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The Algebraist

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It is 4034. Humanity has made it to the stars. Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the year. The Nasqueron Dwellers inhabit a gas giant on the outskirts of the galaxy, in a system awaiting its wormhole connection to the rest of civilization. In the meantime, they are dismissed as decadents living in a state of highly developed barbarism, hoarding data without order, hunting their own young & fighting pointless formal wars. Seconded to a military-religious order he's barely heard of—part of the baroque hierarchy of the Mercatoria, the latest galactic hegemony— Taak has to travel again amongst the Dwellers. He is in search of a secret hidden for half a billion years. But with each day that passes a war draws closer—a war threatening to overwhelm everything & everyone he's ever known.

434 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 2004

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About the author

Iain M. Banks

62 books5,479 followers
Iain M. Banks is a pseudonym of Iain Banks which he used to publish his Science Fiction.

Banks's father was an officer in the Admiralty and his mother was once a professional ice skater. Iain Banks was educated at the University of Stirling where he studied English Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. He moved to London and lived in the south of England until 1988 when he returned to Scotland, living in Edinburgh and then Fife.

Banks met his wife Annie in London, before the release of his first book. They married in Hawaii in 1992. However, he announced in early 2007 that, after 25 years together, they had separated. He lived most recently in North Queensferry, a town on the north side of the Firth of Forth near the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge.

As with his friend Ken MacLeod (another Scottish writer of technical and social science fiction) a strong awareness of left-wing history shows in his writings. The argument that an economy of abundance renders anarchy and adhocracy viable (or even inevitable) attracts many as an interesting potential experiment, were it ever to become testable. He was a signatory to the Declaration of Calton Hill, which calls for Scottish independence.

In late 2004, Banks was a prominent member of a group of British politicians and media figures who campaigned to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In protest he cut up his passport and posted it to 10 Downing Street. In an interview in Socialist Review he claimed he did this after he "abandoned the idea of crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife dockyard, after spotting the guys armed with machine guns." He related his concerns about the invasion of Iraq in his book Raw Spirit, and the principal protagonist (Alban McGill) in the novel The Steep Approach to Garbadale confronts another character with arguments in a similar vein.

Interviewed on Mark Lawson's BBC Four series, first broadcast in the UK on 14 November 2006, Banks explained why his novels are published under two different names. His parents wished to name him Iain Menzies Banks but his father made a mistake when registering the birth and he was officially registered as Iain Banks. Despite this he continued to use his unofficial middle name and it was as Iain M. Banks that he submitted The Wasp Factory for publication. However, his editor asked if he would mind dropping the 'M' as it appeared "too fussy". The editor was also concerned about possible confusion with Rosie M. Banks, a minor character in some of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves novels who is a romantic novelist. After his first three mainstream novels his publishers agreed to publish his first SF novel, Consider Phlebas. To distinguish between the mainstream and SF novels, Banks suggested the return of the 'M', although at one stage he considered John B. Macallan as his SF pseudonym, the name deriving from his favourite whiskies: Johnnie Walker Black Label and The Macallan single malt.

His latest book was a science fiction (SF) novel in the Culture series, called The Hydrogen Sonata, published in 2012.

Author Iain M. Banks revealed in April 2013 that he had late-stage cancer. He died the following June.

The Scottish writer posted a message on his official website saying his next novel The Quarry, due to be published later this year*, would be his last.

*The Quarry was published in June 2013.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 931 reviews
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
797 reviews3,640 followers
October 30, 2022
The Dwellers are the Minds, just less friendly and even more advanced

An evil antagonist, the Dwellers, and The Mercatoria
This one is different than the Culture novels, but uses the completely same trope mixture. An evil antagonist, mostly steampunky or technologically highly advanced but neo feudal torture nightmare state aka present reality in the Culture series, the Dwellers as the Minds and the Mercatoria as a spoiled and less advanced form of the Culture. The rest is business as usual, although it´s maybe even a bit funnier, because the typical Mind humor is now strange Dweller humor, who kind of care about nothing and tend to overreact or procrastinate.

The devil in the machine
The dangers of AI and what the best long-time approach is one of the key elements of this novel and an everlasting hot topic that might lead to some interesting real-life events. Of course, in a perfect universe, benevolent AIs would help happily evolving humans and aliens, forever peacefully and symbiotic united. But if any of those parties might be evil it could get exponentially nasty and, let´s face it, nothing beats an AI.

But without hell, there is no heat.
But banning it after it nearly killed everyone damns the civilization to stagnation and loss of any technological progress in comparison to other aliens that use AI as a driving force of anything. Reducing the abilities of an AI to gain consciousness or to give it consciousness and incarcerate it in an escape-proof cyber prison, without cyborg bodies and networks to play with, may be an option, but it´s not able to remain competitive that way too.

Techno primitivism or technocrazy
So what to do with a pesky civilization that has chosen "Kill all AIs." as their mantra and logo when you are an AI or an alien race that wasn´t too stupid to integrate important preventive measures while developing AIs or still has some secret trigger hands in the background? Ignoring or preventing them from spreading might be the only options, because feeding those dull trolls by interacting with them might not be helpful.

Billion years old
How the longevity of a species might influence their view of the galaxy, intergalactic politics, social life and diplomacy is the second big topic. Million years of natural life with a childhood of a few hundred thousand years or something even closer to immortality may lead to apathy, arrogance, aggressive expansion, isolation, a god complex, etc., or even to something boring and positive outcomes. There is no real answer to this question and how a society deals with both godlike power and a never-ending life may be a question and mixture of culture, coincidence, and the motivation, technology, and mentality of the species they meet on their way to ultimate power.

So now we´re gods and what´s next?
Finally, there is the question of what stays important for a species that has reached everything. When the universe is understood, no borders exist and every endless life can be lived free, probably just philosophy, wisdom, and the interest in giving little pieces of it to other species to help them evolve may be interesting hobbies.

Tropes show how literature is conceptualized and created and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
405 reviews2,203 followers
June 3, 2018
I’ve been reading through all of Banks’ novels these last few years, mostly focusing on The Culture series and working my way outward through his other “M.” novels, and into his “non-M.” writing. This is my fourteenth Banks book, and my second non-culture “M.” novel.

Banks’ had such an interesting way of writing his novels so that the real story unfolds in the background the whole time, mostly hidden. He did this in Consider Phlebas, and again here in The Algebraist. The foreground story is of course, engaging, and action-packed in the typical space opera sense, but the more interesting story for me, is what’s happening on the periphery of the main narrative, and it of course deals with Artificial Intelligence, human rights, religion, and the nature of reality.

I have a little headcanon that allows The Algebraist to be a Culture novel, even though officially, I know that it isn’t. My evidence is very thin, and involves something so tropey that I’m glad it just can’t be. It definitely reads like a Culture novel though, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much more than Against a Dark Background. I really struggled with that one, and I’m very pleased that The Algebraist felt like a return to form.

The prose isn’t quite as good as some of his other work, but it’s serviceable, and I can overlook what it lacks in poetic quality in favor of the interesting concepts it explored.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,120 reviews3,982 followers
July 25, 2019
Spacefaring Derring-do

Scholarly seer, Fassin Taak, is sent by the Mercatoria’s militia to find a mythical map of hidden wormholes and, if it exists, a way to translate it - a quest that puts him in the middle of inter-galactic war.

