Iain M. Banks

Penguin (UK), ISBN 1841492396, Author’s site, buy online

The AlgebraistMuch like the great Fredric Brown, Scottish author Iain Banks’ work straddles the worlds of science-fiction and mystery. His SF books are signed Iain M. Banks (the others drop the middle initial), and could be roughly classified as Space Opera. Don’t expect to find mescaline-fueled visions of alternate realities à la Philip K. Dick (Single-malt whisky seems to be the drug of choice) or dystopic cyberpunk universes. While trendy steampunks disdain space opera as a spent sub-genre devoid of possibilities, Banks’ books demonstrate brilliantly how misconceived the notion really is.

The gorgeous cover design marks a break from the earlier ones. It depicts the transit of Io across Jupiter, and the original, taken by the Cassini-Huygens probe, is available from NASA. Unfortunately, like other British-published authors, this book will likely take an unreasonable amount of time to cross over to the USA, possibly as long as two years. The solution, as usual, is to order online from Canada.

The Algebraist is not set in the Culture universe of many Banks “M” novels. The chief protagonist is a “seer”, a xeno-ethnologist specializing in contact with Dwellers, an alien species almost as old as the Universe. The anarchistic and hedonistic Dwellers colonized gas giant planets across the entire galaxy, their life spans extends in the millions of years, and they take obvious delight in baffling the short-lived “Quick” species that presume to ferret out their secrets. At the same time, the byzantine and quasi-feudal society the seer belongs to (shades of Dune here, including a full-blown Butlerian Jihad) invests him with the mission to discover a secret inter-galactic transport network supposedly developed by the Dwellers. This secret could alter the galactic balance of power and the seer finds himself caught in a deadly three-way web of intrigue.

Banks makes no secret of his left-leaning instincts, developed in reaction to Thatcherism. One wonders how allegorical the rapacious Mercatoria and the mass-murdering Starveling Cult really are. Much as the Culture series explore a post-scarcity society and how it would cope with moral relativism, The Algebraist approaches how societies could communicate across vastly different time horizons. My guess is any culture where individual lifespans exceed a million years would primarily be concerned with staving off boredom. The Dwellers have their form of panem et circenses, and are a passive-aggressive throwback to the Culture. Banks recognizes that even in a society that has evolved beyond scarcity (viz. the Culture mantra: Money is a sign of poverty), social credit (known in the book as kudos) will remain a powerful non-financial motivator.

As with his previous SF novels, Banks’s wealth of ideas does not fail to dazzle, where lesser authors would prefer to dole them out parsimoniously in multiple installments. This book was gripping enough to keep me reading well into the wee hours of morning, even on a week-end where I had barely enjoyed a single good night’s sleep in three days. What more can one ask?