Wednesday, 6 December 2006

The algebraist

Listening to:

Cecilia, by Simon & Garfunkel.

Just read:

Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist.

This is an entertaining science-fiction novel. It is not a Culture novel, unlike most of Banks’s other sci-fi. Nor can it even be set in the same universe as the Culture because faster-than-light travel is not possible in this one. This difference is very significant: just about all inter-stellar travel is mediated by worm-hole pairs, and these connected pairs have to be carefully established. First the pair is created in one location, and then one of the two is slowly transported (at close to the speed of light, but this is slow at interstellar scales) to the desired destination.

This is an interesting set-up, and Banks explores some of the ramifications in convincing detail. Better, the almost inevitable Ancient Knowledge held by Mysterious Old Ones is actually a real piece of information, the import of which the reader can really appreciate. The Old Ones are also quite engaging—though mysterious, they are superficially a bit on the ridiculous side too.

There’s a villain too, a evil and merciless imperialist very much in the Banksian mold. He comes to a bad end, so all is well on that front. These are all good aspects of the main plot-line. It’s unfortunate that the central good guys are so feeble, and that the drama around them at the personal level is so uninspiring. I also suspect that the big secret is flawed by the fact that a graph whose nodes all have degree one can never form an interesting network. Still, it’s a good read.