Reviews of Algebraist, the (2004)
Review by misaelf (2006-03-29)
The rankings here at the Internet Book List suggest that Iain M. Banks is among the most highly favored of current science fiction writers. Having never read any of his books, I jumped at the chance to check out this new ostensibly standalone novel as an introduction to his work. Overall, I found it quite enjoyable. It's a modern, grand tour space opera told with a wry sense of humor. We're introduced to a whimsical, scatter-brained race of ancient aliens who dwell in most of the gas giants throughout the universe. The main character is a human who has made a career of talking to these Dwellers and perusing their extensive, though badly organized, libraries. When a crisis arises which threatens his home system, which has been cut off from the rest of the galaxy for the past two hundred years, he is sent on a seemingly pointless quest to discover a mythical Dweller List of wormholes used by these aliens to travel to essentially all known star systems.
It's good stuff, very entertaining and very richly described. The Dwellers are a fascinating, ruthless but amusing species. The main villain is cartoonishly evil, but his absurdist sadism is so extreme that one just has to laugh. But best of all are the new spins on familiar science fiction themes and ideas, like the significance of the solipsistic religion that is widely practiced. There aren't any truly original innovations here, but what's presented is used cleverly and enjoyably.
On the downside, sometimes a little too much detail about political structures and histories is provided, most of it being irrelevant to the main story. Though it adds to the complexity (and often absurdity) of the universe he's creating here, and seems to be mostly setup for what is likely to be a continuing series, it also tends to slow things down and tax one's memory a bit. Also, some subplots seemed extraneous and didn't really pay off satisfactorily.
I don't want to leave anybody with the impression this is a slapstick comedy. It's really a light-hearted adventure meant to be read for fun, not as a thought-provoking allegory. But there's still plenty of drama here, too, some tragedy, and a decent mystery that is slowly unraveled. I admit, I figured out the basic solution to that puzzle about 100 pages before it was revealed, but I think that just suggests that I was in-sync with the author. I'll have to check out his Culture series as soon as I get the chance.