The Algebraist

I like The Algebraist much more on a second read.

I did not pay it enough attention, though I was enough of a fan to get it as soon as it came out in 2004. It is not a literary novel, so I treated it like an entertainment, and half way through was confusing Ulubis (the star) and Nasqueron (its major planet). It has the standard Iain M Banks characters: the psychopathic power-mad tyrant, whose imaginative ways of torturing people are lovingly described; the tough, action-hero woman, though she is less prominent here than in other books. What I remembered of it, rereading it now, is that tyrant, the end twist, and the politics of the galaxy, so different from that of The Culture.

Here, humans are one of many oxygen-breathing races tied together in The Mercatoria, a vertiginously hierarchical tyranny. They are bound by the laws of physics: no travel faster than light, and accelerating to light speed at rates humans can bear. No “inertial dampers” as in Star Trek. They can travel through “worm holes”, but the ends of these must be constructed together, and then the portal transported at sub-light speed. In war, or political squabbles, these get destroyed. Artificial Intelligence, after the “Machine Wars”, is proscribed and destroyed. There are Resistance (terrorist, or freedom-fighter) factions which make a pragmatic alliance with the Psychopath.

Not all of it works. There is a scene which Advances the Plot- a character explains what is going on to the ruler of Sepekte, with Fassin Taak, the main character, present. In this scene there are long digressions on the shapes of the aliens of the court of the Hierchon Ormilla, an Oerileithe. There is some value in remembering what an Oerileithe is, less a Quaup. There is character portraiture, in the form of having Taak think “Oh fuck” a lot. There is more information than you might want, and it is jumbled.

Yet I remember the twist, and now I see how many clues are built in to justify it. I don’t remember all the plots, but one concerns a change in Galaxy-wide politics, some concern inter-species relations, there are portraits of the gas-giant Dwellers and their society, and stories of individual human beings and their interactions.

It makes a change from Proust, whose questions- what does it mean to be human? How do we lie to others, and to ourselves? How do our misinterpretations come between us? How do we so comprehensively fail to see? -can get wearing.

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