Monday, 10 March 2014

Hydrogen Swan Song

This is a good novel. A good sci-fi novel by a great author. A great author who died last year, at an unfitting age, and will be fondly remembered by his body of fantastic works.
Photographed - Hydrogen Sonata. Front inset Iain M Banks. Rear inset Iain Banks.
It certainly held my attention, and looking back, the second 300 pages felt more like a last 3 chapters (in that the end of the story flew by far too soon). However, I didn't find it as exciting or stimulating as previous Culture books. Maybe I am just not as ravenously enthusiastic for this kind of material as I was previously; older and wise to these fantastic vistas. The concluding details didn't feel surprising, but it never really felt like they could have been; I was resigned to the plot arc being somewhat frustrating, inevitably stuck dancing around the familiar end of the rabbit hole (so to speak).

As I've said previously, there's no way to wrap up the Culture itself: they have been so well written as the epitome of a stable utopia: stubbornly determined to keep on partying forever, while making damn sure everyone else has as much fun as possible too! So I was hoping for a complete change of pace by having a prequel. There are teasers here, but little exploration of this direction. 

So our protagonists are stuck in a steady state universe, where civilisations are doomed to blossom, then disappear. An end via 'Subliming' makes proceedings no less cyclical in nature, from the reader's perspective. Cycles feel hopeless and empty to me: the eternal return is an antithesis to extropians that doesn't resonate with blistering changes of the present day, let alone some conception of the future, further around the curve of "outrageous chaos" [Banks].

One could take "the big S" as a metaphor for technological Singularity: both transitions equally as impenetrable to those who stand before them. From this perspective the book is a careful reflection, turning this mirror ball to examine it from every angle, but only ever catching sight of those in the background, those content to carry on existing as they are: the ship, the drone, the man, the pet...

Perhaps the book is too solidly written; overly amenable, with a helpful index of names and places in the back, too. The inter-ship talk seemed almost dumbed down, a step back from the blistering "Excession" (1996). For me it was most reminiscent of a Lord of Ultima alliance leadership Skype conference call, with very human clashes of opinion and personality: belligerent old soldiers pulling against do-gooders seeking consensus; then the smug, self assured opinions, ineffectually blown about in the private safety of little cliques.

To be fair, Banks does describe the difficulty in writing this aspect in the appended interview:
"Sadly, being just one very limited human being, I can’t make the Minds as cutting, witty and just plain smart as they really would be (did they actually exist – I have to keep reminding myself they don’t.  This is very annoying)."
But aside from their parlance, the minds are also seemingly matched in battle by non-minds. It's an interesting thought experiment: a high level, fully integrated intellect, verses a hive of far less (human level) simulated intelligences running many orders of magnitude faster than normal, presumably using roughly the same kind of computational power as the mind. Given that there seem to be stark qualitative transitions in the type of thinking a creature is able to, as one moves towards larger cortices, it would seem to me that there would be no comparison to the singleton brain. But brains are intrinsically very parallel in nature, and a swarm of ants can solve certain limited problems far more efficiently than mathematicians... Still. Didn't quite hang with me.

In "Surface Detail" (2010) Banks appeals to edge dwelling readers with a culture ship ineffably more devastating than anything that has gone before. But really, by clinging to the known universe, it could never have been been an exponential improvement; merely a refinement, bounded like Zeno's Achilles to forever split the distance towards some arbitrary Tortoise (limited perfection). Similarly, while unbelievably forward thinking 25 years ago (with regards to disruptively new sci-fi ideas), I have felt that Banks may have been approaching the asymptote of his S-curve for the last decade or so. So with the greatest respect, I bid the late master adieu and focus my listlessness upon new promise in the likes of Hannu Rajaniem (and of course reality itself - stranger than any fiction). But I'll let Banks quote this one out...
"I don’t intend ever to complete it; I decided right from the start to resist the temptation to tear it all down at any point, and this has become sort of indicative and symbolic of the nature and demeanour of the Culture itself, now:  it means to resist completion and put off Subliming, so that it can keep on going, sticking around in the Real and trying to do good (as it sees it), for as long as it can, and it’s already envisaging that when it does finally fade away, it’ll be when its going will hardly be noticed, because being something like the Culture – behaving like it – will be pretty much the default state for all galactic civilisations.  (Though, in this, it could, of course, be completely wrong.)"

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