ORBIT £17.99 (534pp) | £16.99 (free p&p per order) from 0870 079 8897

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

Access all arias of a standard space opera

If the kind of science fiction dubbed "wide-screen baroque" by Brian Aldiss has a reigning grandmaster, it's probably Iain M Banks. Since
Consider Phlebas (1987), the enviable career of literary novelist Iain Banks has been paralleled by the equally enviable trajectory of Iain M. The latter's tales of The Culture, a post-scarcity far-future civilisation in which unlimited plenty has enabled a fruitful union of hedonism and socialism, have mostly proved witty, scarifying, endlessly inventive and delightful.

If the kind of science fiction dubbed "wide-screen baroque" by Brian Aldiss has a reigning grandmaster, it's probably Iain M Banks. Since Consider Phlebas (1987), the enviable career of literary novelist Iain Banks has been paralleled by the equally enviable trajectory of Iain M. The latter's tales of The Culture, a post-scarcity far-future civilisation in which unlimited plenty has enabled a fruitful union of hedonism and socialism, have mostly proved witty, scarifying, endlessly inventive and delightful.

The most innovative and challenging of Iain M Banks's SF novels was probably Feersum Endjinn, an anomaly in that it did not concern itself with The Culture. It should therefore bode well that, once again, he has put The Culture on hold. Paradoxically, however, the result in The Algebraist is an overwhelming impression of déjà vu. This novel is about as close to routine space opera as Banks has so far allowed himself to get.

This is not to suggest that The Algebraist is devoid of good things. The master's characteristic touches are present in great abundance: the snappy, demotic dialogue; a highly intriguing alien race, The Dwellers, so long-lived that they are, to all human purposes, immortal. An immense cultural void separates them from the humans, known as Seers, whose task it is to communicate with them.

There's a wonderful baddie, the Archimandrite Luseferous, effective ruler of 117 stellar systems and 41 inhabited planets. When we meet this scarlet-eyed, diamond-toothed and most theatrical of cosmic stage villains, he is indulging in some highly creative torture of a vanquished opponent, bashing away at the unfortunate's severed but still living head, which is suspended upside down in his throne room.

It takes a master such as Banks to invent such a galactic nogoodnik, but a master way off his best form to do so little with him, and to give him such a banal Cunning Plan. The problem is that the basic plot-line along which Banks has strung his exquisite inventions is ancient and frayed. "Sensitive, gifted young hero chases intergalactic McGuffin across the vastnesses of space, finds self in the process" would suffice from some of Banks's more pedestrian peers, but the Culture series has raised the bar for him.

Banks is having fun here, but then he always does: if this impression is created by hard work, it's even more impressive. His SF has always been characterised by its ludic zest, and the author's sheer joy in the act of invention. Banks is a show-off, and a likeable one: always cartwheeling into the reader's eyeline to perform a dazzling sequence of new tricks and outrageous finds.

Here, he throws away characters and concepts on which a lesser writer would build an entire franchise. His profligate, freewheeling powers of invention have led him to embellish the peripheral aspects of his work while paying insufficient care to its centre. The Algebraist is classy comfort food for addicts of Big SF, albeit prepared by a master chef: a stodgy main course, surrounded by delicious trimmings, but one ultimately composed of empty calories.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high