EPS Review #93 - The Algebraist

by Iain M Banks, Orbit 2004, 534pp

A friend grabbed an early copy of this at Heathrow, but his wife forbade him to read it since she had already purchased it as a Christmas gift for him. So I got it! I sped through the 500+ pages with pleasure. It is Science Fiction, but not set in Banks' usual Culture galaxy. There is no FTL travel, only wormholes, which must be painstakingly shipped from one place to another. The main civilisation is the Mercatoria, which is hierarchical, warlike, and not very fair. There are no Minds, as there was a war to wipe out AIs quite some time back.

The protagonist, Fassin Taak, works in an unimportant neck of the galaxy as a "slow seer", or someone who delves into the local gas giant to talk to the Dwellers. The Dwellers are a multi-billion-year-old race that inhabit most gas giants in the galaxy. They remind me strongly of the behemothaurs from Look to Windward (review #41). Dwellers live for eons, have perverse senses of humor, care about "kudos" rather than money, seem to have ramshackle technology, and get up to things like recreational wars and massive regattas. Fassin accidentally discovers a clue to what may be an ancient collection of Dweller wormholes, and this sets off a war between the Mercatoria and a rebel group run by the picturesquely evil Archimadrite Luseferous, who has diamond teeth and preserves his enemies' artificially-sustained heads as punching bags.

But the human side of the story is mostly a poorly fleshed-out distraction from Dweller life. The part I will remember is a wild-goose chase through wormholes that Fassin embarks on with (conflicted) Dweller assistance. Of course, Dweller technology proves to be far beyond what anyone expected, providing high points of Mercatorial come-uppance that I read twice for pure satisfaction. Though I enjoy reading a new IMB book every few years, it might be worth a longer wait if he wanted to edit, condense and deepen a story.

Paul wrote: [ SPOILERS BELOW ]

so just read the algebraicist ... interesting book. So: At the very end did you think that Fassin Taak was (1) just a regular freedom fighter or (2) also an AI?

I replied: Fassin Taak? He sure seemed human to me, it was the gardener who was an AI, right? Why would Fassin ride around with those Dweller AIs and not drop the pretences otherwise? Although, come to think of it, the gardener wasn't doing much besides gardening, was he?

I loved it when the Planetary Defense device (Deniable) wastes all the Mercatorial warcraft, and when the dweller-AIs slice up those professional killers. I guess we are all suckers for revenge flicks.

Paul replied: yeah I thought he was human too... the only thing was the "We'll all be free one day" said to the gardener... sorta got me thinking "what is the relation between this guy and AIs"... plus the non-total mind erasure. Of course it could just be the beyonder strain... but it got me thinkin. plus all that time in the gascraft and the uncle is pro-AI. Nice book. I enjoyed Excession more. But I particularly enjoyed the baroque insane dweller culture.