Meanwhile, a warlord with the comically evil-sounding name (but no double-letters, unlike almost everyone else), Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult, has a self-set mission of his own:.

Power was everything. Money was nothing without it. Even happiness was a distraction, a ghost, a hostage.

The Archimandrite also relishes creative torture of his captives, partly for motives like those of the officer in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony (see my review HERE).

I enjoyed the first hundred and fifty pages. The world-building is impressive, some of the beings, civilizations, and ideas are fascinating, and there is delightfully incongruous lyricism in some of the descriptions.

But hundreds more pages of umpteen characters travelling, meeting, and parting; impending battles; more travelling, meeting, and parting; astro-geology; actual battles; galactic history; personal history; intrigue along the way (who to trust, what to trust (reality versus VR), the quest etc)... I just wanted to cut to the chase and finish the story.

At times, like Fassin, I experienced "swim":
“That feeling of intense disconnection when the sheer implicatory outlandishness of a situation suddenly hit home to the unprepared human.”

(Image source.)
I often enjoy that with sci-fi, but here, my thirst was teased, but unsated.

The ending was neat and amusingly bathetic, but rushed compared with the dragged-out adventures that preceded it. The effects of living, travelling, and switching between vastly different speeds of time weren’t fully explored, and the threads of the two main characters didn’t really blend well.

Overall, it felt like a poor imitation of Alastair Reynolds (see my reviews HERE).

If you want a good review of the book itself (or any sci-fi), see Apatt’s, HERE. I’m going to witter on about a few aspects that I particularly enjoyed.

Fear of Artificial Intelligence

Image: The scariest AI is one that can deliberately fail the Turing Test (Source.)

Despite the quest and battles, it’s fear and prohibition of AI that is at the root of this story published in 2004. Fifteen years later, real-life warnings are plentiful. But before you can control it, you must define it. That’s intriguingly tricky, and not really achieved by Banks.

Those who’ve updated Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics invariably include one about an AI being explicitly AI. We instinctively fear the Uncanny Valley, which is perhaps why the latest screen versions of Cats and even The Lion King give some people the jitters.

I recently read of an AI program that "generates coherent paragraphs of text, achieves state-of-the-art performance on many language modeling benchmarks, and performs rudimentary reading comprehension, machine translation, question answering, and summarization—all without task-specific training". It's imperfect, of course, and it's within tight constraints, but impressive. The developers rightly fear its power for generating fake news and other scams (as well as foreseeing useful applications). Read about it HERE. To skip the tech angle, scroll to the two panels with a dark grey background.

On a completely different hand, are prejudice and legislative restriction of conscious AIs akin to institutional racism?!

Image: xkcd Turing Test, “Extra credit: convince the examiner that HE'S a computer.�� (Source.)

Culture and Civilization

What counts as civilized? Here, the answer is said to be the ability to feel pain, physical and mental, which seems a low bar. What about social organisation and culture?

There is still war, bureaucracy, religion used to control the gullible, and sport (space-sailing races), but not much culture (art, literature, music) in this far future.

However, there is a universal language, Standard:
An almost perfect language: flexible, descriptive, uncoloured..., precise but malleable, highly, elegantly complete yet primed for external-term-adoption and with an unusually free but logical link between the written form and the pronounced... Best of all, it didn't belong to anybody, the species which had invented it having safely extincted[!] themselves millions of years earlier."

Extreme Bodies

The only ugly people were those making a statement.”

Body mods are common in sci-fi, but those here should raise major consent issues: one person’s genital secretions can inject a truth serum, and another can control sweat and pheromone production, which is useful for seduction and deceit in meetings (yet he judges others by their body language).

The utterly different body shapes, sizes, and life requirements of different beings necessitate elaborate adaptations of transport and furniture. I guess disabled babies would be aborted or have their bodies fixed, but if not, it’s a very accessible place.


The Dwellers are probably the most intriguing aliens I’ve encountered in sci-fi. Bizarre in appearance (like “anorexic manta rays”, with “signal skin”, and wheel-like protuberances), vast in size (9 metres diameter) and lifespan (billions of years), a “slow” species(?) who are the most widespread planet-based lifeforms.

They are a species of contradictions and, to humans like Fassin, quirks: they gather huge amounts of data on everything for no obvious purpose (little interest in other species), and without cataloguing it; they’re non-hierarchical but have 29 levels of seniority/age; they resist change but are not a monoculture; they value kudos, which almost the opposite of money (“The harder you’d worked for your kudos, the less it was worth.”); they are all male except when social duty requires a pregnancy, and they care little for their young (to say the least!); they treat the military as independent experts (rather than a tool of democratic government); practice collective inheritance, and have vague disdain for “quick” species (“Your passion for doing each other harm never ceases to amaze, delight and horrify.”).

Poetic Quotes

• "The interrogating tendrils of coherence were almost too quick to sense."
• “Magisterial, oblivious, moving almost imperceptibly with a kind of tumultuous serenity.” A gas giant.
• “He left in the false dawn of an albedo sunrise.”
• “Small bubbles of gas rose to the surface and broke, giving some tiny proportion of the substance of Earth to the atmosphere of a planet twenty thousand light years away.” (Champagne)
• “Dark glitterings, everywhere. The Dreadnaught lit up along its length, speckled with fire… freckling bruises across the stir of dark gas.”
• “The spastic spasming light of the battle view swinging wildly across the screens.”
• “The vast being [a Clouder] was like a million great long gauzy scarves of light, a whisper of matter and gravity… drifting yet purposeful.”

Sci-fi Jargon Quote

• “K, who was coming to the end of a tream, socked into a traumalyser and a linked-up subsal.”

Philosophical Quotes

• "All solo societies were possessed of both an inflated sense of their own importance and a kind of existential terror at the sheer scale and apparent emptiness of the universe."
• “Wild years… losing money and illusions, gaining weight and some small amount of wisdom.”
• “‘We are wasting time.’
‘Time wastes itself. Who are we to float in its way?’”

Other Quotes

• “You custard-brained phlegm-wart.”
• “Fashion-gaunt in the latest war-chic.”
• “The psychic pain of realising that the world is not really as splendid as it seemed the evening before.” (the Dweller equivalent of a hangover)
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,646 reviews5,110 followers
May 7, 2013
a non-Culture sci-fi adventure from Banks, one whose intriguing major topic is the relativity of morality. the aliens are pretty much humans in alien form - not much attempt to convey a truly alien viewpoint. but it is all fascinating nonetheless, and many of the characters - alien and otherwise - are sympathetic or fearful creations. expansive world/universe-building, per usual. some real narrative surprises from beginning to end. the novel's Villain with a capital V is almost a parody, as if this character and his eventual purpose in the novel were specifically designed to mess with reader expectation.

in the twists and turns of the protagonist's backstory and motivations, i was able to see the genuine sympathy that the author has for those who fight against authoritarianism. it is also interesting to compare the perspective on AIs between this novel and the Culture novels. in this universe's demonization of artificial intelligence, Banks is able to fully illustrate the horror (and stupidity) of demonizing and oppressing any community.

what i didn't enjoy were the many descriptions of an alien species' habit of enslaving, tormenting, and killing their young - but hey maybe that's just me. i understand the rationale for its frequent inclusion, but gosh it was appalling and left a sour taste. they were some pretty loveable aliens and then it all had to be ruined by those noxious activities! ugh. well, i suppose that's just Iain Banks the stridently moral moral relativist... he will never let me have my cake and eat it too. so annoying! but in such a good way.

this review is a part of a longer article on Iain Banks posted on Shelf Inflicted. that article also includes a self-indulgent rant regarding a blog post that i found to be infuriatingly moronic; my apologies in advance.
August 7, 2019
DNF. Why exactly are we presented right at the start with a villain with diamond teeth and a living head of his enemy (crazy, unable to even to commit suicide) used as a punching bag? Ughhh.... I'm not going to finish this crap. Maybe later? I'd rather not, though.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,980 followers
September 26, 2018
I'm of two minds with this novel. I'm tempted to rate it based on all of the novelist's other works and rate it lower just because it isn't the most fascinating out of the bunch. It's also not a Culture novel but I feel like it might ALMOST be. :) Gas giant aliens take the forefront of this novel, although the main character is human. We get a real treat of far future cultures and alien aliens that just happen to take the term "gas-bag" and OWN it. I have NO COMPLAINTS about the world-building in this novel. It's glorious.

