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.

Review of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks

SFFaudio Audiobook Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Look to Windward by Iain BanksLook to Windward
By Iain M. Banks, read by Robert Lister
10 Cassettes – Approx. 14.25 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Clipper Audio
Published: 1990
ISBN: 1841971839
Themes: / Science fiction / Aliens / Space Travel / War / Afterlife

Civil war has taken its toll on a planet called Chel, whose furry predator-descended people live in a strict caste-based society with an exacting religion. One of them, a famous composer named Ziller, has disowned his home world to live on a Culture orbital called Masaq’. He lives in crusty happiness among the humans and formerly human machines there, composing, exploring, and attending dinner parties. But word has come of a second Chelgrian, a former soldier and monk named Quilan, who appears determined to persuade him to return to Chel. The Culture are partially responsible for instigating the Chelgrian civil war, and it may be that Quilan has a deeper mission that even he knows nothing about.

This is the compelling lead-in to Iain M. Banks’ novel Look to Windward, but it is far from the whole story. The novel takes us far into the future of humanity, across the astoundingly large artificial surface of Masaq’, down deep voids of space on a series of amusingly named spacecraft, through the bitter civil war on Chel, and even into the belly of a large, atmosphere-containing being and the enormous blimp-like life forms inside it. The range of emotion is similarly grand, beginning with a harrowing descent into the war and its aftermath, segueing into an amusing and confusing dinner party, and setting off into stirring adventure and philosophical discussions of risk, war, love, life and death.

This is an introspective novel, and its most involving aspects unfold almost entirely in dialog. Such dependence on conversation demands an author who can produce interesting, distinct, and consistent voices for the various characters. Iain Banks delivers in spades, and Robert Lister interprets his dialog with near-perfection (the notable exception is Kabe, who sounds like a B-grade Igor). Hearing Ziller’s profane peevishness, Quillan’s calm hopelessness, and even Colonel Hyler’s avuncular old war-horse is like perceiving the characters in extra dimensions. In particular, there is a discussion late in the book between Quillan and Hyler that, while horrifying in topic, is presented with such remarkable tenderness that I found it one of the most outstanding scenes of fiction I’ve ever heard.

Look to Windward is part of a larger series of Culture novels, but don’t let that scare you off. I haven’t read any of the others, and you won’t be required to, either. If you like a thoughtfully-paced interplay of characters and ideas in a futuristic but oddly British setting, then you will love this book. And, like me, you’ll soon be trying to get your hands on more.

Posted by Kurt Dietz