THE ALGEBRAIST – Iain M. Banks (2004)

The AlgebraistPeople change. I’ve been reading SF for about a decade now, and Banks was one of my first loves. As I’ve explained in my review of Inversions, when he died in 2013 I still had a few of his books on my TBR, and I decided to savor them. Bad decision it turns out: much to my disappointment, I was terribly bored by The Algebraist. I stopped on page 242 of 534 and in hindsight I should have stopped at least 100 pages earlier.

I will never know whether I would have liked this book 5 or 10 years ago. A reread of some Culture novels will probably shed some light on that, but I cannot remember those books to have the problems I encountered here. Three and a half years ago I still liked Surface Detail, and I liked it a lot.

The Algebraist has drained my energy, and as a result I don’t even feel like writing a lengthy review – even though I usually like panning books that failed to connect with me. So let’s make it snappy.

There’s two main reasons why this space opera tome didn’t work for me.

Most importantly: I did not buy the world Banks created. It’s about humans that need something of Dwellers – aliens that live in gas gaints. The Dwellers live for billions of years. They have spread over the entire galaxy. They are eccentric, obviously. They look like giant yo-yos. They bob. They have phones, and bedrooms, and paintings that go out of fashion. One dies in a yachting accident. It all feels inconsistent and haphazard, Banks seemingly not able to choose from his myriad ideas, and humping it all together, whether it fits or not. Some say one needs the read the full book to fully get the Dwellers, and that’s probably the case, but Banks didn’t manage to engage me.

Second main issue: because in this world about anything is possible, and about everything conceivable has actually happened – as it has a history of billions of years and there are millions of civilizations that popped up and disappeared again – it all feels random, and without urgency. As a result, I never felt invested. The canvas is so large, it nullifies itself.

On top of that, there’s a whole list of other problematic stuff. The book is bloated. The prose is terrible, with lots of near synonyms separated by commas. There’s lots of lengthy descriptions of details that do not really matter. Lots of repetition too: certain parts of the world building are explained again and again and again, up to four times. And I only read 45%. Cardboard dialogue. Possibly lots of impossible passages given who the narrator is – maybe that got resolved further in the book, although I doubt it. Hardly any emotional development in the characters – at least not in the first half.

Admittedly, there’s some cool stuff. Banks imagination is a powerhouse. It’s a shame it gets eclipsed by all the verbosity and details and recapitulation and cartoonishness. The editor should have sent Banks back to his computer screen, make him cull 200 pages, and work on the concept of Dwellers some more, instead of them being an amalgam of alienness – during a party they communicate through infrasound, pattern pulsating skin visuals and, of course, pheromones.

Just like the success of most Hollywood blockbusters continues to baffle me, The Algebraist‘s Goodreads rating is 4.0 at the moment, and it got a Hugo & a Locus nomination. It is interesting to note that lots of positive reviews on Goodreads do admit this book maybe is a bit “too much” indeed, and not a good starting point if you haven’t read any other Banks.

Again, things might have improved in the second half of the book, but my guts said no. I have the feeling this particular Banks hasn’t aged well. Things that seemed cool in 2004 might not seem so shiny today.

Megan from Couch To Moon did finish the book, but didn’t really like it either. She wrote a bit more at length about it, providing a few quotes and highlighting some other difficulties. Not that I need her opinion to justify mine, but can I just be lazy today, and simply link to her review for further arguments? And here‘s the take of Justina Robson in The Guardian, liking the book, but identifying some of the same problems I had, and adding a bunch more.

Fingers crossed for Transition – and that TV series adaptation of Consider Phlebas Amazon is going to shoot.

28 responses to “THE ALGEBRAIST – Iain M. Banks (2004)

  1. You won’t get any arguments from me in support of Banks 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You bloody well need to read a book before you review it. Amateur.


    • I’m reviewing my reading experience. I’m upfront about that. There’s no need to get all itchy.


    • Actually Deep, that’s not true.

      Shit is shit, no matter how deep you dive into it or how stupid and idiotic someone is for liking shit. It’s still shit.

      Oh wait, did I overuse the word shit? I don’t normally say shit so much Bormgan, my apologies. But sometimes the word crap just doesn’t cut it and shit is a better description due to it’s connotations, at least here in the US. So, without further ado,…

      shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

      Oh wait, I’m feeding the troll…

      I just can’t resist. Feel free to delete this. This is your blog and your review and I really shouldn’t be stirring up a SHIT storm. Oh dang, I did it again…


  3. GSU what the he'll is this crap?

    So you don’t even.finish reading it and yet feel qualified to review? Utter garbage. Do your “job” properly if you’d like to taken seriously.