But it also has a number of slow parts. Some are just "okay" for long stretches. Not brilliant, not horrible, but perfectly serviceable. But then I got into the intrigue, the spy stuff, the big mystery with these floating aliens that goes way beyond the fact they've been around for 10 billion years. Or that they're a deep-down Anarcho-syndicalism or maybe plain anarchists in the sense that nobody rules anyone and their weird war traditions or brutal childrearing techniques just make them seem like total crazies. But everything they do seems to work.

And that appears to be the big mystery... until war comes and so much crap comes together and reveals to us a much bigger and bigger mystery... until we know. :) And knowing is half the battle.

I probably would have given this a 3-star rating if it hadn't been for the awesome reveals. Even the whole mystery over the name of the book is PERFECT.

My surprise and enjoyment DEFINITELY ramped up by the time the war arrived. Lots of space battles, grief, and mystery keeps the novel jumping. But that's for later. :)

Taken on its own, not knowing that it's by Banks, I might have rated it higher just because of the amount of imagination thrown into it. But as it is, Banks has written better novels, so in the end, I still ranked it slightly lower. Alas.

Still, definitely worth the read.

Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,867 reviews370 followers
May 15, 2022
3.5 stars?

This is a very interesting novel of Banks for what it is and what it isn't. It is a sprawling tale, set in a universe inhabited by many species, of which humanity is just one of the many. Humans aren't in some superior or inferior position—they get along, work with their partner species, and enjoy hedonistic pursuits, long life, and what seems like a utopian capitalist society. And this definitely isn't the Culture universe which Banks is well known for. Artificial intelligence has been demonized and is destroyed whenever it can be identified. There are no sentient ships or smug drones.

Our main character, Fassin Taak, is a Seer, a scholarly visitor to the Dwellers, inhabitants of the gas giant planet in his home solar system. Dwellers are eccentric and seem to be anarchic, Plus they live at a much slower speed than those they call the Quick. Having a lifespan of potentially billions of years, they have traveled the universe without faster-than-light speeds or wormholes, undaunted by the elapsed time. They have little interest in anything outside their own planetary affairs and are not especially welcoming to Seers or anyone else. Much of the time they seem to be scatter-brained and easily distracted.

Fassin has had more luck than some Seers, in that he has acquired a sponsor, Y'sul. Possibly because Fass is intelligent, gentle, and patient but still brave enough to actually physically enter the gas giant atmosphere and slow himself to Dweller standard. Despite his scholarly endeavors, no one could be more surprised than Fassin when he is abruptly seconded by the military arm of his local government. Apparently, the Dwellers have a secret network of wormholes, which the Mercatoria would like to claim access to, and Fass has uncovered an ancient volume pertaining to it. He is quickly given a military rank and a mission to find out more. He is skeptical, but refusal does not seem to be an option.

Skepticism seems to have been a permanent condition for Mr. Banks, as it permeates this tale. He subtly questions the continued existence of the absurdly wealthy, the morality of the military, as well as the approved ‘religion' of his creation, known of course as the Truth. Fassin Taak quite openly doubts that the Truth is any such thing. It is all explored with typical Banks humour, not the satire of writers like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but just illustrated by a quiet man doing his duty, no matter how absurd he finds it.

Book Number 455 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews782 followers
June 28, 2013
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 The Player of Games instead.

At least I can confidently declare that I have never read a bad Iain M. Banks book.

R.I.P Mr. Banks.
Profile Image for Stuart.
718 reviews268 followers
April 2, 2016
The Algebraist: Endlessly creative, perhaps overly so
I’ve had The Algebraist on the shelf for quite a few years, patiently waiting its turn in the reading rotation. But since Iain M. Banks is most famous for his post-scarcity AI-dominated Culture space opera series, I suspect his non-Culture novels often get less attention. In particular, The Algebraist is a fairly hefty tome, so I hesitated to tackle it. However, I discovered an audio version on Audible UK (many of his books are strangely unavailable on Audible US) and was about to buy it before I saw that dreaded term scorned by all audio purists…ABRIDGED. Then I realized that the entire thing is only 7hr 42m long and narrated by Anton Lesser, not the go-to narrator Peter Kenny who does all his CULTURE books.

I’m sure that many readers already consider audiobooks a short-cut vs the real experience of the written page, so an abridged audiobook is practically like reading the Cliffnotes for Shakespeare. Well, I can’t deny that viewpoint, but then again I figured that this would be an easy way to squeeze in this book now, rather than two decades later when I am retired, peacefully reading books in the den of my comfy house next to the lake with the dogs curled up near the fireplace.

Anyway, long story short, I gave the audiobook a whirl, and basically it was a lot like my experience of listening to Banks’ Excession. Such a complicated galaxy-spanning story, chock-a-block with strange and ancient alien races, numerous space-faring factions all battling to recover an incredibly -powerful weapon/codex/black-body artifact. Once again, dozens of different characters clamor for the reader’s attention, each more baroque, eccentric, barbaric, and ironic than the next.

The Dwellers are the headliners of this gig, an ancient and powerful slow-moving race that populates gas giants throughout the galaxy, and count their lifetimes in the millions or billions of years. They are rarely bothered with the quick races who may blossom, proliferate and wither away in the proverbial blink of an eye. They accumulate knowledge is an enthusiastic but haphazard manner, building up scattered libraries that may house powerful secrets for those willing to delve deeply enough.

Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, is one of those humans who spends his days plumbing their treasuries of knowledge. One day he is surprised to be drafted by a faction of the Mercatoria, the galaxy-spanning empire of the moment. Apparently he accidentally has unearthed some clues to the legendary Dweller List, a compendium of rumored wormholes created by the Dwellers in ancient times, which would revolutionize the political and economic structure of the Mercatoria empire. Suddenly a host of different groups is converging on Nasqueron, seeking to grab this list first, including the Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult, a larger-than-life villain who revels in cruelty and will stop at nothing to seize power.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Fortunately, Banks is a very skilled practitioner of his own high-energy, intellectually-playful brand of space opera. He can spin off a seemingly endless font of new ideas, worlds, and battle set-pieces like a neutron star, and still sprinkle an ample helping of ironic observations on various political and social institutions. He is very adroit at combining whimsy with serious topics, weaving these speculations into a complex and action-filled plot, and filling everything with crazy little details. So it’s never a dull ride, though you can easily fall off the wagon if you aren’t paying attention.

