Review of The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Science Fiction Audibook Review

Clipper Audiobook - The Algebraist by Iain M. BanksThe Algebraist
By Iain M. Banks; Read by Geoffrey Amis
21 CDs – Approx. 24.25 hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Clipper Audio
Published: 2005
ISBN: 9781419353772
Themes: / Science Fiction / Space Epic / Galactic Empires / Aliens / Worm Holes /

This is a space opera on the epic scale. Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers. The Nasqueron Dwellers are a very old race, almost as old as the universe itself. They are inhabitants of gas giants all across the universe. Intra-galactic traveling is done by way of wormholes. The Outsiders from beyond the galaxy are sending in military forces and destroying wormholes. The leader of the Mercatoria, the reigning galactic empire, sends Fassin on a quest to find a fabled book. The book is called The Algebraist. As legends have it, it’s a book written by the Dwellers and in it is contained information of a hidden network of wormholes that is held in secret.

The Mercatoria is a corrupt empire headed by the Archimandrite Luseferous. Luseferous is the most evil villain to ever inhabit a galactic empire. Darth Vader couldn’t pack this guy’s lunch. He creates living punching bags out of the heads of his attempted assassins. He can modify the chemical effects of his semen to make courtesans love him or die for him. He’s a false advocate for the official galactic religion. We learn through the course of the book his internalized philosophy that makes his atrocities believable.

This is a long audiobook but it sustains one’s interest through its entirety. The narrator is Geoffrey Amis. Mr. Amis has a fine narrative voice but it doesn’t express a lot of range to differentiate the individual characters. This is a vast canvas with a large cast of characters and this lack of range makes the individual characters harder to remember.

My American bias surfaced into a silly thought. I was thinking how strange it was that the narrator portrays every character in the book with an English accent. Well, the characters aren’t really speaking English in the book but some sort of galactic standard. The author just conveys the dialogue as English as a logical convention. It occurred to me that the many aliens and cultures would have varying accents (as well as languages). I believe it would be impossible to convey alien accents without reference to our own human accents. This would create some rather silly aliens that might be useful in a humorous story, but would undermine a serious work. So the narrator did right to stick to his native accent. I mention my American bias, because if this were read with an American accent it would never have stricken me as strange that all the characters speak with the same accent.

Overall this space opera is a many-layered fugue and Iain Banks pulls out all the stops.

3 thoughts to “Review of The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks”

  1. A couple of errors mar this review; I really enjoyed this novel, which I both listened to and read concurrently.

    The Archimandrite Luseferous is not the leader of the Mercatoria; he conquered an arm of the galaxy that, owing to some destroyed wormholes, was cut off from the Mercatoria, the dominant government of the remainder of the galaxy still connected by established wormholes. In fact, the protagonist, Fassin Taak, is seconded into the Mercatoria early in the book, in order to fight Luserferous’s fleet. (It’s on the book jacket, even.) As I note above, the aggressive forces of Luseferous are from another galactic arm, not another galaxy; whether any of the plot takes place outside of the Milky Way is hard to say for certain, but the answer could well be no.

    Also, Luseferous only blew up cities and inflicted all sorts of individual cruelties, while Darth Vader blew up an entire planet and attempted the same again (and, more to the point, built not one but two stations capable of that feat). But Luseferous certainly does things with a more personal touch.

    But all in all, this is one of Banks’ best; part rebuttal to the Culture novels, as the protagonists are faced with the impenetrable Dwellers, so are many races faced with The Culture. And the rest is just brilliance; a multitude of original ideas found in the smallest nooks of the book. George Lucas is not fit pack a lunch for Iain Banks.

  2. Without spoiling anything, I’ll add that Archimandrite Luseferous has _definitely_ read the Evil Overlord guide: he is the smartest, least wish-fulfilling-for-good-people, villain I have ever seen.

    A bonus: the Dwellers seem to me to be a reasonable, nuanced, take on the Affront from Banks’ “Excessions”; pacem Heinlein, second draughts are often a great idea.

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