The Algebraist Review
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You may know Iain M. Banks as plain old Iain Banks (no M.), a guise under which he’s written many non-genre novels, including The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, Complicity, and so on. But when there’s an M. present, it means he’s in sci-fi mode—a category into which The Algebraist definitely fits.

Set in the year 4034 AD, a time when humanity is spread far and wide throughout the galaxy, this novel tells the story of Fassin Taak, a seer whose purpose in life is to communicate with Dwellers. A totally alien species, the Dwellers live within planets known as gas giants (think of Jupiter). Over the years, Fassin has built up a good rapport with these rather self-centred beings, which is just as well, because they might hold the key to saving his own planet from an imminent, hostile invasion. Set mostly within the planet of Nasqueron, the story follows Fassin as he tries to find The List, a legendary Dweller document that supposedly allows its owner to travel from one side of the galaxy to another in the blink of an eye.

Like many of Banks’s other sci-fi offerings—including The Use of Weapons and Look to Windward—the scope of this novel is truly galactic. But, at the same time, it also includes intimate relationships between realistic characters. There’s a dry sense of humour that breaks up some of the more squeamish scenes, and on a couple of occasions I found myself laughing out loud. It’s not all good, though, as the story does meander a bit in the middle. Banks also likes to give his characters rather elaborate names, which, if you’re like me, means you skip over the more difficult ones. As a result, I lost track of some of the minor players who only appeared fleetingly but were nonetheless important.

Falling heavily into the category of hard sci-fi, The Algebraist isn’t a casual read. It requires you to pay attention. The last 100 pages, however, are a real payoff for what, at times in the middle, felt like hard work. It’s not Banks’s best sci-fi (that honour goes to The Player of Games), but it is worth a look if you’re a fan of his otherworldly works.

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