Quick ways through a Slow book

Now we know where Margaret Atwood is coming from ...

Now we know where Margaret Atwood is coming from …

[In respect for Mr. Banks, who recently announced his terminal cancer prognosis, we present our book group notes from our discussion of his novel The Algebraist.]

On a night tending toward thoughts of water worlds, the Beamers met to discuss the secret ways of gas giants, as depicted in The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks.  In perfect Beamer book dynamics, we split into two groups, with a common understanding of the book’s features but a divided opinion on its pleasures.

Space Opera, the Final Frontier

Banks, who is generally acknowledged for reclaiming space opera from a period of neglect as a serious literary form, is also known for his subversions of the standard tropes of space opera, mainly through a more realistic approach to its flash and chrome.  The Algebraist certainly presents many of the standards of galaxy-spanning sf, including the vast scales of time and space (billions of years, thousands of light-years), gigantic space armadas rushing to battle, strange alien species united in galactic confederation, and a Big Bad to boo and hiss.  However, Banks clutters his universe (one different from his previous Culture) with all of the detailed history and the political and psychological consequences of galactic government and its dissenters.

Bigger is Better?

Therein lay the first of our issues – did the details provide enough amusement or did they bog down the story?  The sheer number of names, titles, terminology, and signifiers made the early chapters daunting for all of us, as figuring out which ones were significant took a fair amount of time and memory.  Several Beamers thought that the opening of the novel presented a “slog” that sapped momentum rather than an immersion into a complex world.  The steepness of the learning curve triggered symmetric, if opposite, reactions (Donna disliking a book that she would expect to enjoy, Liz taking a liking to a space opera; Chris questioning whether the book was hard sf, Alan taking it to task for its “wonky” science).

Structurally, too, we had issues with the fractured narrative, one that not only split away from the protagonist, Fassin Taak, but also looped into flashbacks of his earlier life, often with few clues as to where or when in his past we had landed.  Eventually, the chronology became clear, but it took a while to amass enough information to really bring his biography into focus.  Banks also makes choices in his book based on a tight plot logic rather than on a melodramatic appeal to the reader, so the plucky, outnumbered defenders do not get to call on The Force for salvation.  Instead, they suffer the fate of outnumbered, outgunned soldiers everywhere – death.  Whether their sacrifice is noble or not is left to the reader; the universe (and perhaps the author) does not care.

Bringing a Mind to a Light-Saber Fight

The Big Bad (calling himself Luseferous, for psychological intimidation purposes) clearly understands this existential amorality and acts accordingly. Some of us were amused by his stark villainy, but no one was seduced by it.  Or as I said, one may dress up as Darth Vader for Hallowe’en, but nobody was going as Luseferous.  (Rick did promise to introduce Luseferous as the Big Bad in an upcoming roleplaying game, though.)

Fassin, a “Slow Seer”, as the main character, also divided us.  Jon felt that his adventures were more accident than incident, with events dragging Fassin around instead of him leading into them.  Mark, however, thought that Fassin was an active protagonist, earning the “hero” tag for having convictions and being willing to act on them and to accept their consequences.  Of course, whether those actions were in the service of an effective result was another matter for dispute.  Rich offered the analogy of The Maltese Falcon, where the hunting of the title object (often considered a “MacGuffin”) is more important than the actual finding of it.  Jon, however, did not see where Fassin had the same type of moral motivation that Sam Spade, who was seeking to bring his partner’s killer to justice, did.

I thought that the book did have a great deal of moral motivation, sometimes expressed as working out of guilt or of rebellion against an unjust social order (something in which Fassin is shown to be involved). Again, Banks does not make things obvious or cliched for the reader, so we could all agree on a certain lack of coherence in the novel but also that it avoids becoming an incoherent mess.  However, he does telegraph the solution to the mystery that occupies Fassin, making it a bit transparent for the astrophysically astute reader, or for those familiar with the tropes of detective fiction, where seemingly throw-away documents often offer key clues.

Talking Squids …  in Space!

Banks’s aliens were another divide for us.  The gas giant inhabitants, the Dwellers, present the reader with a society not only billions of years old but also with billion-year-old members who hunt their young and who settle their Formal Wars through an equation for “elegance”.  However, the alien nature of the Dwellers seemed to vary depending on the reader.  Alan found them impossible to follow from scene to scene, while Mark complained that they seemed too human, having no social or cultural features not identifiable in human history, leaving us with billion-year-olds who worry about finding a good tailor (their previous choice having run off to become an admiral in the Formal War).

Still, most of us found the Dwellers to be a source of entertainment and asatisfying scourge of human arrogance throughout the book. The AIs who suffer persecution from the rocky planet species (humans included) also provide an ethical contrast to their more “realpolitik” persecutors.  And Banks’s other aliens filled a variety of sf niches, often with a real sense of wonder, as when Fassin converses with a Clouder, a being of interstellar gas filaments, as big as a planetary system itself.

It’s a Long Ride, but Getting There is Half the Fun

In the end (and most of us made our way there), the book offers a close-up of a richly detailed universe, with a number of moral dilemmas for its characters (frequently looking at a choice of evils, much as everyone in real life does).  Plus, Banks leavens his fiction with a fair amount of humor, again of the painfully real variety (as with a military defense project that cannot field a working defense but must be dismantled before the invaders arrive and capture it, leaving behind only costs and no benefits).

With all its blazing space battles and galaxy-running scavenger hunt and intrigues-within-intrigues, does The Algebraist finally deliver a message?  I thought that it did, that change for the better, however slow and small, can happen, even for billion-year-old civilizations.  On the other planetary band, Kevin, Linda, and Rich just thought the journey was fun and worth the work, message or no.  And everyone admired the workmanship of the prose, even if the price of admission to Fassin’s story was steep.  Ya pays your money and takes your wormhole ride.

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