As I write this review Iain M. Banks has passed away about three weeks ago. It makes me sad that our genre has lost another great writer. So I picked The Algebraist to be my "tribute read", alas I find that prefer his Culture
novels. That said The Algebraist
is not at all shabby.The Algebraist
(correct me if I'm wrong) is Mr. Banks' only non-Culture sci-fi novel, it does have some of the magnificent madness that you get in his Culture books but after reading it for a while I started wishing the Minds or the drones would crash the party, the "Banksness" of the writing style just goes so well with the Culture elements. OK, no more mentioning of the Culture from this point!
In a nutshell the story mainly concerns the search for a secret system of wormholes which makes FTL space flight possible (through space shortcuts). The setting is a universe where humanity have spread across the galaxy and coexisting with various extraterrestrial species as part of a galactic empire called Mercatoria. The most interesting feature of this universe is the existence of an extraterrestrial race called The Dwellers who are basically too cool to bother with joining the Mercatoria empire because they have existed for billions of years and have (presumably) seen it all and done it all. These Dwellers are a wonderful invention, they are partly a satire of certain type of people who have been around too long to bother with the unwashed masses. Due to their practically immortal life span they live in "slow time" basically doing everything at a slow speed relative to how humans (a Quick species) live. They also have many quirks and weird traditions in their culture which make them memorably alien
aliens which is always a major attraction of sf books, space operas especially. I remember reading a review that criticized the aliens in this book as "too anthropomorphic" I guess the reviewer is not too familiar with humans and should endeavor to get out more. In any case the Dwellers are the latest addition to my list of favorite fictional aliens (not that I have a list of non-fictional ones)
Another concept I really like is the different types of human, aHuman and rHuman (advanced and remainder Human), the aHuman were kidnapped thousands of years ago from a "pre-civilised" human race and sort of uplifted and cultivated to create a separate strain of human to keep the original humans (rHuman) from becoming too uppity when the latter has achieved interstellar travel. There are numerous other clever ideas such as the description of life on a gas giant, the gascraft, a personal size vehicle that enable humans to live on gas giants, the ideas are just brimming all over the place as you can expect from Banks. However, I did not find the Algebraist to be an easy read, the pacing is uneven and the main characters are not as well developed as in other Banks books that I have read (some of the aliens are better developed than the protagonist). There are too many side characters that pop in and out without leaving much of an impression. I quite like the subplot about a woman out to avenge the death of her friend but it flits in and out of the narrative and does not seem well integrated into the main story. Banks also liked to play around with the narrative timeline with sudden switches into flashback without any warning, I guess he just liked to keep his readers on their toes. The patient readers should sort these things out without ant trouble though.
As with all Banks novels witticisms and literary flourishes abound, here is a passage that made me laugh and manage to convey the idea of Quick and Slow species particularly well:"(The Dwellers) could get bored with the species that came to talk to them, and by selecting only those numbered amongst the Quick they ensured that they would never have to endure for too long a time the attentions of people they only looked forward to seeing the back of. Just wait a bit and − in a twinkling of an eye by Dweller standards − their troublesome guests would evolve out of nuisancehood."
Also this Dweller's comment about humans"Your passion for doing each other harm never ceases to amaze, delight and horrify!"
In conclusion I can recommend this book with some reservations because of the uneven pacing. For Banks neophytes I would recommend starting with the awesome [b:The Player of Games|18630|The Player of Games (Culture, #2)|Iain M. Banks|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166984450s/18630.jpg|1494157] instead.
At least I can confidently declare that I have never read a bad Iain M. Banks book.
R.I.P Mr. Banks.