It is hard for me to find science fiction that entertains me. There is too much out there these days targeting specific audience interests and attempting to maintain franchises with 11th novels set in the same universe.
I need my Sci-Fi to be imaginative – a combination of cutting edge science, interesting cultures, believably alien aliens, in a well written story that stretches my mind. And I don’t mind if it’s a galaxy spanning “space opera” – if it is well done.
I’ve gotten some of that with some of the novels by Charles Stross, and Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds was pretty good. But, it’s been a while since I’ve read a science fiction novel as good as The Algebraist. Apparently, some other folks has a positive view of the book, as it was nominated (but did not win) the Hugo Award for best novel.
The book isn’t perfect. There are a few dead spots. The ending is somewhat unsatisfying – as are many novels that are (as least potentially) the first of a trilogy. That being said – this was a good book.
Much of the action takes place on a planet that is a gas giant, among a race of very old beings that live in the atmosphere of a world much like Jupiter (only wetter). While it is not a “blow your mind culture”, it is fun, full of satire, and well painted. Both the individual aliens, their very different morales, the way they enjoy lying, their money – I’ve seen concepts like this before, but it is all woven together very well in this novel.
The dominant religion among most of the rest of the galaxy is both plausible and somewhat thought provoking.
The military tactics of the space battles, and the discussions of logistical issues, really work very well.
And while Banks is apparently a leftist/secularist in real life – his “good guys” are work with forces bent on pure evil, and tolerate an appalling level of innocent civilian casualties, in the hope increasing the changes that they will be left alone. While there are at least two flat out “bad guys”, and there is mostly heroic hero, much of the rest of the action is much grayer areas.
It also never hurts – in my view – when a book has a mysteries that span vast areas of space and time. And The Algebraist has that – with the ancient race of gas giant Dwellers, the status of artificial intelligences, various technologies, and even individual entities that are a billion years old.