The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

Fassin Taak, Chief Slow Seer in Waiting of the Sept Bantrabal, is seconded against his will to the Shrievaltry Ocula, on a special mission to delve into the Dweller society on the gas giant Nasquaron and try to locate the elusive Transform, key to the Dweller List. Possession of this list will allow Fassin's home system, Ulubis, to fight off the rapidly approaching E-5 Disconnect invasion fleet, led by the villainous Archimandrite Luseferous.

Paragraphs like the one above are largely the reason why I don't tend to read a lot of space opera. There's often a sense within that subgenre that authors spend more time inventing outlandish names and titles (or, to be more charitable, outlining the institutions and organizations of their invented, far-future society) than they do coming up with compelling characters and stories. Along with cyberpunk, space opera tends to dump readers into the middle of the action and trust them to work out the various technologies, social rituals, and political relationships of the book's universe on their own. And although when done well this sort of immersion can be refreshing, a neat intellectual puzzle, I've come to a point in my life in which it mostly tires me. I want to read books that ask me to think about people, not books that force me to pass an intelligence test before I can even begin to care about their protagonists.

But within a few pages of Iain M. Banks' Hugo-nominated The Algebraist, I was in love. After the long slog through hundreds of pages of George R.R. Martin's barely serviceable prose in A Game of Thrones, a few paragraphs of Banks' lucid, beautiful writing were a breath of fresh air, and already within the book's prologue there was a hint of wit and humor--qualities that are all too often lacking from most varieties of science fiction and fantasy, and space opera in particular. The aforementioned Fassin is, once again, a Slow Seer--he communicates with the Dwellers, a race of aliens indigenous to gas giants, who live to be billions of years old. The Dwellers are hoarders, accumulating vast, cluttered libraries of seemingly random information. Seers like Fassin pore through these libraries in search of historical documents or keys to new technologies, and as The Algebraist opens it is revealed that on one of his early trips to Nasquaron, Fassin unwittingly brought back a reference to a secret, legendary network of wormholes that spans the entire galaxy--wormholes outside the control of either the crushingly authoritarian Mercatoria, The Algebraist's obligatory semi-evil government, or any one of the number of rebel-slash-terrorist groups who target said wormhole portals in an attempt to strike against big government. As two opposing fleets make their way to Ulubis, hoping to gain control of the wormhole network, Fassin is sent back to Nasquaron to retrieve the list--if it actually exists.

Another quality that frustrates me when I read space opera and cyberpunk is the tendency to assume the failure of democracy as a viable form of government. Future societies are invariably governed at a remove from their citizens. They are dictatorships, oligarchies, theocracies, lawless clumps of mega-corporations, and, highly functional though they may sometimes be, they are answerable to no one. Now, it's entirely possible that democracy isn't suitable for the efficient government of huge societies spanning multiple star systems and encompassing a variety of alien races, but to my mind the ubiquity of this assumption seems more like an easy choice on the part of authors--it's simpler, after all, to write about evil or uncaring governments than it is to write about well-meaning yet imperfect ones.

Easier, but less satisfying. Reading Banks' descriptions of the Mercatoria's faceless, emotionless, efficient domination of its citizens, I couldn't help but wonder--where's the internet? Where are the liberal bloggers complaining about the curtailment of civil rights? Where's the underground press? Where, in short, is the lily-livered, tree-hugging, Guardian-reading middle class? For, like many other space opera and cyberpunk novels, The Algebraist concerns itself solely with the further ends of the social and economic spectrum--the wealthy and privileged and the criminalized and marginalized (in only one of many points of intersection between space opera and epic fantasy). If a middle class exists in Banks' universe, it is never acknowledged (there are a few references to technicians and engineers who might qualify, but they are usually either soldiers or members of professional guilds).

So it was with great pleasure that I observed Banks begin to explore the meaning and requirements of a successful, just society in The Algebraist. The Mercatoria is his example of a society that works, assuring its citizens' safety and freedom, so long as you don't get in its way. When a young Fassin participates in a peaceful demonstration against the Ulubis government, he is beaten bloody, jailed, and forced to name his fellow protesters as terrorist sympathizers. A friend of his, who wasn't even taking part in the demonstration, is tortured into insanity and eventually kills herself (she is the second young woman whose untimely death spurs Fassin into making a major lifestyle change, which frankly is at least one too many).
The little man looked at him for a moment. 'Mr Taak,' he said, sitting back, sounding patient. 'I've inspected your profile. You are not stupid. Misguided, idealistic, naive, certainly, but not stupid. You must know how societies work. You must at least have an inkling. They work on force, power and coercion. People don't behave themselves because they're nice. That's the liberal fallacy. People behave themselves because if they don't they'll be punished. All this is known. It isn't even debatable. Civilization after civilization, society after society, species after species, all show the same pattern. Society is control: control is reward and punishment. Reward is being allowed to partake of the fruits of that society and, as a general but not unbreakable rule, not being punished without cause.'
Control does seem to be the watchword for the Mercatoria, with no one but its upper echelons having any say in how and when that control is exercised. When a Mercatoria representative informs the Ulubis government of the rapidly approaching E-5 invasion fleet, he makes sure to emphasize that the Mercatoria fleet, approaching the system but certain to arrive after the invaders, will be sure to respond harshly if the Ulubis government surrenders to the invaders. When Fassin's ship is boarded by the Voehn, the Mercatoria's most ruthless and indestructible enforcers, he is informed by the captain that 'we own you'. For the crime of harboring illegal near-AI technology, an entire civilian habitat is destroyed, and the attack is blamed on the Mercatoria's enemies.

