Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist
- This book being a rarity among Banks’ SF novels due to not being set in the Culture universe makes it a very different experience. His Culture books all contain high drama, but against a safety net of sorts of the Culture being hegemonic and more or less unchallenged. Things may be bad for the places/characters within the focus of the novel, but there will always be our familiar society of armed-and-dangerous liberal do-gooders out there. (Banks does a lot of satirising/critiquing liberal interventionism in his Culture stories, but he definitely gives the impression that for an average citizen, the Culture is a very nice place to live.)
- Not having that reassurance in reserve in The Algebraist makes the stakes that bit higher. There’s an established galactic order, but they consist of a sort of bureaucratic tyranny, who would be the bad guys if we weren’t viewing things almost entirely from inside their society. In fact, the way Banks flips the morality of the situation is interesting; he obliquely mentions some of the compromises and drawbacks involved in life within this system, but waits to give us the full story. By withholding the protagonist’s journey to realising the evil of his society until the world has been established, it knocks the reader off-balance in a way that presenting the authorities as monstrous from the first page wouldn’t.
- Banks treats the villains of his stories in a similar way to Grant Morrison - spends a lot of time building them up as A Nasty Piece of Work (a skin-crawlingly sadistic tyrant, in this case) and a serious threat to our protagonists. Then, by having their plans fall apart, he pulls the rug out of from under them, rendering them ridiculous. Morrison’s villains, and their obsession with power, domination, cruelty and control, are fundamentally petty; and the chief antagonist in The Algebraist is the closest Banks has hewed to that formula. There’s even a subtle parallel between him and one of the protagonist’s old friends, who is definitely not a good guy, but still more of a sleazy egotist played for comic relief.
- The Dwellers are some of the funniest Banks creations ever - a species of ridiculously long-lived, gas-giant-inhabiting entities who speak and act like dandyish Regency fops. All organisations in their society - including the military - are run on an all-volunteer, gentleman-amateur ethos. They care almost nothing for the wider galaxy, and the closest thing they have to a currency are reserves of kudos. Counter to most SF portrayals of hugely old and powerful aliens, Banks argues that living for up to two billion years would make a species less likely to take anything seriously.
- As with Consider Phlebas, the actual plot is a shaggy-dog-story of a quest, where the item being sought is ultimately of less importance than the journey through various worlds and what happens to the characters on the way. Certain elements present in the background could be the focus of whole novels themselves, and the ending implies a bigger struggle yet to come. It’s a very good book on its own, but I can’t say I wouldn’t like to see more of it.