bookrev: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks
A billion-years old alien species; space wars with megalomaniacal leaders vs. old bureaucratic galactic governments; hidden wormhole networks; artificial intelligence; and the universal drive to survive! All in a beautiful NightShadeBook wrapper!
Fassin Taak is a Seer, a human who goes into Jupiter-like gas giants and slows down to the time speed of the Dwellers, the most ancient species known in the Universe. He lives in a system that has been cut off from the reset of the Mercatoria (the galactic governmental bureaucracy) when it’s wormhole was destroyed by rebel forces known as The Beyonders. A new wormhole is being towed in, but an invasion force from the Starveling Cult, led by the well-named Archimandrite Luseferous is headed for the Ulbis system where Fassin Taak is as well.
In one of his “delves” to talk to the ancient Dwellers on the gas giant Nasqueron, Taak apparently uncovered hints of what is called “The Dweller List”, which is a list of hidden wormholes the Dwellers use to move around the universe from gas giant to gas giant.
The Mercatoria wants the list. Luseferous wants the list. Everyone wants the list, even though they are not sure it is real.
Seer Taak is drafted by the Mercatoria to delve back with the Dwellers and retrieve the list and the instructions on how to use it. He dons his special e-suit/ship which can handle the pressures and atmosphere of the gas giant, whilst letting him communicate, analyze, etc., and finds a Dweller named Y’sul to lead him on his quest.
You would expect an ancient civilization to have a well-developed sense of sarcasm, and Mr. Banks, delivers in several instances:
“I’m told there is to be a Formal War between Zone 2 and Belt C,” Fassin said.
“I too am told that!” Y’sul said brightly. “Do you really think it will happen? I’m not optimistic, frankly. Some appallingly good negotiators have been drafted in, I understand…Ah. Your hull carpace , doing the job of standing in, feebly, for the body you so sadly lack, bears marks upon it which I take to mean you were being sarcastic earlier.”
“Never mind, Y’sul.”
The “slowing down time shift” that Taak does to match the Dwellers, who sometimes do work or contemplation at slower speeds since they are so long lived, was very Zen-like in places; Taak would experience something that would seem like minutes, and then come back to real-time and days would have passed for others. Quite well described, especially when he uses this technique to talk to a semi-sentient gas cloud.
Several subplots are interwoven amongst the quest for The List, most interestingly is trying to figure out which side Taak is on (if he even knows himself) plus the genocidal objective to destroy all AI “beings” because of an earlier history “Machine War”.
This is quite a long book, but never drags, mixing interesting science (i.e., speculation on what a human like Taak would need to survive inside a gas giant world), alien species hypothosis (would they really have gas yachting clubs?) and themes that we are all familiar with (conquest, survival, why am I here)….science fiction, mixing great scientific forethought with stories about people (and aliens) and what drives them and makes them interact.
I quite enjoyed Mr. Banks writing style, though sometimes what I would consider “flowery” in some descriptions, it painted excellent visual pictures without becoming verbose. Of my two dings on the book, one is self-inflicted: in spite of the author’s description, I could not get a good mental image of what a Dweller looked like, and I really wanted to (I kept picturing a giant squid, but that could be because of Bruce Schneier’s Friday squid blog!); the other ding is that, like many well written books, the ending happens fast, with most of the “aha” moments and plot finality happening all at once….I’m not sure how to avoid this, and, without issuing spoilers, I was actually quite happy with the ending; I just wanted more.