    • I tried to share my thoughts why I dropped out of the book, as that might be of interest to some. I’m not really interested in the semantics of what qualifies as a ‘review’.


  4. Gotta be honest, I struggled with Banks post-Look to Windward (incidentally, probably the best of his “M”s in my opinion). This was was too much for me, too, but that was about ten years ago, so the details are pretty vague…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Too bad you didn’t like it. I liked it a lot for its baroque overly theatrical space opera. I don’t think Banks ever took this seriously as a story, but aimed for something theatrical as a throwback to stories like Flash Gordon. As a fully fledged universe created in a single novel I admired his imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, lots of angriness here 😉 My experience with Banks is admittedly limited with one and a half book into the Culture series, but it seems to me that he was not a master of language or writing – more of a well of ideas, some brilliant, some less so. Even though I didn’t read The Algebraist (and I don’t plan to) I can fully relate to your review. In my opinion the Culture has a great general premise, but is certainly lacking in the department of execution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think as a reader of speculative fiction at first I was easily impressed by ideas, but the more I read, the more you see there is plenty of that in the genre, and my attention shifted more and more to execution/writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve started regularly switching between the SF and crime genres since the start of 2016 … it helped me get back an appreciation for the idea-content of the former (and the execution of the latter).

        I haven’t gotten around to The Algebraist yet, but from Banks I really enjoyed “The Bridge” and “Consider Phlebas.” His “The Wasp Factory” and “Walking on Glass,” not so much – but there has always been plenty of interesting things in each of these novels. Also, grotesque things. An intriguing author that takes risks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I normally like Banks a lot. He’s one of the ones that got me hooked to SF. I haven’t read any of his non SF work, but I have a second hand copy of The Wasp Factory lyring around, I’m curious how it will compare, also viz. prose.

          Intruiging for sure, The Culture actually taught me a lot about our own society, so to say. Really a formative author for me.

          I haven’t read any crime fiction for over 15 years, the last I remember was in my late teens was more mainstream stuff like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. I’m lately thinking of maybe reading a bit broader than speculative fiction, but in a way alternating between SF and Fantasy, and older fiction and new titles keeps it fresh enough, especially if I pop in the occasional historical novel or non-genre book. I’m also deep into a few books about Rembrandt & Van Gogh, but that’s another kind of reading, it will take some months before I can review a title there.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. This is sad news to me, but not quite a surprise: after being slightly disappointed with Excession (which in my opinion showed some inkling of the ‘bloat’ and lack of focus you complain about here) I have felt no great drive to move forward in my exploration of Banks, even though there are a couple of titles (like Matter) that I would like to read, still. Maybe I will skip this one, once I decide to visit the Culture again: your past reviews have showed that you are a very patient, very determined reader, and if this book caused you not to finish that’s a bad sign indeed…

    And on a more upbeat note: Amazon is going to transfer Phlebas to the small screen? That’s wonderful news! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just to be clear: this is no Culture novel.

      I really liked both Excession and Matter, but as I already said in a previous comment, maybe his style might not appeal to me anymore. I’d give Matter a shot if I were you, it’s different enough from Excession.

      Yes, that TV adaptation might be superfun, but for the moment I’m still sceptical. How does one translate something like The Culture to a screen?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I haven’t read Banks yet in spite of good intentions. I will eventually – the Culture books.
    For the record, I don’t mind that you reviewed a book that you didn’t complete. It’s your opinion after all and a considered review even if you didn’t finish. I don’t tend to review books that I don’t complete but I still appreciate opinions from others because it’s interesting to know why you couldn’t complete it.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. As someone who has read the book many times i have to say that I actually agree with some of your criticism, but still think it is an amazing story that has me puzzling years later – especially ideas on what the economics of ‘currency’ would be in a post scarcity pseudo immortal society. I keep thinking about how ‘kudos’ would work and be ‘measured’.

    Obviously it’s ridiculous to review something you didn’t finish so i strongly suggest you try it again and read it all the way through – then see what you think once you have got over your initial gripes. It really is worth it. I only wish he was still alive and still writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It might just be that my taste has moved beyond Banks. The last books I’ve read of him (Inversions, this one and Transition) were all duds, and I’ve finished 2 out of 3. It might be just coincidence that I’ve saved the books that do less for me as my last Banks’, but something tells me it’s more than that.
      There’s no chance of me starting this again, I’ve sold my copy, and I feel the negatives I listed are beyond redemption, even if, like you say, some parts of the story are amazing, which I have no trouble believing, Banks’ imagination has always been a feast.
      Thanks for dropping by, I appreciate it!


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