As immoral as the Mercatoria can sometimes be, however, it is still preferable to the E-5 Disconnect, or, more accurately, to its despotic, sadistic ruler, the Archimandrite Luseferous ("a chosen name, selected for its phonetic proximity to that of some long-scorned Earth deity"), who destroys entire cities on a whim, tortures his captured enemies in a variety of inventive and gruesome ways, and in general rules through a mixture of fear, intimidation, and sheer bloody-mindedness.
So you seemed cruel. So people died and suffered and grew up hating you. So what? There was at least a chance that none of it was real.
And if it was all real, well, then life was a struggle. It always had been and it always would be. You recognized this and lived, or fell for the lie that progress and society had made struggle unnecessary, and just existed, were exploited, became prey, mere fodder.
Caught in the middle are the various breakaway groups called the Beyonders. Dubbed terrorists by the Mercatoria, the Beyonders espouse a more humanitarian ethos than either it or the E-5 Disconnect--they seek to exist outside the Mercatoria's control but within the 'lie' of a just, free civilization--but their actions, which include casualty-heavy assaults on military targets and an alliance with Luseferous in the attack on Ulubis, suggest a flexibility to their morals. Even Fassin, who despises the Mercatoria, has no illusions about the Beyonders' moral supremacy.

Through these three groups, Banks is obviously trying to explore the question of the viability of the just society, and the paths that can lead us there. Unfortunately, he abandons this exploration unfinished. Halfway through The Algebraist, I was ready to declare it one of the finest and most enjoyable books I'd read this year. By the book's end, I had been forced to severely revise my opinion. The Algebraist suffers from a flabby middle and an underperforming ending. Two minor plotlines--one focusing on Luseferous and another on Fassin's friend Taince, approaching Ulubis in the Mercatoria fleet with bloody vengeance in her heart--are given a great deal of attention and then allowed to fizzle out in an unsatisfactory manner. The reason for this is that halfway through the book, Banks switches gears, not to mention topic and themes. Taince and Luseferous' plots are vestiges of the first Algebraist, the book about trying to create and maintain a just society in an unjust universe, but by the time Banks got around to ending those stories, he was writing a different book--a mystery and a quest focusing on Fassin's adventures among Nasquaron's inhabitants, the Dwellers.

The Dwellers are arguably Banks' greatest achievement in The Algebraist. They are certainly his funniest. The million-year-old gas planet dwellers are no wise ancients. They are vain, arrogant, completely self-involved, and chronically incapable of taking seriously anything other than their own petty interests and hobbies. They might be described as a mixture of supremely selfish Ents and extraordinarily silly Victorian gentlemen of leisure. Dweller society is fundamentally disorganized, made up of informal clubs but no formal institutions or hierarchies (prompting some observes to suggest that it shouldn't even be called a civilization, in sharp contract to the hyper-organized civilizations of the 'Quick' races--the Dwellers' name for races not as long-lived as them), and moneyless--Dwellers act only to please themselves or to accumulate 'kudos'--societal respect points reminiscent of Cory Doctorow's Whuffie.