However, as was the case with Excession, this sometimes overwhelmed my ability to connect with the characters, who are so numerous that they get very little screen time. Add that to the fact that I was listening to an abridged version of a very-detailed story, and it was inevitable that narrative continuity would be harmed. I’ve read many reviews of the The Algebraist that essentially say that there wsere too many details, too much creativity, and not enough authorial discipline to deliver a focused plot and message. Lots of fireworks and cleverness, but not enough emotional engagement. Though I’m only basing my opinion on an abridged sample, I’d have to say the sounds about right. If I was willing to devote more time to it, I’d like to read the whole book in hardcopy to give it proper attention. Because even a lesser Banks work is still sufficiently entertaining to be worth reading. Someday, in that house by the lake…
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,923 reviews1,262 followers
December 22, 2009
Warning: This review contains spoilers about the review. Continue reading only if you have already read this review or if you are unconcerned about ruining the ending of this review.

Open with a joke about the size and weight of this book making it good for a number of non-reading-related purposes. Go on to comment on the excessive amounts of esoteric terminology.

That's probably how most reviews of this book begin, and they're probably right in doing so. Of course, plenty of books are justified in their length (or at least, we tell them they're justified for fear that they'll sneak off our shelves and kill us in our sleep if we say otherwise). And I see plenty of reviews that go on to say that they like Banks' no-holds-barred use of terminology, counting it as a sign of good worldbuilding. I'm not as convinced that The Algebraist is satisfactory in either regard, but let's give it the benefit of a doubt. Let's assume that Banks is justified in both these respects and go on to address the next question: if a reader can get past these two hurdles, does he or she find a worthwhile story?

(Review spoiler alert: the answer is "No.")

The heart of this space opera is Fassin Taak's search for a mathematical Transform that will unscramble a list of coordinates of secret wormholes that connect almost every inhabited system in the galaxy. The Mercatoria, ostensibly the good guys, would kill for this sort of information, since wormholes are the only viable method of faster-than-light travel and connecting two systems by wormhole is an arduous process. Come to think of it, anyone would kill to get the information, or to keep it hidden, which makes Fassin's search quite difficult.

Banks spends the majority of this book (and that is a lot of book right there) keeping coy about whether or not any such secret wormhole network exists. In the end, the revelation is somewhat disappointing, and even a little predictable to those well-versed in this sort of science fiction story. (Gas-dwelling alien species think alike.) And it turns out not to have much bearing on the other major plot in the book, the invasion of Fassin's home system, Ulubis, even though Fassin's in such a hurry to find the Transform so he can get help before the invasion fleet arrives. So the two main plots become disconnected, and neither are very satisfying on their own.

(Review spoiler alert: I'm trying to do this review without any actual plot spoilers, so forgive my ambiguity.)

To discuss the Dweller List and its Transform, one must discuss the Dwellers themselves. I have to confess to having a soft spot for absurdist, relaxed aliens who have a society based on the accumulation of "kudos" but happen to be lying on a cache of hyper-advanced weaponry should a threat come calling. Pretty much all of the Awesome in The Algebraist is a result, directly or indirectly of action or utterance of a Dweller or Dwellers. My favourite example would probably be where Archmandrite Luseferous begins shooting live humans out into space unless the Dwellers produce Fassin:

Luseferous pointed furiously at the line of bodies heading slowly towards the planet. "Don't you fuckwits understand? That doesn't stop until I get what I want!"

The three Dwellers twisted to look as one. "Hmm," Peripule said thoughtfully. "I do hope you have enough people."

I'll save talking about how this pushes Luseferous from deliciously evil to laughable stereotype for later. I just want to revel in how wonderfully apathetic the Dwellers are. Not that I condone apathy toward humans. But the Dwellers' attitude is very alien, and as the above example demonstrates, they really have no reason to care about human lives.

(Review spoiler alert: The following is about the only praise I have for The Algebraist, so lap it up while the lapping is good.)

Unfortunately, our glimpse at Dweller society is brief compared to the time Fassin spends traipsing about the rest of the galaxy meeting a couple of other random species. We learn that the Dwellers don't really fight in factions anymore so much as have "Formal Wars" over somewhat trivial issues. Nevertheless, Dweller society isn't very cohesive—many Dwellers are completely ignorant of matters like military capability and whether or not they have a secret wormhole network. There's just so much potential in this single species. Despite the fact that a good chunk of the book happens in Dweller gas giants and Fassin spends most of his time with Dwellers, there's so much more we could have learned.

(Review spoiler alert: And now we resume our regularly-scheduled criticism.)

Compared to the intriguing Dwellers, the actual object of Fassin's quest is far less interesting. Banks makes a big deal over the fact that Fassin needs to find "the Transform," which turns out to be an equation written in "alien algebra" (hence the title, The Algebraist). Supposedly this list and its Transform are so important because they'd give the Mercatoria (or its enemies) access to a pre-existing network of wormholes. If this network exists, the Dwellers so far haven't offered to share it with the Quick species. No one seems to mention why finding proof of this network would motivate the Dwellers to change this position. And if the Mercatoria has the means to find the wormholes, what do they intend to do? Take the wormhole portals by arms? Because we've already established that the Dwellers, while never openly hostile, don't permit that sort of tactic and tend to respond with overwhelming force.

The actual quest is a mundane journey that consists of following various Dwellers who may have information Fassin needs. Along the way, he gets into a series of scrapes. At first, there's pressure to find the Transform as soon as possible, so that the Mercatoria can summon reinforcements before Luseferous' invasion fleet arrives in Ulubis. Gradually, however, this becomes less of an issue, and in the end Fassin's search doesn't have any effect on the outcome of the invasion. Not that it matters, since the invasion itself turns out to be a minor problem anyway.

The invasion's mastermind, Archmandrite Luseferous, also begins the book as a credible threat. He's intelligent, ruthless, and sadistic. Also, Banks goes out of his way to make it clear the Luseferous isn't a delusional megalomaniac who ignores his advisers and compromises his plans out of ego or pride. This credibility erodes gradually as Luseferous' fleet travels to Ulubis, culminating in Luseferous' humiliation and defeat because he antagonizes a couple of Dwellers in search for this mythical Transform. And there's no real reason for this sudden change in characterization, other than the fact that Banks needs Luseferous' invasion to fail, of course. That the invasion failure is a result of miscalculations and bad characterization should be enough to set off alarms in the cautious reader's head.

Sandwiched in between, among, and pretty much everywhere these two plots aren't, are various sub-plots, revenge plots, and miscellaneous exposition about the types of species that inhabit the galaxy. The signal-to-noise ratio of The Algebraist is terribly low. There are so many names, species, and places irrelevant to the plot that I had trouble following the plot (although maybe this wasn't a bad thing). The fact that artificial intelligences are anathema forms an important point in the structure of the Mercatoria, which is fine. But then Banks includes an entire subplot involving hidden artificial intelligences, and Fassin's Head Gardener turns out to be an artificial intelligence, and all the while I'm just wondering . . . why?

