Monday, May 08, 2006

The Algebraist

I've gradually become an Iain M. Banks fan, although my first experience with his SF was so underwhelming that I swapped the book for a reprint of Emma in a Prague bookshop just so I wouldn't have to lug it home. His Culture novels have grown on me, but it's the dark psychology (which also comes through in his lit-fic) that put his books a cut above the typical SF. For this reason, I checked out The Algebraist from the Clerksville library despite its not being another foray into the Culture universe.

Perhaps I was doomed to be mildly disappointed. Since Banks creates a new universe out of whole cloth, he has a lot of world building to do, but the book went beyond that and began to feel overstuffed in general. The characters are classed as Quick (a variety of species living roughly humanoid timespans, with some technological enhancement and relativity-based extension) and Slow (Dwellers, who can live for billions of years and experience time at a much slower rate). Without giving away too much of the mystery plot, I will say that certain things kept jerking me out of the story: Why are creatures with lives that potentially span billions of years not risk-averse as adults? Why are AIs anathema? What exactly does a Dweller look like? (Even after pages of descriptions, I could never get a good mental image, which was not helped by the decidedly contradictory cover art.)

There were a few bright spots: a language of patterned knucklings and strokes that two lovers use to communicate secretly; the aside that it's often necessary for AIs in hiding to pretend to be conjoined twins since a solitary, secret AI would be likely to go mad; the over-the-top, Caligula-like villain who tries to conquer a system to get a valuable secret. But sifting through this epic tome to get to these bits may be a chore that only the most enthusiastic Banks fans are up for.
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