a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Algebraist (2005)
Iain M. Banks

Fassin Taak is a human in the year 4034 who has the job of communicating with the alien species known as "the dwellers". Since the dweller culture is billions of years old, they have accumulated tremendous amounts of knowledge that would be useful to us. Fassin helps to recover much of this information, but pays no particular interest to the one that eventually draws him into an adventure: an old book of mathematics called "The Algebraist". But then, a footnote in this book which offers clues to the location of a hidden network of wormholes leads to a war on the galactic scale and the deaths of almost everyone he knows.

Let me say that I am a big fan of Iain Banks. I've read everything he's written, and loved about 90% of it. (The other 10% is just too violent and disgusting for me.) This is one of the books that I enjoyed. The war, the characters, and especially the subplot about artificial intelligence are all great. However, from a mathematical point of view, I was quite disappointed.

I will elaborate below, but might give away some of the plot twists in doing so. Therefore, if you're planning to read the book anyway, you should probably stop reading this now.

According to a well known "conspiracy theory", there is a hidden network of wormholes controlled by the dwellers. A list of coordinates is already in wide circulation which is supposedly part of the information needed, but people have been unable to work out exactly what to do with the information. The footnote in The Algebraist leads people to further speculate that some sort of mathematical step is necessary...perhaps a "transform".

Now, I like the use of the word "transform" here. Like the title ("algebraist" is the correct term for a mathematician specializing in algebra) it is a technical mathematical term that seems to be used correctly. Perhaps Banks was thinking of something complicated like a Fourier transform which is used in signal processing to break waves down into their harmonic components, but just about any formula that could turn the list of numbers into another useful list of numbers could be called a "transform".

The part that disappoints me is his later use of the term "equation" and what the answer eventually turns out to be. In the end, Fassin finds the clue which he is surprised to find is an "equation" rather than a "transform". That already bugs me, because a transform could well be presented in the form of an equation. But, even worse, it turns out that although Banks repeatedly calls the thing an "equation", it is not an equation at all. In particular, there is no "equality" involved in the thing at all. He seems to be (mis)using "equation" to mean just some mathematical expression.

Then, when the mathematical expression is finally worked out, it turns out to be something amazingly simple. This is okay, I guess. It is supposed to be ironic that the answer was so simple all along. However, I both did not believe that this simple answer would really help you to work out where the wormholes were located and did not believe that nobody would ever have thought of it even without finding this clue!

So, in conclusion, I'd say that this is a nice science fiction novel, but not a particularly good work of mathematical fiction. Although the title and quest are both mathematical, very little math appears in the book and the little that does was somewhat disappointing.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Algebraist
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Dragon's Egg by Robert L. Forward
  2. Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 by L. Ron Hubbard
  3. Forbidden Knowledge by Kathryn Cramer
  4. Void Star by Zachary Mason
  5. Conversations on Mathematics with a Visitor from Outer Space by David Ruelle
  6. Q.E.D. by Bruce Stanley Burdick
  7. The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
  8. Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds
  9. Dark as Day by Charles Sheffield
  10. Exordia by Seth Dickson
Ratings for The Algebraist:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (2 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifAliens, War,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory,

Home All New Browse Search About

Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)