The M in Iain M. Banks is very important. Without it, he is a successful and critically lauded author of contemporary literature. With the M however, he is instantly disreputable, a writer of not only science fiction, but of the dreaded Space Opera (threatening brass chords here). He is also one of the early leaders of the British SF Invasion, which is every bit as pervasive and influential as a couple of other British Invasions, but involves neither red coats nor screaming teen girls. The Algebraist is the fifth Banks book I have read, all by Iain M., but it is the first to grace the hallowed Attic walls.
While I won’t go so far as to call Banks “polarizing,” I suspect that his writing is something one either likes or dislikes heartily. Love and hate are probably too strong, but there seems to be a decent-sized gap between those that dig his stuff and those that shake their heads, wondering why they just can’t get into it. The Algebraist is not part of The Culture, Banks’ usual stomping grounds, but is unmistakably his work. Nominally Space Opera in the sense that it involves galaxy-spanning adventures and space ships blowing up, the book is marinated heavily in his usual mix of zaniness, political commentary, and left field, odd angled quirks. Like most, but not all, Banks tales, it is also sprawling and barely contained, with ideas whizzing off left and right, often never to return. More than the weirdness or politics, it is the latter that seems to cause the most trouble for SF readers.
The book is split roughly into three parts. In the extended introduction, Banks lays down the overlapping and sometimes unrelated plot lines: Seer Fassin Taak (our august hero) is sent on a quest for a priceless object that will save the day, the comically evil Luserferous sets off to conquer Taak’s home system, and a young Taak and his friends have a misadventure that ends tragically, sending repercussions throughout the rest of the story as his friends come to terms with it. The last is only vaguely related to the first two, the second is more or less responsible for the first, but ends up being rather tangential, and the first, while superficially run of the mill, ends up in a psychological space that Umberto Eco would fervently endorse. (This is difficult to explain without rampant spoilers to multiple novels, but let us just say that people who grumble about the end of The Algebraist probably don’t like The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum either. There is a resigned cynicism in books like this that will not resonate with everyone.) The introduction also jumps back and forth in time, laying out in broad strokes many thousands of years of galactic history. Banks has obviously put the time into creating a massive world, even if this story only occupies a small part.
In the second part, the plot begins to resolve many of the early questions. Taak moves deeper into his quest and the invasion plays itself out. Just when it appears that things will proceed more or less smoothly to the endgame, Banks starts tossing out twists and reveals. Here it may be a dark secret from a character’s past, there a bit about aliens. Someone will say something to turn the reader’s view of an organization inside out, only to follow it up with a comment that tips an opposing group over sideways. It’s almost enough to get whiplash from all of the “Wait, what?” moments. Finally, once most of the major plot points are out of the way, the story winds itself down and starts to close out all of the remaining questions. Like many of his books, things get mired down a bit towards the end, as the narrative momentum plateaus. I’m not sure why this happens as often as it does, but there’s almost always a lull in the last quarter of a Banks book.
The best part of The Algebraist is unquestionably the Dwellers, a species that lives in the gas giants of most of the known universe and has a lifespan of millions of years. They have been around since near the beginning of time and maintain a complex, impenetrable society that Seer Taak is studying. The Dweller’s long perspective of history keeps them aloof from the frenetic doings of short-lived races like humanity. This all sounds very serious and pompous, but two Dwellers in conversation is a bit like John Cleese and Graham Chapman pretending to be foppish British Lords, if the Monty Python crew was capable of periodically whipping out incomprehensibly advanced technology. While Taak is frantically trying to save his planet from a hostile space fleet helmed by a diabolical man with diamond teeth, the Dwellers are gearing up for a Formal War (much more absurd than it sounds) and gambling on yacht races across storms akin to Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot. If this book were nothing but Dweller conversations and exasperated humans, it would still have been nominated for a Hugo.
On the more troublesome side is Banks’ editing and economy of prose, or rather the lack thereof. Banks is capable of writing tightly executed books (Player of Games, Use of Weapons), but this is not one of them. Frequent readers of Two Dudes will naturally assume that someone who routinely sings praises of spare, efficient writing would be offended by the word explosion that is The Algebraist. Indeed, most reviews I have seen fall somewhere between irritation and wrath that the tone of the book is rather like listening to my young children talk: “and then, and then, and then” piling up on each other in breathless excitement. To my surprise, however, it bothers me less than most. I would probably enjoy the book more if the pacing was better controlled, especially in the end game. However, I’m less offended by the uncontained storytelling than I anticipated.
To make a music comparison, there are those who feel that a live performance should be as close to perfect as possible, and that the best way to ensure this is for the musicians to remain within themselves at all times. There is another faction, especially in jazz, that considers a safe performance to be stale and detached. They would argue that the true excitement in music comes from the risk, that pushing everything to the very edge, no matter the audience, is the only way that music can be truly alive. Anyone who has seen me play, or even just seen my CD collection, knows which group I belong to; this is probably why I feel affinity for Banks, even as his books careen joyfully out of control. The sense of dangerous fun inherent in his writing compensates for the organizational failings of the book.
Rating: Arsenal of the early 2000′s. A team built on intellect and elegance in a league full of speed and power, Arsenal could be alternately sublime and entirely too clever for its own good. Never, however, dull.