Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review -- The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks


I just finished reading The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks this weekend. Cyberkitten read and reviewed the book several years ago. It's a great review and I agree with everything in it. This is truly an epic book and does a good job with characterization and bringing disparate cultures and species together in a believable story. Rather than try to improve on CK's review (which would be futile), I just want to list a couple of my favorite passages:

"The Truth went a stage further, holding that this was difference that could be made to make a difference. What was necessary was for people truly to believe in their hearts, in their souls, in their minds, that they really were in a vast simulation. They had to reflect upon this, to keep it at the forefront of their thoughts at all times and they had to gather together on occasion, with all due ceremony and solemnity, to express this belief. And they must evangelise, they must convert everybody they possibly could to this view, because - and this was the whole point - once a sufficient proportion of people within the simulation came to acknowledge that it was a simulation, the value of the simulation to those who had set it up would disappear and the whole thing would collapse.

If they were all part of some vast experiment, then the fact that those on whom the experiment was being conducted had guessed the truth would mean that its value would be lost. If they were some plaything, then again, that they had guessed this meant they ought to be acknowledged, even - perhaps - rewarded. If they were being tested in some way, then this was the test being passed, this was a positive result, again possibly deserving a reward. If they had been undergoing punishment for some transgression in the greater world, then this ought to constitute cause for rehabilitation.

It was not possible to know what proportion of the simulated population would be required to bring things to a halt (it might be fifty percent, it might be rather smaller or greater), but as long as the numbers of the enlightened kept increasing, the universe would be constantly coming closer to the epiphany, and the revelation could come at any point.

The Truth claimed with some degree of justification to be the ultimate religion, the final faith, the last of all churches...

...It could also claim a degree of universality that the others could not. All other major religions were either specific to their originating species, could be traced back to a single species - often a single subset of that species - or were consciously developed amalgams, syntheses, of a group of sufficiently similar religions of disparate origin..."

The "Truth" is the prevalent religion in the galaxy. Of course, any description of this religion that may seem similar to Christianity is purely coincidental (right). What I like about this book specifically and the sci-fi/fantasy genre, in general, is that you may seem like you are talking about one thing, but you are really talking about something else altogether. The cloak of science fiction gives one license to explore controversial subjects stealth-like. We've certainly seen that in things like His Dark Materials (The Church, free will) by Phillip Pullman and in Battlestar Galactica (fundamentalism, war on terror, torture, etc.).

The above passage and the following one also show that Banks is well-versed in philosophy. In this case, Bostrum's simulation thesis.

" ... Any theory which causes solipsism to seem just a likely an explanation for the phenomena it seeks to describe ought to be held in the utmost suspicion."

The Algebraist is also just a darn entertaining book that doesn't assume that you take any more out of it than that. But if you want the added meaning, you don't have to dig very far. You will not find much better fiction that explores the importance of rationality so well.

5 comments:

wunelle said...

I have Banks's "Consider Phlebas" on my to-read list for over a year now. It sits on my table, but I'm just never quite in the mood for sci-fi. But it comes highly recommended.

CyberKitten said...

Thanks for the cite (again). I'd almost forgotten just how good this book was on *so* many levels.

I miss SF [grin]... But not for long......

Wunelle - 'Consider Phlebas' is *very* good.

wunelle said...

Thanks. I'll try to scoot it up the list (after an excellent book on China and finishing the Stieg Larsson trilogy...)

dbackdad said...

CK -- You are much better with keeping up on the sci-fi than I am. After reading it almost exclusively until I was about 20, there was a good 15 years where I didn't read it much. So, I missed out on a lot of the good contemporary authors. The last few years I've been doing better and your reviews help a lot.

Wunelle - After reading this, I'll definitely be tracking down some more Banks, including Consider Phlebas.

What's the China book you are reading? I'm currently reading Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology about a couple living in an Amish-like community for a year. Very good.

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: After reading it almost exclusively until I was about 20, there was a good 15 years where I didn't read it much. So, I missed out on a lot of the good contemporary authors.

I spent most of my mid to late teens and early 20's reading the SF classics - which is why you don't see many classic SF authors reviewed on my Blog - as I've read them all decades ago. I generally read a mix of things ATM to try and keep things fresh - but my heart is still pledged to Science-Fiction... but they say you never really get over your first love [sweet Jackie Morgan - where are you now?]

dbackdad said: The last few years I've been doing better and your reviews help a lot.

Thanks. I have some 'harder' SF coming up soon - once I've finished a batch of Fantasy novels I'm reading ATM.