Fassin Taak is a Slow Seer, a researcher who tries to extract data from ancient gas giant Dwellers. The Dwellers are a Slow species which has existed for billions of years and has populated most gas giant planets in the galaxy. Individual Dwellers themselves may approach billions of years of age; their thought processes actually slow down greatly as they get older, such that a single conversation may take weeks or months. Fassin, a human, and the other Seers are frequently interested in the histories and libraries complied by the elder Dwellers, so they somehow slow down their own aging temporarily to match that of the Dwellers of interest. Dweller libraries are vast and notoriously disorganized, spanning billions of years of not only Dweller history, but that of everyone else in the galaxy, too. As such they contain pretty useful information; the trick is knowing the right questions to ask and staying on the Dwellers’ good side.
One volume Fassin brought back from a “delve” to Nasqueron in the Ulubis system contained information on a secret Dweller network of wormholes, one that would be invaluable to would-be galactic conquerors and therefore also to the meta-civilization power the Mercatoria. Although Fassin was not aware of the significance of the information until much later, it prompted an attack by the Beyonders (a rebel group opposed to the Mercatoria’s genocide of AIs) on the Ulubis system portal of the Mercatoria’s own wormhole network. Presumably, the Beyonders want to delay the Mercatoria from gaining access to the far-more expansive Dweller wormhole network for as long as possible.
Much later, Fassin is enlisted by the Mercatoria to try to retrieve a crucial missing piece of information, the “Transform” which will unlock the secret of the Dweller List of wormhole locations. Ever since the Ulubis portal was destroyed many years previously, cutting the system off from the rest of the Mercatoria, a vast Mercatoria battle fleet has been speeding to the system, probably to retrieve the Transform themselves. However, now intelligence has revealed a still-far-by-much closer battle fleet also en-route, that of the tyrannical and totally evil (cutting off enemy heads and using them for punching bags; nuking one city per planet in just the right manner to recreate the topography in the image of his capital city; …) Archimandrite Luseferous of the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect Starveling Cult (great names, yeah?), the ruler of a region of space also relatively recently cut off from the Mercatoria network by war. So the Mercatoria wants Fassin to get the Transform before the Archimandrite arrives.
I don’t want to spoil the story completely, but in the end it turns out that Fassin has been led on something like a wild goose chase. The real powers that be are the Dwellers themselves, even though on the surface they appear to be as unorganized as their libraries. They come across as kind of foppish and funny, like dandies in a British comedy. But there are secret factions, one of which wants to share the truth about the Dweller wormholes for some unknown reason. Other Dweller factions are naturally opposed. I think Fassin’s quest was really just buying time; if he found the secret too early then either the Archimandrite or the Mercatoria would have gotten it; neither of which would work out well for the Dwellers. Or maybe Fassin’s journey was a test — see below in the spoiler….
The real secret of the Transform is not very hard to guess: <spoiler>the Dweller wormhole network portals are located at the center of their gas giant planets. Fassin finds the Transform, which relates the position of the wormholes in relation to Dweller gas giant planets; the equation works out to zero. Fassin ends up sharing the secret with the Beyonders, who turn out to be the good guys; or at least the least-objectionable bad guys, of this story. On Fassin’s quest being a “test”: the AI Dweller travelcaptain changed the leaf image from a frequency to an equation that worked out to zero, which was the truth. I think maybe the frequency was a red herring — they would have left Fassin with it if they didn’t judge him to be worthy of the truth. But if so, and Fassin “passed” the test, why did they have to alter his memory?</spoiler>
Anyhow, despite an ending that is somewhat ambiguous and doesn’t quite resolve everything, I like books like this because part of the fun is trying to wrap your head around some totally alien concepts; whether it is aliens themselves or trying to piece together a galactic history from clues in the text. The universe in “The Algebraist” feels believable and wonderful, as in “full of wonder.” Good job, Banks.