There's a lot going on in The Algebraist. And a lot of it goes wrong. But it all goes wrong for the same reason: after a strong opening, the book presents a weak resolution with every possible threat declawed before it could be defeated. It's as if The Algebraist is a simmering pot of water that, about 100 pages in, comes to a boil, and then all of the water boils away. The threat just evaporates by the end of the book. Long before that happens, however, my patience evaporated. Judging from the praise that others have heaped upon this book, this is a situation where your mileage will vary. However, I urge you to think twice. There is a story somewhere in the depths of The Algebraist, but extracting and parsing it is not for the faint of heart . . . and I question whether the end result worth the effort.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,638 reviews330 followers
October 9, 2021
Banks returns to widescreen space-opera in this non-Culture standalone, featuring the galaxy-spanning multispecies, oxygen-breathing Mercatoria empire and its interactions with the more-numerous gas-giant Dwellers, who seem to have colonized most of the jovians in the Milky Way. And they're old. Really, really Old. Plus, exploding spaceships!

The Mercatoria power-structure is rococo Raj-in-Space -- there's a fabulous court scene straight out of Victoria and Albert's coronation in India, featuring the Heirchon Ormilla, the Peregals Tlipelyn and Emoerte, First Secretary Heuypzlagger, and many, many more comic-opera-dressed reps of the Ascendancy, Omnocracy, Navarchy etc etc. Egalitarian Democracy in Space it's not -- but looks positively enlightened compared to the Archimandrite Luseferous, warrior-priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum9, who is BAD. Really, really Bad. And Luseferous is coming to get Ulubis, the detached Mercatorial system which recently lost its wormhole to Enemy Action....

The Algebraist macguffin started out seriously straining my WSOD, but the Dwellers, giant gas-dwelling ammonite-analogs who channel John Cleese (when they're not emulating soccer hooligans), and their party-hearty 'kudo' (= wuffie, reputation) culture, won me right over. OK, they're not particularly Alien-alien, but so what? A human Deep-delver is sent to Nasqueron to find an ancient Dweller document, written in alien algebra and revealing a Deep, Dark Dweller Secret. Luseferous got wind of it, too, and Mercatoria Central knows that he knows, and is sending a big-ass fleet to fend him off...

Will the Fleet arrive in time? Will the Secret be found? It's seriously over-the-top Banks Light, one silly space-chase after another, with hardly a sag up to the near-inevitable Banks Downer Ending™, which is even more gratuitous than usual here. And Algebraist needed some blue-pencil work to cut some of the fat... Grump, grump. Lotsa fun, but could have been better with just a bit more work.

Algebraist has gotten a mixed reception, here and elsewhere. I agree with other's comments that Banks isn't breaking new ground here, but so what? He's clearly having fun, and still writing rings around most of his competition. Algebraist is a close comparable to Walter Jon William's recent "Praxis" space-operas: good clean fun, even if not the author's best work.
Profile Image for Sarah.
732 reviews73 followers
March 22, 2016
That is hours and hours of my life I will never get back. My experience is that this book is the most boring book on the face of the planet (okay, there are a few that could beat it) and I can't for the life of me imagine why it was nominated for a Hugo. However, I do have friends that like it, so I'm going with this wasn't to my taste.

There was this weird secondary plot too that seemed entirely unnecessary, and in a book that was bloated with confusing flashbacks, lengthy sentences, excessive use of commas, and side stories that never went anywhere, it seems like he could have cut some things out. A lot of things.

The entire reason that I kept pushing through this time consuming book was that it was my 100th book off the Sci-Fi and Fantasy group's bookshelf and I didn't want to DNF #100. The joke's on me, I miscalculated and The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was number 100. So I didn't DNF #101 and I really should be patted on the back because it really sucked.
Profile Image for Stevelvis.
92 reviews21 followers
February 18, 2008
THE ALGEBRAIST by IAIN M. BANKS -- An extremely rewarding though very complex read rating a 10 on all the scales of complexity due to writing style, amount of characters to follow, and the number and variation of cultures and species. The fast-paced action takes place on several planets all around the universe, includes one major character with quite a few other important characters including several totally alien species and several hierarchal structures involving religion and politics. It also includes a big emphasis on science and technology and a sense of humor. Amazingly entertaining but best for the Advanced SciFi reader. Of all the books on this list, this is the one I want to re-read the most due to its challenging epic nature.


I understand why this book was nominated for the Hugo award for best novel, and I also understand why it didn't win. The author takes an action-packed wartime space drama and makes it more complicated with a writing style in which he starts chapters with dialog without telling you who is speaking until half a page later. He also uses the paid-by-the-word style of writing by using 5 or even 10 phrases to describe something totally unnecessary when 1 or 2 would have sufficed. There is complex technology and a complex military hierarchy, actually several complex military hierarchies between the galactic empire, a sadistic totalitarian upstart, an anarchistic group of rebels, and an ancient very alien species of beings who inhabit the giant gas planets similar to Jupiter. There's also room for love and back-stabbing.

That said, don't let me stop you from reading this book. In fact, I recommend it very much and will search out other books by the same author because I like a good challenging read. The characters are rich and the plotline is actually believable while some of the technology and alien beings are unlike any I've read in other books. The action is wild, non-stop, unpredictable, and even humorous with strange landscapes which range from one end of the galaxy to the other. At 430 pages in small print trade paperback it's a bigger read for the more accomplished reader, especially those familiar with speculative fiction.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,140 reviews1,028 followers
October 25, 2018

Well, better than that — 3½ stars — but not as good as I'd hoped.

There were two major problems. The first I could almost forgive—as simply not being to my taste, the same way I don't enjoy the silliness of Terry Pratchett. The Algebraist tossed together rather high-concept themes (persecution of AIs, morally ambiguous revolution against a powerful hegemon, mass-death tragedy) alongside silliness bordering on stupidity. The major alien race is depicted as bumbling Woosters enjoying the life of a Gilbert & Sullivan farce... except when it is convenient for one or more to suddenly turn into James Bond. The high and low concept was like a radicchio-marshmallow salad.

The other problem was simple carelessness. For example...

Our hero spends most of the novel inside his micro-spaceship. It is described as "about five metres long, four across the beam if you included the outboard manoeuvering nacells and a little under two metres in height." So, in its smallest dimension it is a bit bigger than a typical adult male. Yet much of the time Fessin is stuck inside this oversized coffin, he seems to be strolling the corridors of spaceships and otherwise moving naturally. Yet this is in the same text as careful depictions of how narrow wormholes are, and thus the reason for "needleships".

Another problem is the bewildering decision of Quercer & Janath. Why on earth did they take that risk? And the Voehn knew who they were? How, and why? And the megalomaniac psychopath really deserved either a novel of his own; his subplot was so obvious and dead-ended so casually it was a pity the author spent so much time on him. The occasionally eruptions of profanity and sex were bizarre discontinuities.

I have the sneaking suspicion that Banks was working out a really clever novel, using graph paper and plotting out relationships and plot arcs on butcher paper tacked to the wall when he realized he was putting too much effort into a non-Culture novel and shut it down. Then he came back some years later and stormed through it to get it out the door, but he had coincidentally just re-read and become inspired by Good Omens.

