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

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…