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The Algebraist
Iain M. Banks
Orbit hardcover £17.99

review by Christopher Geary

Fassin Taak is a human 'Seer' - not a psychic but a scientist. He's trained and equipped (with a cybernetic pod) to communicate, and virtually commune, with the mysterious alien 'dwellers' - residents of gas-giant planet Nasqueron in the Ulubis system, only one of many colonised regions lightyears distant from Earth. Drafted by the military-religious order of a secret police force in the 41st century's galaxy spanning hegemony of the Mercatoria, the somewhat unlucky Fassin is dropped into the atmosphere of Nasqueron on a special, vitally important, mission. He's sent in search of a particular dweller that he contacted once before, and is instructed to locate the source of some fabled dweller technology, and the alien algebra that's a key to operating it. Meanwhile, the Ulubis system is under threat from a piratical invasion fleet led by the sadistic despot Archimandrite Luseferous, the self-appointed ruler of over 100 star systems...

Over the last dozen years or so, it's become a critical cliché that any new genre book from Iain M. Banks is a major event on the British SF scene. The Algebraist does little to really undermine the author's reputation for phenomenal creativity in the field, and yet this novel lacks something of the sheer dizzying flights of imagination, always fascinating genre-expanding ideas, and instantly engaging trans-human characters of his grandiose, widely acclaimed 'Culture' series. Although The Algebraist boasts sub-lightspeed interstellar warfare, a murder mystery, much political and personal scheming - including those old favourite themes of treachery and retribution - alongside the cloud regattas of eccentric aliens, and an irreverent odyssey across unknown parts of the galaxy, this book simply isn't as good as vintage Banks. Whereas the author's previous SF landmarks - Use Of Weapons, Against A Dark Background, Excession, and in particular The State Of The Art - could accurately be described as modern space opera at its most amusingly vivid, consistently entertaining, and splendidly epic, The Algebraist succeeds in being only intermittently funny and occasionally entertaining, and falls short of 'classic' status due to the simple over-familiarity of its concepts and background details.

The shadowy dramas of Dune, with its fierce conflicts between rival houses of stalwart heroes and ruthless villains, is a noticeable influence, but perhaps Banks' decision to make this book easily distinguishable from his own Culture series by handicapping some human colonies with a lack of FTL travel or useful 'star-gate' portals, and instituting an absolute ban on Artificial Intelligences (except where and when it suits the imperialistic rulers to bend their own rules), only invites an unwelcome comparison with superior works by the likes of Dan Simmons and Vernor Vinge. Of course, substandard Banks is still on a par with the best works from newer writers such as Alastair Reynolds - but, to be honest, I really expected something rather better than this after Banks' absence from the SF market for so long.

This is Banks treading water in the safety area of science fiction's swimming pool. Let's hope he ventures further from the shallow end with his next offering.
The Algebraist

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