I'll read Consider Phlebas 'cause the Culture series deals with topics some friends think I'll find interesting, but I'm wary.
Profile Image for Lee Prescott.
Author 1 book143 followers
October 9, 2021
At the heart of this there are some excellent ideas at play and the narrative keeps chugging along for the most part. But in parts I couldn't help wonder if Bank's was parodying the whole sci-fi genre with some of the names and titles he grants to the characters. These are along the lines of 'Formulaonedriverarti Waspywax was the Sub-Grand Vezir 3rd Class 2nd Removed of the Sept of Dog Worshipping BattleAxes, Dark Illuminati of the Pink Floyd Galaxy'. It reminded me a lot of Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Frys' mickey take of this kind of thing in Blackadder. Along with some of the nonsense ascribed to the physical attributes of the aliens this made it something I couldn't take too seriously but I enjoyed it all the same.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,104 reviews109 followers
September 14, 2010
It's all a bit too much, isn't it? I mean, every page—sometimes every paragraph on every page—of The Algebraist throws in the names of new planets, principalities and vast empires; lost races and common aliens of endlessly inventive forms, habitats and abilities; unheard-of technologies, world-sized starships and robots smaller than grains of sand, automated castles, weapons of both mass and intimate destruction... clans, clades and clubs; cross-generational romance... bizarre medicines and foods and drugs and sensations... it's exhausting! And, perversely, this very flood of specificity seems to have made this particular book less memorable, at least for me; I recognized bits here and there, but the plot as a whole (and, for a long time, even the Big Reveal) rather evaded me on second reading.

This very overwhelming, mind-blanking quality (as if I were a Banks character myself—they're always getting their memories tampered with, at least in this book) prevents me from being as enthusiastic about this book as I might otherwise be. For it is a great and sweeping tale, a science fiction mystery with a mathematical bent (as one might guess from the title), a space opera whose conflicts range from the grandest to the most intimate scale.

Fassin Taak is at the center of it all. A Slow Seer whose expertise is in communicating with the Dwellers—a whimsical gas-giant native species whose individual members measure their lifespans in billions of years. The Dwellers whom Fassin Taak studies live within the turbulent atmosphere of Nasqueron, the largest such gas giant in the Ulubis system. Fassin's home is on 'glantine, one of Nasqueron's more habitable moons, where he is a member of Sept Bantrabal, one of the more successful groups of Seers. (See how complicated this is getting already? And we're really not even scratching the surface!)

The Dwellers seem like capricious, frivolous dilettantes—there's some debate about whether they're civilized at all, despite their longevity and obvious intelligence—to the humans and other "Quick" species who slow their metabolisms and Delve into the atmosphere of Nasqueron to interview and study them (when they're allowed to). The Dwellers' long history and inquisitive nature leads them to collect an immense amount of information that is of historical and sometimes even scientific interest. But... the Dwellers are also rotten catalogers—all of their various collected libraries are a hodgepodge of unindexed, disorganized records. The Seers try to tease a few threads of order from the chaos.

That's really all Fassin Taak wants to do. But he's due to be yanked out of his complacent, contemplative work for Sept Bantrabal... because Fassin is also a citizen of the Mercatoria, the star-spanning Human civilization (well, mostly Human) which has successfully eradicated rogue AIs (artificial intelligences who came close to subjugating humanity) and connected hundreds of Earthlike planets in a faster-than-light network of Arteria, the paired wormholes through which interstellar travel is essentially instantaneous. Wormhole networks are easily disrupted, though—one of the reasons why Ulubis is such a Galactic backwater is that its own wormhole connection to the rest of the Galaxy was destroyed a few centuries earlier, necessitating a replacement be sent from the nearest connected star system by the Mercatorian Engineers who are the only ones allowed to create and maintain these particular bits of critical infrastructure.

Meanwhile... the self-styled Archimandrite Luseferous, an Evil Genius in the classical mode (inventive methods of torture; giant leeches in the dungeon; an obsession with ranked battle cruisers and other such ostentatious military toys) has cast his eye on the isolated Ulubis system as the next—the one hundred and eighteenth, to be exact—to join his Starveling Cult. His fleet is on its slow way towards Ulubis too...

And why all of this interest in what really is, on a Galactic scale, the equivalent of a sleepy little college town? Well, that's the thing that ties all of these elements together. Supposedly, somewhere in all of that vast collection of data the Dwellers hold dear might be a clue to the Dweller List... which might be a trick, or a myth, or it might just be a comprehensive list of a few million wormholes that the Mercatoria and other Quick civilizations could use. If they could just find them.

The Dweller List is the deceptively simple McGuffin that drives Banks' ornate engine of plot. And in the end, I enjoyed the drive Banks took me on using that engine—twice. So... not such a bad ride after all.
Profile Image for Sandi.
510 reviews278 followers
May 29, 2008
I keep hearing about what a great author Iain Banks is. This book was a book of the month last year for a reading group I belong to. I didn't like it. It had so much potential, but it was simultaneously underwritten and overwritten, if that's even possible. Probably my biggest beef with the book was the liberal use of the f-word. Now, I'm not a prude and God knows that the use of the f-word has become very commonplace. When my husband is watching Mafia movies, I always tell him that the over-use of the f-word is the screenwriter's way of adding a lot of words without really saying anything. I think it's even more of a crutch to use the word in novels set in the far future. Thirty or forty years from now, people will read this book and think it's so locked in the first decade of this century. It would be like a book from 1968 using the word "groovy" throughout.

Now that I've got my language rant out of the way, I'll have to say that even without the liberal use of the f-word, I still wouldn't have liked this book. I had trouble telling the characters apart. I didn't care what happened to them. I just couldn't get a reasonably mental image of the aliens. Dialog was hard to follow because everyone, human and alien alike, talked the same way.

Maybe Iain Banks is as great a writer as his fans and the critics say, but I'm never going to find out. This book turned me off to reading anything else by him.
Profile Image for Edwin Priest.
573 reviews34 followers
October 25, 2018
The Algebraist is my first get together with Iain M. Banks, and boy, does he seem all over the place in this book. It seems that he just can’t decide exactly what he wants to say in here. And it gives me some consternation about his other books.

There was much to like in this book. There were richly imagined aliens and worlds. There was a race of “slow” beings that live billions of years, impacting their culture, morals and interactions with the rest of the universe. There was a rather interesting plot premise involving a hidden set of travel portals and a Dan Brown-esque quest to discover them. There was certainly a lot of potential in here.

Unfortunately, it all got rather lost in the mayhem and unevenness. The plot became choppy and erratic, dragging at times and at other times racing, ultimately to the books’ rather abrupt and anti-climactic ending. Fassin’s quest began to feel like a nonsensical wild goose chase. The characters, the Dwellers in particular, came across as inconsistent and goofy, failed attempts to mimic the creative absurdity of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. The evil villain, Luseferous, was a caricature, evil just for the point of being evil. Other than being Banks' device to create tension, he did almost nothing to actually enrich the story.

And overall, I couldn’t tell if this was a hard-edged, space-opera science fiction story, or something entirely else. There were on the one hand space battles, wormhole portals, and weapons of mass destruction, and then on the other hand yacht races and open air homes with furniture and curtains, on Jupiter for goodness sake. Everyone wandered around in goofy esuites (or whatever they were called) as if taking an afternoon stroll or a jaunty trip to the beach. It was all very inconsistent and confusing.

