Sunday, March 26, 2006

Review: The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks

Banks is not exactly a hard science fiction writer, even though his novels have a veneer of it. Typically, he leaves the hard science exposition really empty (unlike Stephen Baxter) and concentrates on the characters. In this book, however, he plays a joke on long time readers of his, and writes a book that is more mystery than science fiction or character exposition.

The main plot revolves around Fassin, a delver, a member of a class of scholars who have been privileged to interact directly or through telemetry with the denizens of his local system's gas giant, creatures who call themselves Dwellers. The Dwellers are a really long-lived species, dating back several billion years, but seem to have dropped themselves out of interacting with other species that they call "The Quick".

Several hundred years ago,Fassin accidentally discovered a piece of Dweller text that implies that the Dwellers have a secret wormhole network that permeates most star systems in the galaxy, and when word of that leaked out a war was started. Now Fassin must once again delve into the local gas giant and find the secret key to the wormhole network before invaders take over his home. The mystery to be solved by the reader is the nature of the wormhole network and what the key is. Clues are scattered throughout the novel, which has the structure of a repeated quest.

Distractions are provided through descriptions of a number of Fassin's friends and their relationship to him. This piece of misdirection worked incredibly well --- for instance, Banks spends page after page building up a particularly dastardly villain, only to dispatch him in less than a paragraph near the end of the book, which meant that I didn't concentrate on the mystery at all. There's no physics knowledge or higher mathematics needed to solve the mystery --- all the bits are provided there right in the book for you.

My only complain about the book, then, is that Banks needed to say, "Mystery! Mystery!" all over the frontipiece of the book instead of "Science Fiction!" Recommended, but I would not buy the hardback.
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