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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. San Francisco & Portland: Night Shade Books, 2005. ISBN: 1-59780-026-0

According to the cover jacket, this book received a Hugo nomination for best novel. The Hugos are the SciFi equivalent of the Oscars. I'm afraid I wouldn't have given the book quite that high a recommendation, myself. It's well written, with an interesting premise, but the overall storyline is a bit too convoluted, too complex, too ornate, if you will, for my taste. Plus there are far too many words to get through.

The basic story involves a quest for a fabled bit of information, which may or may not exist, but if it does, has the potential to turn civilization upside down. The civilization of which we speak is a galaxy wide confluence of many intelligent species, of which humankind is a relative newcomer. The information is in the hands of the Dwellers, a gas-giant species, many of whom live at an enormously slower pace than other species.

To interact with them requires slowing down one's metabolism until days seem to whip past in seconds. People who do this for a career are called Slow Seers, and our main character, Fassin Taak, is one such. He hopes to find this hidden bit of information, which will supposedly lead to an entirely secret network of wormholes, providing an alternate means of transport around the galaxy.

In the meantime, another political entity has gained wind of the secret, and is planning an invasion of Taak's home world and planetary system. Headed by a thoroughly evil monster of a human, “the Archimandrite Luseferous, warrior priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum9 IV and effective ruler of one hundred and seventeen stellar systems, forty-plus inhabited planets, numerous significant artificial immobile habitats an many hundreds of civilian capital ships . . .” Here is a further description of this utterly evil villain:

Luseferous had long, sheen-black straight hair and a naturally pale complexion which had been skilfully augmented to make his skin nearly pure white. His eyes were artificially large, but just close enough to congenitally possible for people to be unsure whether they had been augmented or not. The whites beyond the black irises were a deep, livid red, and every one of his teeth had been carefully replaced with a pure, clear diamond, giving his mouth an appearance which varied from bizarre, mediaeval toothlessness to startling, glistening brilliance, entirely depending on angle and light.

But that's not the half of it. What makes Luseferous truly disgusting (apart from the fact that he routinely tortures people, destroys entire cities or planets just to make a point, and appears to be a sociopathic sadist of the worst sort), are some of the other modifications he's had made to his person. Here's the relevant passage:

Luseferous had had his genitals enhanced in all sorts of ways. One improvement was that he carried glands inside his body which allowed him to produce many different secretions which his ejaculate could then carry into the bodies of others (but whose effects he was proof against, obviously), including irritants, hallucinogens, cannabinoids, capsainoids, sleeping draughts and truth serums. He went briefly into the little-death little-trance, the petit mal which allowed him to select one of these, and chose the last-mentioned, the truth drug.

He took the girl anally; it was faster-acting that way . . .

It . . . emerged that she thought he was horribly ancient and weird-looking and a frightening, sick-minded old sadist and she absolutely hated being fucked by him.

He thought about inseminating her with thanaticin, or employing one of the physical options his remade penis made possible: the shaved horsetail, perhaps. Or just injecting her into the vacuum and watching her die.

In the end, Luseferous decided that letting her live with such constant degredation was punishment enough. He'd always said he preferred being despised, after all.

He would make her his favorite. Probably wise to put her on suicide watch, too.

Anyway, that such an evil individual is allowed to escape virtually scot free, and gets no comeuppance, is allowed to live, even, let alone escape back across the expanse of space from which he came, is profoundly unsatisfying. Especially when the Dwellers had him well within their sights, having just destroyed his oversized flagship, the Luseferous VII, and all 20 of his planet-busting bombships with which he was threatening them.

To not have Luseferous himself blown up and destroyed contravenes all the usual conventions of storytelling. Horribly evil people are supposed to come to horribly evil ends. And while I suppose that for “sophisticated” readers or writers, these kinds of conventions are designed to be broken, it is frustrating when it happens for no particular reason that can be determined. There is no element to the plot that requires or benefits from his escape. It just happens.

Still, Archimandrite Luseferous takes up only a relatively small percentage of the pages of this book. His is by no means the primary focus nor—fortunately—are we forced to spend much time with him. Quoting these little bits about him really do create a mostly false impression of the book as a whole. Most of it is spent on Fassin Taak, and his quest to find the hidden piece of crucial information. The quest takes him halfway around the galaxy and back. To tell you whether or not he succeeds would be too much of a spoiler. Suffice it to say that in the end, the story just kind of peters out.

So, my verdict? Only slightly more than marginally recommended for all general science fiction readers. Especially if you don't have anything more pressing to read.


  • Do you have copy writer for so good articles? If so please give me contacts, because this really rocks! :)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 AM  

  • Thanks for the compliment, but sorry, no, I wrote it all myself! No copy writer.

    By Blogger Will, at 1:29 PM  

  • I read about it some days ago in another blog and the main things that you mention here are very similar

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:48 PM  

  • I think (having read this as well as many other books by Mr. Banks) you are missing the whole point of how he resolves, or not, the fate of his characters. Just like in real life sometimes the good guys don't always prevail. Sometimes the most abhorent of individuals do not lose, do not pay for their crimes.

    Much like the final episode of The Sopranos, sometimes we, the spectator, must accept that as unsatisfying as it can be, a narrative does not always end up cleanly packaged with the results we would like to have.