So in the end, after high hopes, I had to give this book a disappointing 2-1/2 stars, which I generously rounded up to 3, just because of its’ rich potential, albeit unrealized.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,691 reviews637 followers
July 5, 2019
I continue to have very mixed experiences with Ian (M.) Banks fiction. ‘The Algebraist’ was recommended to me a couple of years ago and I started reading it under the misapprehension that it was a Culture novel. It is set in the far future, but in a much more unstable and disunited world than the Culture. Possibly an alternate future in which AIs were declared anathema and hunted down, rather than taking charge? The main character, Fassin Taak, is a human trained to communicate with Dwellers. These incredibly long-lived beings are found in gas giants all around the galaxy and have little interest in the doings of the short-lived. They are whimsical, capricious, and remarkably callous, with a fascinating society that Fassin gradually discovers as he goes on a quest. The setup for this quest is, in my opinion, unnecessarily lengthy. Several hundred pages could have been cut with no great loss. As in his other sci-fi, Banks found time to include a horrific scene of esoteric torture with absolutely no plot relevance. The high quality writing and compelling concepts kept me interested, but the pace was frustratingly slow at times.

What I really enjoyed was the world-building concerning the Dwellers and other alien species. Humans seemed dull and militaristic by comparison. My favourite aliens were the Ythyn, who turned up after 400 pages to take a very minor role in the plot:

The Ythyn had been collecting the dead for a billion years the result of a gruesome techo-curse visited upon them by a species they had fought against and been utterly defeated by. They had lost their small empire, lost their few planets, lost their major habitats and most of their ships and they had even lost themselves, coerced into a programme of genetic amendment that turned them from intellectually rounded beings into creatures utterly obsessed with death. [...]

They built massive cold, dark ships and accrued enormous libraries and data reservoirs filled with the subject of death. They haunted the sites of great battles, terrible massacres, and awful disasters. Over time, they began to gather the unclaimed dead from such sites, storing them more or less as they found them in their great airless ships, each carrying a cargo of collected death, plodding from one end of the galaxy to the other or gradually spiralling around it. [...]

That they had long since dutifully gathered up the remaining bodies of the now-extinct species which had inflicted their punishment upon them and could therefore relatively easily and without resistance have re-amended themselves back to their original selves, but had chosen not to, was either their most poignant tragedy of all, or a recognition that they had found a place within the galactic scheme of things that suited them better than might any other.

Despite disliking his torture scenes, I can definitely appreciate Banks’ macabre imagination. There are some fantastic ideas in ‘The Algebraist’ concerning the implications of interstellar travel, the difficulties of interspecies communication, and the nature of reality. Fassin and several friends from his youth provide the point of view characters, yet they seem relatively petty, small, and uninteresting in comparison to Dweller timescales. Still, Fassin is a thoughtful protagonist and his friendships with aliens add some emotion to the plot, which is largely focused on impersonal technological and sociopolitical forces. There are some spectacular scenes and very satisfying plot twists, Overall I did enjoy this voyage between stars to meet strange aliens, however more rigorous editing would have made it better. The plot doesn’t half meander.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews14 followers
March 6, 2014
Walking mp3: Tjörn Reserve: http://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/k...

Unabridged. (Clipper Audio) [Audio Cassette]
Geoffrey Annis (Narrator)
Publisher: W F Howes Ltd (2005)
ISBN-10: 1845053079
ISBN-13: 978-1845053079

There is an abridged version read by Anton Lesser out there however don't be tempted with that.

This loses a star because the baddy is such an obvious nasty with the name Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult, happily though this is an exciting and busy storyline crammed full of don'tlookawayincaseyoumisstheinformation.

Some of the action is very cruel and sadistic, and if you have a problem with children-hunting for sport then this is not a tale for you, however don't complain if you rated the premise of the Hunger Game trilogy 3* and up. This aspect of the Dwellers is particularly galling.


In an interview in 2004 Banks stated that "It probably could become a trilogy, but for now it’s a standalone novel." The Algebraist was shortlisted for the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel. In 2011, the novel was short-listed for the NPR Top-100 Science Fiction, Fantasy Titles.

The action begins when the wormhole that connects Fassin Taak’s solar system with the rest of the interstellar community is destroyed and the star system is threatened with invasion by a rival human culture. http://sophyanempire.wordpress.com/20...

Not 42, a duck egg.


3* The Wasp Factory
1* The Steep Approach to Garbadale (aka as The Steep Descent to Garbage Pail)
2* Stonemouth

As Iain M banks:
4* Look to Winward
3* The State of Art
4* The Algebraist
TR Matter
Profile Image for Victor Tanasa.
139 reviews8 followers
December 6, 2019
Straight to the favourites shelve. 

The Algebraist has all the hallmarks of excellent space opera: great world-building and characters, mystery, fascinating concepts, exciting plot, interesting aliens, lots of reveals and (in this case especially) humour. 

What I liked most about this novel though are the Dwellers. They're an ancient, galaxy-spanning species of aliens that live inside the atmosphere of gas giants. They have a very laissez-faire attitude towards events outside their homeworlds or indeed the whole Milky Way; they're quirky, secretive, deceptive and not at all easy to deal with. It's a joy to see them interact with the human characters of the book, and often hilarious as well.

Lost some sleep to this one.
Profile Image for Yuri Krupenin.
94 reviews315 followers
August 8, 2022
Очень жизне- и свободолюбивый манифест, что особенно ценно сейчас; завёрнутый в достаточно красочный sci-fi, чего вам ещё надо.

Главное пересидеть Злодея с большой буквы с брильянтовыми зубами: в секции ревью как минимум один автор не выдержал, но с другой стороны я как раз не уверен, что сейчас правдоподобие абсолютно карикатурного зла всё ещё кем-то ставится под вопрос.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,008 reviews1,118 followers
October 28, 2020
My roommate, John, either has good reading habits or knows me very well. In any case, his book recommendations are almost invariably appreciated.

John may have recommended Banks a decade ago, even before he moved in. Being a recovering science fiction addict, I was reluctant, but accepted what I recall (wrongly it seems) as a mass market paperback edition of 'The Algebraist' as a bedtime book. I read it over a period of days and was at once impressed and somewhat off-put by the thing. The writing was decent, the scope impressive, but all the action on a gas giant planet was difficult to digest. I avoided Banks for a time, then, upon John's urging tried another, more accessible, novel and got into the habit of reading all the Banks science fiction I could--and even his first, 'mainstream' novel, 'The Wasp Factory'.

Banks recently died, getting me to actually look him up on the web and listen to some interviews with him. It also got me to check to see if John had any books of his that I hadn't already read. Here I referred to Goodreads, coming up with a list of those volumes not yet rated and reviewed. John had two of them--a third being on loan elsewhere. One was 'The Algebraist'.

Immediately, it seemed familiar. I'd read a novel by him involving a gas giant and its inhabitants before! Well, maybe that's just coincidence, maybe it's a setting employed in more than one book. I proceeded to read the thing...and found it familiar. I had read it before, remembered a few incidents, a few characters, but not enough to be able to predict it progression or conclusion--and I was getting more out of it more than previously.

So it appears that I'd failed to record having read this borrowed book, having read it years before having gotten involved in Goodreads. If I had reviewed it then, I probably would have given it two stars, while now I give it four--another indication of just how subjective such a rating system can be. Why the big difference?

