The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

Access all arias of a standard space opera

Charles Shaar Murray
Friday 22 October 2004 00:00
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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.

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