I just finished re-reading this, and I have to say, this is one of the finest science fiction books of all time. It has a huge scope with a lot of sub-plots, so it's a little slow in the beginning as you start to meet all the characters, but once it gets rolling it is both breathtaking and really, really funny.
Set in a galactic civilization where humanity is a minor addition to the subpopulation of fast-lived species, we follow Fassin, who has inadvertently come into contact with what may or may not be a deep secret of one of the truly powerful species. Doubtful, Fassin tries to track down this secret, with the aid of some of the most profoundly unhelpful guides the universe has ever known, while keeping his own masters off the trigger.
The science is well-grounded, the aliens are spectacular, and the plot is intricate and intense. Highly recommended.
It is 4034 AD. Humanity has made it to the stars, Fassin Taak, a slow seer at the court of the Nasqueron Dwellers will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the year.
Iain Banks is one of those authors who just makes you realize that other books are just Not As Good. I love him.
'The Algebraist' takes place in the same universe as other Banks SF novels, but is a fully stand-alone novel. It is the story of Fassin Taak, a Seer (basically, an alien anthropologist), who in his research, unwittingly comes across a clue that seems to indicate that ages-old legends may have some truth to them after all: the seemingly frivolous but enigmatic Dwellers, a widespread alien race who live in gas giants, may have access to a secret network of wormholes - which are the key to interstellar travel.
The empire that humans belong to, the Mercatoria, would literally kill for this secret, as their own network was decimated by the past AI Wars. Others would kill as well.. including an invasion fleet headed by a sadistic maniac.
Fassin is co-opted by the military/government to further investigate - but not only he may be heading into danger, but his entire planetary system.
At some points toward the beginning of the book, there were some slow-moving parts, and some points at which the shifts in time frame and point of view became slightly confusing - but toward the latter part, all of the threads were pulled together for an emotional, satisfying ending...
good iain banks book. not as thrilling as some of his. but some of the best imagery and imagination. part scifi, part mystery/thriller.