assaulting your readers (the algebraist)

ok… so a friend sent me iain m. banks’ the algebraist. while two things spoke against me liking it, even before i started reading, i was determined to give it a shot – because the person who sent it enjoyed it, and because, well, it’s been a while since i last took a dive into fiction.

the blurb on the back of the book sounded promising:

“Brilliant … a triumphant return to SF” (The Alien Online)

“Brimming with wry, caustic humour and vivid, energetic creativity, The Algebraist yet again shows Iain M. Banks to be a consummate player of science fiction’s best games.” (Interzone)

“The standard by which the rest of SF is judged.” (Guardian)

and my favorite:

“The master’s characteristic touches are present in great abundance.” (The Independent)

(if anyone ever puts anything like that on the back / cover of any book i publish, i promise i will personally punch them. hard.)

the two things that spoke against me liking the book (apart from the glorious reviews above):

  • some friends and i went to book launch / reading by the same author a bunch of years ago, and i was not impressed with his style, both on the page and off.
  • the book is 534 pages long (any book longer than 350 pages needs to be DARN good or super-interesting for me to finish it)

i did start reading it. at the beginning. which is actually quite promising (the beginning of the book, that is.) the prologue is charming and really made me want to know the whole story. the first page or so of the first chapter is also interesting and promises a good story, by introducing an entity with immense potential, great intelligence, and not a snowball’s chance, hiding in deep outer space from its pursuers.

then, however, it’s as if someone took the pages just read and stapled them to a poorly written teenage attempt at science fiction / fantasy: enter archimandrite lusiferus, who is, you guessed it, a bad guy. now, there are many ways of characterizing someone, and countless ways of showing someone is “evil” – unfortunately, banks chooses the in-your-face-and-in-your-face-again method. the sadistic acts of lusiferus are not only appalling but also so overly intentionally and crudely constructed by the writer that i just got bored.

now, i am the type of person who does not watch violent movies. i like a good murder mystery as much as anyone but i do not have to see blood and guts all over the place, – in fact, i believe that technically, those writers and directors who manage to produce a good mystery or a thrilling story without being graphic work on a skill level much higher than the rest. and i feel particularly strongly about this when it comes to writing.

movies have ratings – i know what to expect when i see “all ages” or “pg” or “r” / “18” on the dvd or at the box office – and often times it is easy enough to find out why the movie is rated the way it is, whether it is language or nudity or violence. books, however, are usually not rated. and in my experience, the blurb often has little to do with what you’ll find between the covers. picking up a book and starting to read is an act of trust. it’s the start of a relationship of sorts, where you hand your mindscape over to the writer for the time being.

maybe it is the way i read, the way reading works in my brain, – books take me places, texts are real and physical the moment i read them, and so bad writing is not just a waste of my time but even a displeasure, and, at worst, an assault. the violence and sadism, for example, that banks describes in gory detail, is completely unnecessary for the story as far as i could tell. it’s like he was trying to describe a cartoon of the story and handed that in as the book – but novels in my opinion don’t work that way. the storyline was not advanced by it, and the hint “that guy is an unlikeable, sick-in-the-head sadist” could have been given in many more effective ways. i mean, even the name screams out, “dude, i’m bad!”

i am not saying all books / stories / texts should be peace and pansies, butterflies and puppies – i am saying that when we write we might want to give the reader some credit. sure, if you are a big fan of splatter movies / splatter fiction, blood and guts is what is expected. but many of us, i think (i hope!) have interests beyond blood, bones, and skin. beyond pointless fictional suffering. when i picked up the algebraist i was looking to read a story. who is the algebraist? who is this mysterious head gardener, HG, whom we meet in the prologue? who or what is the entity at the beginning of the first chapter, and who are its enemies, and why?

to be honest, the prospect of having to wade through any more perverse adolescent fantasies and running into lusiferus possibly throughout the book really put me off reading any further. and so, unless my friend would like me to send him the book back, it will go to the public book bank downtown sometime this week. it’s just not for me.

have you read the whole algebraist? do you disagree / agree / beg to differ? post your comment or your own review below if you like.

i do love science fiction / speculative fiction – i love playing with ideas, and many of the best SF is about ideas, not the number of heads / eyes / other body parts potential aliens or androids might have, or in which ways they might massacre / be massacred. i usually find something that tickles my brains when i pick up something like this:

maybe it’s time to visit your local second hand bookstore to find some old-school sci-fi. not saying there is no good new science fiction, — because there is, — just that the old stuff is still interesting and can be real fun.
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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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