The reason is that Banks' science fiction novels are generally vast, what used to be called 'space operas'. Most are set in the very far future, are drawn across the entire galaxy (not to mention virtual realities within it) and involve many species (not to mention Artificial Intelligences) and even more major characters. They're like Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' without the mooring that tome has in familiar history. That and my original difficulty in visualizing life on a gas giant in a distant solar system caused me not to enjoy this book so much on the first go-through. Now, however, having become comfortably familiar with Banks, it was much easier to enjoy the story.

A postscript: If I haven't mentioned it before, one of the enjoyments in reading Banks is appreciating his wry tone, his sense of humor and how some elements of his stories reflect satirically on current political and cultural events.
Profile Image for Michele.
617 reviews169 followers
June 29, 2013
This novel was:

a) amusing
b) bizarre
c) complicated
d) decadent
e) elaborate
f) freaky
v) versatile
w) weird
x) xenophilic
y) yonder, out
z) zany

If you picked "All of the above," you'd be right. FTL travel and secret wormholes let the main character, Fassin Taak, hopscotch across the known universe in less time than it takes a villain to talk too much and get destroyed. The author takes full advantage of this to introduce Taak to everything from sentient brambles to a species that collects dead other species to Siamese-twin AIs that finish each other's sentences and possess some mad superpowers.

Others have complained about the Jeeves-and-Wooster ambience of the Dwellers, but I rather liked it: as with the English upper crust of a certain era, they seem to have unlimited resources and rather too much time on their hands. As a result, they've turned war into a sport, planetary defense into a club activity, their own children into prey (it isn't as icky as it sounds).

Others have also complained about the exaggerated villain, the Archimandrite Luseferous, but again I rather enjoyed him. Like the Joker and the Penguin from the old Batman series with Adam West, he's in love with his own villainy and you can't help but admire his thoroughgoing EVILNESS. The fact that

If Taak had ended by saying to the old Gardener, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with." I would not have been at all surprised.

I was a little puzzled by the subplot involving Saluus Kehar and Kehar Heavy Industries -- he's like a 43d century Tony Stark, all wound up with the military-industrial complex, yet his story never really goes anywhere big. Instead it

There are some deeper themes threading through the novel (e.g., prejudice against artificial intelligence and the relativity of morality), but for me the fun was in the trip -- and what a long, strange trip it's been.
Profile Image for Matt.
23 reviews2 followers
December 17, 2007
So Banks seems to ripen with age. Banks earlier titles were wrought with fanciful, min-blowing brain candy yet lacked a certain cerebral edge or literary finesse. I have to admit that he kind of stumbled slightly with Excession but certainly made his mark with the novel in various other ways. Consider Phlebas was a near masterpiece as was the Algebraist. Here, Banks gets a pretty good clip going and his writing even smacks of literature. That, plus set in amazing fantastical settings (futuristic, of course) with round and complex characters with distinct voices, the novel was thoroughly entertaining. One thing I appreciate about Banks' style is his lack of apology for certain conventions owing to his expository writing methods. Iain Banks somehow gets away with telling while showing. Not only does it lend weight to the fantastic futures he envisions, the exposition in and of itself is fascinating stuff. Owing to the roundness of his characters, Banks makes them engaging and interesting. This is quite a feat since Banks likes to populate his worlds with incredibly thought out alien species unlike any human. I don't believe I've ever read a novel where a creature who consists of merely a sac of gas can quip violently funny tirades. The device he employs to achieve this is simple, Banks makes the assumption that any creature capable of interstellar commerce and practical civilzation building are most likely imbued with the same qualities. Sense of humor, compassion, a twinge of altruism - basically, human. This is a poetic license I am willing to grant in this case.

The story is drawn out and complex and I don't remember enough detail to accurately describe it here. Namely the names as such. It involves the sequestration of a young gentlemen to appeal to an ancient race of "Dwellers" who inhabit varius gas giant planets for their wisdom and aid to stave off an interstellar war.

The novel is active and spirited. Well-written and certainly a bar-raiser for the SF genre. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
September 26, 2013
Iain Banks is one of those authors who just makes you realize that other books are just Not As Good. I love him.
'The Algebraist' takes place in the same universe as other Banks SF novels, but is a fully stand-alone novel. It is the story of Fassin Taak, a Seer (basically, an alien anthropologist), who in his research, unwittingly comes across a clue that seems to indicate that ages-old legends may have some truth to them after all: the seemingly frivolous but enigmatic Dwellers, a widespread alien race who live in gas giants, may have access to a secret network of wormholes - which are the key to interstellar travel.
The empire that humans belong to, the Mercatoria, would literally kill for this secret, as their own network was decimated by the past AI Wars. Others would kill as well.. including an invasion fleet headed by a sadistic maniac.
Fassin is co-opted by the military/government to further investigate - but not only he may be heading into danger, but his entire planetary system.

At some points toward the beginning of the book, there were some slow-moving parts, and some points at which the shifts in time frame and point of view became slightly confusing - but toward the latter part, all of the threads were pulled together for an emotional, satisfying ending...
114 reviews12 followers
April 14, 2013
Just when I was struggling with Iain M.Banks and the Culture series, after reading "Consider Phlebas" and "Use of Weapons", I read "The Algebraist". It gripped me from beginning to end and cemented my opinion that Iain M. Banks is an original sci-fi writer in the pantheon of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card. However, unlike the first two, he not only has good ideas he can actually write!

"The Algebraist" is told from the (third-person) perspective of a member of the Quick races who study the Slow ones (who have lived for billions of years), in this case the gas-giant natives. The study turns up some interesting clues to the existence of a network of wormholes which might transform transportation in the universe. Not surprisingly this leads to intrigue, war, death, double-crossing, espionage and lots of other juicy stuff. There are several twists along the way which keep you off-balance enough to want to to keep reading in one sitting.
Profile Image for Gavin.
56 reviews18 followers
December 23, 2010
This is the reason I read science fiction. Banks creates multi-level space opera in a universe filled with humans and aliens. He has put a huge amount of creative imagination and must have had tremendous fun bringing this universe to life.
Profile Image for Alfonso Junquera perez.
262 reviews7 followers
October 5, 2021
No es la mejor novela de Banks desde luego, hay personajes que parecen sacados de una novela pulp (ese villano de dientes de diamante...) y otros con motivaciones demasiado unidimensionales, pero a pesar de ello la novela desborda imaginación a raudales, escenarios apabullantes, batallas espaciales epicas y personajes con carisma.
Profile Image for Rob .
587 reviews24 followers
January 5, 2010
This is a new genre for me. My first (so far as I can recall) "Space Opera," and I was beginning to think the fat alien would never sing...
Uneven reactions to an uneven book. In the book's favor, the writing is intelligent and challenging, and Banks' imagination is absolutely stunning. That alone is enough to make the book worth reading. However, there was plenty here that was off-putting. The tone of the book is uneven, and one wonders whether Banks can't decide to be Asimov or Douglas Adams. Some of the plot lines are undeveloped or completely extraneous (Tom Clancy has this same problem, devoting oceans of text to events that have little or no impact on the central plot). Same with some of the more interesting characters (the central villain, Luseferous, enters as one of the most interesting and disturbing characters I've run into; then disappears for most of the book, only to return in virtually cartoon form...a plot device with diamond teeth). Also problematic is Banks' generous use of profanity (apparently the most prolific weapon 2000 years from now will be the F-bomb) that serves no purpose. At times Banks almost sounds like an adolescent who has just learned some curse words and now uses them like commas. I'm no prude about language, but it detracted from the story.
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