Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Hai Drone Jin Sim Natter

An eensy bit terser version of this review appeared in Interzone 243. Of course it makes rather bittersweet reading now, especially the last bit. Iain Banks you were wonderful & you are missed.

The Hydrogen Sonata tells the story of a crisis sparked by the impending rapture (“Subliming”) of a major galactic civilisation (the Gzilt) into a sort of extra-dimensional transcendental afterlife or überlife thingamajig. As the blessed day draws closer, scores are settled and secrets revealed; rules, manners and mores unravel; meanwhile, scavengers push and shove on the perimeter, ready at the first sign of a civilisation-wide, blissed-out puff of smoke to pounce on whatsoever cool tech and well-appointed worlds that might be going spare. Pretty swiftly everyone’s favourite super-advanced post-scarcity utopian anarchists (the Culture) can’t resist poking their smug pug noses (or hulls, I guess – many of the Culture characters are, crudely speaking, space ships) into the affair.

So I make that … ten Culture books now? Technically each one is stand-alone, though some – The Hydrogen Sonata for one – will surely bewilder the beginner more than others. That’s not to say The Hydrogen Sonata is “a bad place to start” exactly – there are pleasures peculiar to wandering in in media res and figuring out, detective fashion, an already well-established world, and even to feeling the weight of obscure presences you never fully descry. For Banks aficionados awaiting a fix of courageously intelligent, consistently droll, and sporadically pyrotechnically-savage space opera, The Hydrogen Sonata can’t be said to short-change. The cool tech is cool; the intriguing teamwork is intriguing, the gratuitously exotic backdrops are exotic as ever; the grotesque revels are gross as ever (a minor character can have too many penises, you know, Mr Banks); the lovable sidekicks must needs be loved; and the Imperial pomp is copiously pompous (though not technically Imperial). There are tense, matter-of-fact, “one-hobbit-with-one-HP-survives” style military set-pieces. There are pilgrimages to gurus. There is pluck. There are some links to Surface Detail (2010) too, in which disputes over the ethics of simulated Hell escalates into political and military crisis. We’re also in Excession (1996) territory, with the Deep Space Natter novel form – you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled onto a cosmic Wikipedia talk page waaay above your security clearance.

There’s really so much crammed into The Hydrogen Sonata that it may seem an odd choice to dwell so carefully on the wordy and prying committee of principled AI meddlers (whilst, for instance, the thread about the murderous Septame Bangestyn felt ever-so-slightly cursory). Still, I don’t think Banks was wasting skill by selecting this focus and making it work.

Here’s why. Culture novels have been getting good at extrapolating around various sf mainstays (especially VR simulations, subjectivity saved games, and dealings between AI and biological life) in ways which could be catastrophic for storytelling and emotional investment and pacing, but aren’t. For instance – can scenes ever-liable to dissolve as sims, or sims-within-sims, be built such that readers still care for their outcomes? Maybe not! Do readers care about characters who can be restored off a disc if they die? Maybe not! What can an author give a flesh-and-bones hero to do, if AI and snazzy tech can obviously handle the heroism so much better? Maybe nada — “You won’t be contributing, you’ll be jeopardising,” an AI avatar tells Sonata protagonist Vyr Cossont as she insists on protagging along to a climactic battle (p. 432). In general Banks has been admirably reluctant to fudge these snags. Treated candidly, they can serve as sources of strange energies and cathexes and seemingly-warped-yet-utterly-logical narrative structures (contrasting with the flamboyant structural elegance of books like Use of Weapons (1990), Feersum Endjinn (1994) and Inversions (1998)).

I think that’s part of what’s going on in Matter (2008), Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata, and I think it’s part of a larger struggle in many of Banks’ books between materialism and storytelling. That is, between the obligation to the messiness of the universe, and the obligation to freight history with meanings and values which might distort and artificially neaten it.

If I have a niggle – and how many fans will share in it, I don’t know – I could happily have heard a little more overt moral chat!

Sure, various values are implicitly represented and tested – especially those swirling around the themes of prediction (sims again), risk and self-sacrifice (both pointless and pointed). But more explicit lines might have been drawn, and/or a more contemporary aura invoked – Surface Detail was about Hell, and one of its highlights was a level-headed dispute with a thinly-veiled American theocon. The Hydrogen Sonata in a way is about Heaven, plus the whole connected secular caboodle of utopia, revolt and so on. Subliming offers the opportunity to think about the operation of moral calculation and moral instinct in anticipation of salvation, about the ways in which vangardists confront sacrifices and terrible trade-offs (“to murder so many so that so many more may one day –” yadayadayada), and about how they may successfully solicit and/or delusively project such sacrifices and terrible trade-offs, with stunningly complex outcomes. We know Banks is capable of more in-depth and subtle interrogations of eschatological psychology; so maybe he didn’t think we were capable or inclined to attend to them?

Well, I’m not wistful for The Hydrogen Sermon or anything, and to be fair, whilst Subliming is prodigiously fleshed out (ectoplasm’d out?) in that novel, plenty of new mysteries and prospects are generated in the process. So perhaps there is more about this whole Subliming business yet to come. Actually that's quite an exciting thought.

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