Fassin's adventure on Nasquaron include some of The Algebraist's most exciting and hilarious set pieces--a sailing regatta in the middle of a giant storm; a 'formal war', the official Dweller sport; Fassin's brief glimpses of the Dwellers' terrifying hidden power; or just a meeting with a city official:
'Why, I too hope to be going to the war!' Y'sul said brightly. 'Well, somewhere very near it, at least. I have only just now returned from my tailor's after being measured for the most lately fashionable conflict attire.'
'Oh, really?' the Administrator said. 'Who's your tailor? Mine just left for the war.'
'Not Fuerliote?' Y'sul exclaimed.
'The same!'
'He was mine also!'
'Just the best.'
'No, I had to go to Deystelmin.'
'Is he any good?'
'Weeeelll.' Y'sul waggled his whole double-discus. 'One lives in hope. Good mirror-side manner, as it were, but will it translate into a flattering cut? That's the question one has to ask oneself.'
'I know,' agreed the Administrator. 'And off to become a junior officer on a Dreadnought!'
'Not even that! A rating!'
'Very lowly, for someone so distinguished!'
'I know, but a smart move. Getting in as a rating before the recruitment window even properly opens makes sense. The smoking-uniform effect.'
'Aha! Of course!'
For a while, it's hard to regret the loss of the book Banks had started out writing--the Dwellers are too much fun. Sadly, Banks takes his good idea too far. He sends Fassin across the galaxy in his search for the secret of the Dweller wormhole network, but the quest soon turns repetitive and tedious. Fassin grows numb, and so do we. In the end, although Fassin find the revelation he was searching for, his victory seems pointless. Neither the quest for the wormhole network, nor the battle for Ulubis, nor the struggle to create a better, freer society, amount to a coherent whole.

And yet, there's more to The Algebraist than the whole. Like Cryptonomicon, another furiously funny SF book, it is best appreciated for its parts--Banks' beautiful, witty prose, his feats of invention and characterization, his clever and memorable dialogue and, once again, his exuberant sense of humor. The Algebraist may not be the triumph Banks intended it to be, but it remains a highly enjoyable read, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Banks' fiction.

As an interesting aside, finishing The Algebraist means that I've now read four of the five novels nominated for the 2005 Hugo award (the other novels I've read are Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which won the Hugo, China Miéville's Iron Council, and Ian McDonald's River of Gods. The remaining nominee is Charles Stross' Iron Sunrise, but I've not had great success with Stross' short stories so I doubt I'll be reading this novel) and can speak intelligently about the nominees and winner for the first time that I can remember. I find it interesting that at least three of the nominated novels--Banks', Clarke's and Miéville's--are admirable yet fundamentally flawed works. Even River of Gods, which would have been my choice for the winner, isn't without its flaws. I'm especially puzzled by this because neither M. John Harrison's Light nor Geoff Ryman's Air--both remarkable books, superiror even to River of Gods and deserving of the Hugo win--made it on the nomination list.


Anonymous said…
Yeah, this book didn't really work for me and I ended up skimming much of it. Despite the fact that I'm a big Banks fan.
Anonymous said…
I've been hoarding Banks books in my library for quite a while now, and haven't had the time to commit myself to them yet (I have read two of his non SF books - really liked Complicity, very much liked parts and ideas from The Business). However, from what I gather, most of Banks space operas (actually all of them but The Algebraist) are set in a universe whose dominant civilisation, "The Culture" is mostly a study of a utopian anarchy which Banks probably regards as the ultimate triumph of democracy and not as its failure.
As for cyberpunk books, from the few I have read the one of which I have the strongest memories is "Snow Crash", in which democracy remains the formal regime in the states. What Stephenson points to in "Snow Crash" is a process which can be identified in current politics, of the focus of power shifting from national governments to various other players (mainly economical) which are not yet regulated. I can see such a process having a point at which democracy remains no more than a formality, and there's a lot to explore there, but I do believe there's a future beyond this point, in which those new powers will have to undergo some point of regulation and a new kind of meaningful democracy will emerge.
And finally, speaking of Banks and the exploration of future civilisations, have you read Ken MacLeod's novels?
Niall, it's interesting given how allergic I tend to be to infodumps of all shapes and sizes, but I didn't feel that The Algebraist was a great offender on that front. Intellectually, I know that Banks needed to dump info quite often and must have done so, but with the exception of Fassin's interminable attempts to follow the Dweller with (supposedly) the secret of the list, I didn't think any part of the book dragged.

Shahar, given the way Banks idealizes the anarchic Dweller society (which Cheryl Morgan called a libertarian fantasy in which everyone does what they want and yet, somehow, there are people who want to maintain weapon systems and planetary security), I'm not surprised to hear that his notion of an ideal society is a 'utopian anarchy'. Not having read the books, I can't comment on them, but I'm not sure that such a society wouldn't be classified as post-democratic, as opposed the ultimate triumph of democracy.

Snow Crash, with its failed democratic government that won't quite admit that it's died, was very prominent in my mind when I mentioned cyberpunk in my post.

I haven't read MacLeod - anything in particular you'd recommend?
Anonymous said…
I think there's a big problem with Banks' account of the Dwellers, and it's the same problem he has with the Affront (a somewhat similar alien species) in Excession. They are a caricature of unbridled masculinity, but masculinity doesn't make sense without femininity.

The Dwellers don't care for their children, and the Affront reproduce entirely by rape. OK, those are both perfectly plausible biological variants.

But both species have human-like 'families'. Those can't exist if all reproduction is hit and run.

