparently very good at but which we don’t get to see much of in a sense of what this career really is like on a day to day basis. After certain events he contemplates suicide, but only half-heartedly so, and its hard for the reader to determine why, since he never really seemed to be that close to any of the people involved anyway. Even his great betrayal isn’t something he is all that passionate about, but rather approached with a sort of blasé, “whatever” kind of attitude.
The supporting non-Dweller characters for the most part have the potential to be interesting, but again, don’t really lend anything very convincing to the story. The primary enemy, “The Archimandrite Luseferous”, is so over-the-top sadistic, pompous, and evil, that its hard to do anything but snicker any time he appears. And the majority of the extremely long-lived Dwellers that the main character encounters are so bizarrely eccentric and farcical that it is extremely difficult to take them seriously either.
Seeing as the novel is obviously not character-driven, one would hope for a fairly complex and complicated plot, or at the very least something far-reaching with hints of wisdom and insight – we are, after all, talking about 400-some densely written pages, with extremely well-chosen language and some overall potentially ground-breaking new settings and themes. Unfortunately, the best I could muster was a lukewarm reception of the book. The plot is, after 400 pages, very basic. There is a piece of information the main character needs to obtain, and he spends the entire novel chasing after it, only to find [spoiler alert] that he had the information for the entire latter half of the novel. The ending promises to be possibly interesting in that the entire mission appears as though it will be completely frustrated by the main character’s mindwipe, but miraculously and in some unexplained manner he somehow figures it all out anyway, to the surprise of everyone including the reader. [end spoiler alert]
Thematically, other than the overall “futile quest” theme he has going on, Banks has some sort of anti-authoritarian government theme running throughout the novel, though the politics are so vague that the reader doesn’t really care enough to worry about it. The author’s treatment of the gas-giant Dwellers is entirely new in my experience, and has a lot of potential for further development. As mentioned above, the majority of the Dwellers met during the novel are so scatter-brained and eccentric as to be uninteresting as serious characters, but the idea of a long-lived, widely-travelled race almost wholly uninterested in the lives and civilizations of “the Quick” is a fascinating one, and Banks is able to treat some of these scenarios with a great deal of thought and imagination. The comparison of “Slow” versus “Quick” could have used quite a bit more discussion, but overall I was satisfied with the beginning steps he took in describing what would truly be an alien species.
Overall, then, The Algebraist is disappointing in that it fails to live up to the effort it took to continue reading on, and on, and on through the lack of any interesting forward progress, but there are a handful of ideas throughout the novel that keep it from being a complete waste of energy. Whether anyone will be able to take up the subject matter and continue it in a meaningful way would be something I would be very interested in reading.