Skip to main content

The Algebraist (SF) - Iain Banks ***

One of Iain Banks' chunkier science fiction works, The Algebraist (published in 2004) sprawls over 534 pages. It's a space opera on a grand scale: although it focuses on one solar system, it has the same kind of grand galactic span as Asmov's Foundation series.

The main character, Fassin Taak, is a kind of academic who spends his time dipping into the system's gas giant, where incredibly ancient beings called Dwellers are part of a galaxy-wide civilisation that has lasted 10 billion years. Dealing with them is frustrating and slow - but Fassin discovers hints of a remarkable secret.

At the same time we have an evil despot setting out to conquer Fassin's home system and a bureaucratic and autocratic civilisation which is attempting to oppose the despot. So there's plenty going on.

I did enjoy the book on the whole but it seemed to have three problems. The least important was that the despot, the Archimandrite Luseferous, was straight out of central casting's evil pantomime villain department. Then there's the amount of introspection. Practically every major human character provides page after page of thinking things through, telling rather than showing. And then there's central section of the book, probably about half of it, where Fassin is on a long treasure hunt type mission being constantly slowed down and obfuscated by the tricky and often unhelpful Dwellers. It just goes on and on and on.

I'm glad I've read this book, but unlike, for instance, Banks' Culture series I'm very unlikely to read it again. It's inventive and dramatic (when not in the slow parts), while being impressive in scale, but those central issues get in the way of it being great.

Paperback:  

 
Kindle:  



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…