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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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