I started this novel on Sunday and I finished it today; it’s Tuesday.
This means that it’s a great read.
This is a review of the science-fiction novel The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. It does not contain any spoilers.
Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer; the goes into something called slow time to talk with the Dwellers, a race of elders in the universe who inhabit all gas giants in the known galaxy, except Jupiter. Slow time means that the relative time outside of him speeds up. The Dwellers are a race of methane breathers who can live for billions of years. In fact they have been around for about 10 billion years.
It’s strange to come upon this concept. It hasn’t been explored in the fashion that Banks describes. Instead of making AIs comical, he actually makes the Dwellers funny, in a perverse way. The galaxy is divided between Slow races, like the dwellers and Quick races, like humans. The Slow Seekers try to mine and exchange information from the Dwellers. It’s really strange to hear things like poetry from 40 million years ago and the like.
AIs are hunted down and destroyed since the end of The Machine War a few thousand years ago. Again, this strikes me very similar to the concept of the Butlerian Jihad . But the Machine War is never discussed in detail and only mentioned a handful of times, so it doesn’t really matter.
While speaking of humans, there are aHumans and rHumans; aHuman is short for advanced humans. The novel takes place in the year 4034AD. 8000 years ago, a race of aliens plucked a significant portion of humans away from Earth to colonize a new planet. They did so in order to pacify them. When the rHumans or rest of the humans from Earth started venturing into space, they would not be the first humans that aliens would encounter. Also, the aHumans are more pacified and docile than the rHumans, kind of like the humans in the Butlerian Jihad by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The rHumans would also be in minority.
aHumans have been scripted (tailored) and modified to their liking. They are just one of the races in the Mercatoria, the feudal empire that regulates the affairs of the galaxy.
Most of the action takes place in a remote system of Nasqueron.
Recently, a conflict collapsed the wormhole network that tied together the galaxy in a cohesive empire. A new wormhole is on the way, but hundreds of years away. That doesn’t matter than much, since people live a lot longer, thanks to longevity treatments, traveling through interstellar space at relativistic speeds and dvelving into Slow time, just like the Seekers do.
The Seekers are companion races to the Dwellers that they enjoy having exchanges with. For now, it’s the aHumans of the Ulubis system.
The Dwellers are a bunch of contradictions. They have been around for billions of years, but can’t be bothered to maintain their star fleets. And they enjoy taking trips that take a long time. In the novel, trips of 30 million years are mentioned.
The main focus of the novel is the search for the Dweller List, a supposedly vast network of wormholes that the Dwellers established billions of years ago and that they use.
Taak is assigned to look for it.
A newly formed sub-empire the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect, has launched an attack fleet with its leader at its helm, the deeply disturbing Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult, in a loose alliance with the Beyonders, a group of independent beings, who are constantly plagued by the Mercatoria, is convinced that the Dwellers know details about this list. If this list is true, it most important because it would reconnect the galaxy together. This doesn’t really matter too much to the Dwellers, since they can go into slow time during their travels and not notice the passage of time.
The Mercatoria has launched an attack fleet as well, but they will arrive after the E5 Disconnect. Meanwhile, Taak is searching for the list on Nasqueron. His search takes him through space and slow time. During his quest, he discovers strange truths about the Dwellers, things that he never suspected about this “elder” race.
Contrary to The Culture novels, this novel includes a lot of different aliens. They are interesting. The Dwellers and their billion year of technologies are most fascinating. They probably deserve more books about them, probably during their past. Tantalizing bits of their history is revealed, like when they crossed the dark spaces in between galaxies.
In the end, Taak has an answer to his quest. The trouble is, will he be able to use it?
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