, October 31, 2007
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When I was in school, one of my favorite treats was a plain Hershey’s chocolate bar. No almonds, no cream, just sweet, luscious chocolate. I would get one very day, breaking off each individual little block and savoring it. I would carefully fold up the foil wrapper to use as a bookmark, just to keep that wonderful smell around for a while longer. It was that good.
A few months back I ran across one of those same treats in a vending machine. I hadn’t had one in years, but suddenly all the memory of those wonderful moments came rushing back. I was practically drooling with anticipation as I watched the bar drop to the bottom of the machine. But moments later, something horrible happened. It wasn’t good. It was still chocolate, to be sure, but nothing like the ambrosia I remembered from my youth. I was bitter about it for weeks. Sadly, this leads neatly into Iain M Banks’ latest novel, The Algebraist.
I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. I discovered Banks with The Player of Games about ten years ago, and promptly tracked down everything else he’d ever written and devoured it. I loved his minimalist style of setting and characterization that could flower into extravagant detail when the moment called for it. I loved the sweeping epic feel of his Culture novels where miles-long super-intelligent warships indulge in not only combat, but political intrigue and social hobbies as well. In short, he was one of my favorite authors.
Sadly, he publishes somewhat infrequently, and that 10 years since my first discovery have only yielded four new novels. Look to Windward was the last, and satiated my hunger nicely, but it wasn’t long before I was anxiously checking the web to find out when I could expect another treat. Finally The Algebraist hit the shelves and I snatched it from the shelf and rushed home, quite prepared to devour it in a single setting.
In The Algebraist; human civilization is still recovering from the results of a disastrous holy war against its own artificial intelligences. The network of wormhole gates that once allowed rapid transit between thousands of scattered planets has been damaged by war, leaving many systems cut off. Large portions of the once comprehensive galactic government have broken off to form their own governments, or fallen under the sway of warlords.
Fassin Taak is an archeologist of information, dredging useful bits from a sea of unsorted data gathered over billions of years by a race of spectacularly long-lived aliens who dwell deep in the atmospheres of gas giants. He inadvertently uncovers a secret that represents both danger and opportunity to every significant power in the galaxy, and must race to put the clues together and work out his own divided loyalties before any of the vast organizations pursuing him can either kill him or force him to their side. The result includes ambushes, chase scenes, and vast space battles, but in the end, the result doesn’t quite satisfy.
The Archimandrite Luseferous is intended to be a great boogeyman, committing horrible atrocities that should make you cringe and shiver whenever he appears. Unfortunately, his actions are so excessive that they almost become cartoonish, and lose much of their impact. Even worse, the parts of the story that feature him are told from his own perspective, which eliminates any sense of fear or uncertainty about what his motivations or limits are. Instead of horror or fear, Luseferous inspires mostly just distaste, and a desire to perhaps flip the pages a little quicker to get to the next part of the story.
In the end, while the characters and settings are all as richly developed as you would expect, they are also mostly recycled from Banks’ previous novels. Fassin himself is very strongly reminiscent of the conflicted protagonist from Banks’ first space-opera; Consider Phlebas. A very similar group of gas-giant dwelling aliens has appeared before in Excession, and the fundamental “Search to discover a great secret towards which great powers are striving” plot is common to many previous books. Overall, throughout most of the book I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d read it once already. It was still good, chocolate is, after all, still chocolate, but The Algebraist doesn’t really measure up to Banks’ previous novels, and left me feeling like I might have been better satisfied reading one of them instead.