That this social/biological incoherence comes up twice in two recent novels makes me think it's some personal dynamic that he's working out, which is swamping his fiction. And spoiling it I think.

I'm not saying it's simple sexism, not at all, but I think he's trying to 'think the unthinkable', and failing to think it through properly.
Anonymous said…
I've only read MacLeod's tetrology - "The Fall Revolution" of which I find "The Stone Canal" to be the best starting point (although it is considered to be the second book both officially and chronologically). I must admit that a great part of the series' attraction for me, as someone who used to be active in various left-winged organizations, was his treatment of Marxist thought in the far future.
Anyway, Banks and MAcLeod are known to be members of some British socialist organization (way left to Blair's New Labour) and their books clearly show their ideological bias.
As for Snow Crash, what I meant was that cyberpunk, focusing on the rather near future, tends to look at an intermediate stage at which old fashioned national democracy ceases to be functional and society fails to come up with an immediate substitution. I do not think this necessarily means the books have a bleak vision of our future.
Alison, I'm not sure I'd say that the Dwellers have families (nice catch about them being a completely masculine culture - it was what I'd been trying to say when I wrote about Victorian gentlemen of leisure but I didn't quite make it to the obvious conclusion). They have friendships, master-servant relationships, clubs, but all of these relationships lack a serious emotional component. Dweller society is very much without strong emotion, beyond anger, pride, vanity, and a desire for self-gratification. I'm not sure it makes sense that the society functions given the fundamental selfishness of its members, but I don't see the lack of a feminine component as the underlying problem.

Can't speak for any of the Culture novels, of course.

Shahar, I think the bleakness in Snow Crash and other cyberpunk novels is inherent in the authors' choice to focus on the future before any substitute for democracy is invented (if in fact such a substitute is imminent - I think in most of the cyberpunk I've read I got the feeling that civilization was sinking into the hands of mega-corporations). It probably makes more sense to view history as a pendulum, with society swinging back and forth between liberal democracy and dictatorial tyranny, but I'm not convinced, from my admittedly limited reading within cyberpunk, that its authors don't believe that everything is going to get progressively worse, and that democracy has failed as a form of government.

I'll have to keep a look out for The Stone Canal, thank you (and Niall).
Anonymous said…
I thought the Dwellers had family relationships (doesn't one refer to another Dweller 'my father') and family inheritance - (doesn't someone inherit a house from their uncle?). That doesn't make sense if they lose touch with their infant children.
I'm pretty certain that no Dweller refers to a parent, but you may be right about someone inheriting something from their uncle (although it's worth noting that when the Dweller Fassin is searching for dies, complete strangers descend on his library and take whatever they want).

I'm not sure I'd equate 'no emotional attachments to family' with 'no attachments to family'. I can see a society where, for purposes of property distribution and other such prosaic matters, you'd have contact with your relatives while never developing emotional attachments to them. How rare is it, after all, in our own society, to find people who maintain contact with relatives for purely mercenary motives?
JP said…
'After the long slog through hundreds of pages of George R.R. Martin's barely serviceable prose in A Game of Thrones...'

Thank you. I thought I was utterly alone in the interweb in my inability to find any merit in Martin's prose. I think it's turgid, cack-handed and often unintendedly ludicrous.

Also, if you do want to read Ken MacLeod, I'd third The Stone Canal as the best starting point, and second Niall's other recommendations regarding this author.
John Gordon said…
No particular comment, except to say I just reread The Albebraist and loved it more. The digressions and asides on The Truth (response to Bostrum) are particularly excellent.

Strangely enough, I don't think I realized until the reread that Luseferous actually got off scot free. That was a nicely diabolical touch; it would have been easy to off that great villain.
Wow, old post. Just to leave my opinion somewhere on the internet: I think what you found lacking was the actual intent. Fassin becomes numb and everything loses significance. Who cares if a backwater system gets conquered by the E-5, stays with the Mercatoria or becomes independent? Fassin for one sure don't, at the end.
Anonymous said…
I actually find abstractions and technology far more interesting than people, though I generally prefer things a lot harder than space opera gets (barring some exceptions, like A. Reynolds). I find human centered drama to be trite, formulaic and predictable. Human beings are mostly interchangeable and tedious, and their romances, lives and deaths offer little substance that actually interests me. I'd rather read about engineering details or military strategy than get a bunch of tedious character building shit (which is exactly what I didn't like about Banks' popular 'Use of Weapons', all of the flashbacks/character history could be tossed into a paper shredder and you'd have a better book with half the pages).
JGF said…
Came back to this one via an ancient post of mine .. ( I'm rather more fond of the book than I was on first reading.

That's not what I'm posting though.

I'm posting because, given the events of the past 13 years, it's easier to understand why there's no whisper of democracy in the Mercatoria.

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