    What do you think happens when a person dies? Life goes on in, as Camus said, in a universe that is " benignly indifferent" to our hopes, wishes, dreams and sense of (in my case and I assume the case of most people who ever have lived or are yet to be born) importance and moral beliefs. Banks writes much as does Richard Morgan, about a universe where it is often the case that the truely repulsive people (think Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot to name a few) who abandon the constraints of polite convention in favor of accumulation of sheer power through force, tyranny and terror actually accomplish their goals. Just because Luciferous was a truely horrible character, "that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination," (page 8 P4) doesn't mean he must suffer or die at the hands of "the good guys," as is frequently the case when I pick up a newspaper and read about how bad people not only get away with their repugnent behavior (AIG managers who almost caused a 2nd global depression and immesurable loss to millions of Americans are still getting million dollar bonuses because "it is in their contracts and the US government doesn't want to declare those contractual bonuses void even though that same government bailed out AIG with our tax dollars.)

    in a sane world those AIG thieves should be banned from working in that industry, fined, jailed and made to pay for choosing their own gratification over legal and moral and responsible behavior. Just like in this book, so it goes in America today, only without the adjustable penis (but if Tiger Woods could have such a genetial item I imagine he would opt for it, as would governor John Sanford, Senator Ensign, and so on.

    Finally, I cannot accept your statement that the book had, "too many words [pages?]). Try reading something long, like Neil Stephensons Baroque Cycle - 4 ( or 5 if you count Cryptonomicon) each roughly 1000 pages. One of the best. Written works I have ever enjoyed, and certainly not "too long," your condemnation of Banks book on the basis of length reminds me of the scene in the movie Amadeous where it is claimed Motzart's music isn't good because it has, "too many notes."

    your review is well written but fundamentally flawed. I hope I demonstrated why I believe this to be the case.

    Jim Bianco
    San Francisco, CA. USA

    By Blogger Jim, at 5:42 AM  

  • Jim,

    Thank you for your well-thought-out comment on my review of The Algebraist. You make good points, and while I don't necessarily disagree with most of them per se, I read science fiction primarily for entertainment. Which means I don't expect it to correspond directly to the real world.

    And it's why I sometimes find excessively lengthy and wordy novels less rewarding. Which may be why I've never read more than the first novel in the Stephenson Baroque Cycle you mention. Albeit, I did thoroughly enjoy Cryptonomicon. Some novelists could do with a good editor, who might require them to trim some of their excess verbiage, in my view. Which is ironic, coming from me, since one of my own tendencies is definitely toward verbosity and excessive verbiage. Takes one to know one, as they say.

    Yes, in the real world evil people get by without being punished. And no, I don't expect everything I read to have "they lived happily ever after" endings, nor do I expect that everyone evil get his or her comeuppance.

    But to even create a character as grossly and obscenely evil as Luciferous seemed gratuitous to me in the first place (what was the purpose of this, if not to titillate with the disgustingness and evilness of the character?). And to leave him unpunished just rubbed the reader's nose in it. I don't enjoy having my nose rubbed in such filth.

    In that way, it is similar to Daniel Suarez's Daemon, which I'm currently reading, and which has two completely gratuitous (in my view) sex scenes near the beginning of the book. I'm no prude, and can enjoy a well-written sex scene as much as the next guy, but these while admittedly arousing, were both disgusting, and made me feel dirty. Fortunately, although I'm now more than halfway through the book, these kinds of sexual episodes have not been repeated.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments. I certainly don't claim to have written a deep, thoroughly considered review of any book on my blog. Rather, these are typically my initial reactions, my casual thoughts about the books I've read. My "review" may indeed be flawed, but it is, nevertheless, "mine own," and it does fairly accurately represent what I thought about the book at the time.

    By Blogger Will, at 6:35 PM  

  • hiya

    great forum lots of lovely people just what i need

    hopefully this is just what im looking for looks like i have a lot to read.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:25 PM  

  • Howdy

    I just wanted to say hi


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:32 PM  

  • " Plus there are far too many words to get through"

    I am reminded of Emperor Joseph II about The Marriage of Figaro - "too many notes, Mozart"

    Its not his best (Against a Dark Background IMHO) but really ...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:18 AM  

  • Buenas noches

    It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:57 AM  

  • Yeah, I hate it when I'm reading a book and there are so many words to get through...


    By Anonymous niceguyted, at 2:00 PM  

  • Well, in the context of the book the Archimandrite escapes because he is extremely good at being an Evil Overlord: for example, he has an huge ego, of course, but he never lets that get in the way of understanding his own physical vulnerability...and any of the plans he's made out of pride or spite or just random evil are as as expendable to him as the lowest slave if it should get in the way of something he values more, for example his life.

    Certainly, Banks is tweaking our expectations, but I think he's also trying to make a point: morality is orthogonal to intelligence and competence, it being an amoral universe (or simulation thereof).

    By Blogger Obvious Sock-Puppet, at 12:49 PM  

  • Thank you, Obvious Sock-Puppet, for your comments on this thread. You make a good point, and one that I can't really argue with.

    I'd just reiterate my opinion that one could accomplish these things without depicting such gratuitously obscene and repulsive a character. I don't need to experience that level of depravity, even second hand in a novel, to get the point!

    By Blogger Will, at 8:31 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:22 PM  

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