People 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.