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 Seers like Fassin pore through these libraries in search of historical documents or keys to new technologies, and as The Algebraist opens it is revealed that on one of his early trips to Nasquaron, Fassin unwittingly brought back a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.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.
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.
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.'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.
'Oh, really?' the Administrator said. 'Who's your tailor? Mine just left for the war.'
'Not Fuerliote?' Y'sul exclaimed.
'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!'
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.