Tags: Neil Williamson
Recently Strange Horizons published my review of Neil Williamson’s debut novel The Moon King, and by recently I mean two weeks ago. Obviously this blog is going through another of its periods where I’m too busy to update it (I guess that’s a polite way of saying I’ve been too lazy to write stuff). That won’t change all that soon because tomorrow I’m getting on a plane for London. That’s right, Worldcon is nearly at hand.
I’ve been to two Worldcons before, but this is the first where I’ll attend a Hugo ceremony where I’m kinda, sorta, not-really-but-almost nominated for a Hugo (Speculative Fiction 2012, nominated for a Best Related Work category, contains an essay from this blog about, er, Worldcon) as well as the first where I’ll be on a panel. I may not have been posting, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading because I’m on a panel discussing the best novel Hugo. It’s a funny year to be doing this. Thanks to my obsession with reading series in order, to read as much as I can of the five Best Novel nominees I’ve so far read nine novels and feel distinctly under-prepared. I still have eleven left! Unless I get trapped in an elevator for a a few days I probably won’t finish Wheel of Time, but if you’re at the convention you should still swing by the panel at 7pm Thursday night to hear what the other panelists have to say. As for me, I plan on writing about the nominees on this blog after the convention but, let’s face it, I’m just as likely to never get around to it, so this may be your only chance to hear my amazing insights. If I think of any, that is. Right now, my notes consist of “Wheel of Time seems very long” but then I’ve never been good about taking notes.
I was going to link to the panel description, but Loncon3’s fancy online programming guide doesn’t seem to make this
possible obvious (Edit: Niall points out you can keep track of my busy one panel schedule by following this link). Now I know why other participants have been pasting panel descriptions into their posts! Well, here you go:
2014 Hugos: Best Novel Shortlist Discussion
7pm – 8pm
Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL),
Justin Landon (M), Matt Hilliard, Ruth O’Reilly, Maureen Kincaid Speller
Our panel discusses this year’s shortlist for the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (Ace / Orbit UK)
Parasite by Mira Grant (Orbit US / Orbit UK)
Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia (Baen Books)
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Tor Books / Orbit UK)
What should win? What will win? What are the notable omissions?
Tags: Max Gladstone
Tara Abernathy has a degree in necromancy from the prestigious Hidden Schools which float among the clouds, but as Three Parts Dead opens Tara’s falling out with a professor leads to a literal fall back to earth. After an unsuccessful attempt to return to her home town, she finds herself unexpectedly hired by Elayne Kevarin, a sort of high-powered necromancer/lawyer from a major firm, and thrown right in to work on a huge case. Kos Everburning, fire god and patron to the steampunk metropolis Alt Coloumb, is dead. The god’s city and church want him raised, but so do his creditors. Successfully litigating the restoration of Kos will require discovering who killed him and why, and that in turn sends Tara searching through the church’s archives with an acolyte named Abelard and the city’s underworld with an addict policewoman named Cat.
Three Parts Dead flirts with a couple different genres, borrowing courtroom scenes from legal thrillers and a huge pile of tropes from fantasy, but in its bones it’s a noir detective story. Tara reviews documents and goes to court a couple times, but she spends most of her time questioning uncooperative suspects and casing seedy bars. Judged as a detective story, however, Three Parts Dead is thoroughly mediocre. The character voices aren’t very distinctive, the setting is interesting but not very atmospheric, and although information is withheld such that the mystery is not solvable in detail, all of the twists and the eventual outcome are quite easy to guess well ahead of time. But the by-the-numbers mystery isn’t what gained the novel considerable acclaim since its release in 2012 and a Campbell nomination for its author, Max Gladstone. Some of the good press stems from something that is mostly outside the text: the cover, which in a refreshing change from the norm is unapologetic about depicting Tara as a person of color.
But Three Parts Dead has also earned much praise for its distinctive world. It starts with the relatively simple observation that if magic involves, as it does in many traditions, blood-sealed pacts and dangerous deals with supernatural forces, then it stands to reason there would be lawyers who would litigate those contracts. When viewed through this unusual lens, fairly conventional wizards, vampires, and gods feel fresh and different. Wizards become lawyers, necromancy becomes bankruptcy restructuring, and gods become corporations. It’s a clever bit of speculative alchemy that makes the novel stand out from the crowd, but it’s not actually all that successful.
A common criticism of Three Parts Dead has been that no rules are laid out in advance for the magic system, making the magical resolutions to Tara’s confrontations with her opponents seem arbitrary. This is true, but stated so simply it suggests that only the magic-as-physics approach of authors like Brandon Sanderson is legitimate. Unexplained magic can seem numinous, as in Tolkien, or capriciously dangerous, as in Miéville. Rules need not be stated, but it’s fair to say that a story with unexplained magic needs to do a better job than average convincing the reader to suspend disbelief lest events appear to proceed by authorial fiat.
On this point, Three Parts Dead‘s colorful world works against it, for while its constituent elements are very colorful, they never congeal into a consistent world. The fire god Kos seems like something out of a pagan pantheon, but its church is far more like the Catholic Church than any pagan analogues and the discussions of personal faith and individual relationships with the divine are straight out of Protestant theology. The steampunk tropes lightly sprinkled through the text are derived from the industrial age, vampires come from Eastern European legends, and the concept of gargoyles who turn from stone to flesh and back again comes, as far as I know, not so much from folklore as from the 90s cartoon show. Then there’s Keverin’s law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao which, as the structure if not the sound of its name implies, takes its organization straight from modern legal firms. Mixing material from different traditions can help reinvigorate old concepts, but things can’t just be dropped in as-is, they have to be integrated with each other.
Three Parts Dead is far from the first fantasy novel (nor the last) to deploy the familiar cadences of the Catholic Church without stopping to consider whether these things actually make sense in their new milieu, but the biggest problem here is a reliance on punchline worldbuilding. You won’t know this term–I made it up while writing the previous sentence–but you are probably familiar with the technique because it’s used extensively in the Harry Potter series. The formula is to take something familiar from our world and give it a thin fantasy veneer that makes it humorous and interesting. Harry Potter has page after page of this: fantasy candy with funny flavors, fantasy books with funny titles, fantasy sports with funny equipment, and so on. Three Parts Dead isn’t so densely packed with punchlines, but they remain the core aesthetic of the worldbuilding, giving us moments like a legal document review that involves an out of body experience and drug addicts who get high on being bitten by vampires. In both Harry Potter and Three Parts Dead this material can be fun, but trying to build a serious story on such a superficial foundation is perilous. For example, addiction is obviously an extremely serious subject, but when an addict is impaling her wrist on an unconscious vampire’s fangs to get a fix, it smacks more of satire than something real. The light, gee-whiz tone also prevents the reader from ever being concerned that Tara might actually lose. Worst of all, at least for a reader like me, humorous punchlines rarely stand up to serious scrutiny.
For an example, take the premise of wizard lawyers in wizard law firms. Here Gladstone is on to something really clever, because to a layperson the law is an occult force they can only vaguely sense, a force that manifests in ancient language and strange rituals. Someone could write a great book leveraging this alignment, but Three Parts Dead is not that book. Its Craftspeople, typified by Elayne Kevarin, are not wizard-lawyer hybrids so much as characters who sometimes act like lawyers and sometimes act like wizards. There’s a mistake here that feels fundamental. Like any stereotypical fantasy wizard, Elayne Kevarin can blast people with energy, invade someone’s mind, raise zombies from corpses, and in general wield enough power to beat back an entire army of mundane people. All well and good, but then she goes to a courtroom to argue her cases. Gladstone tries to have it both ways by having Craftspeople “argue” using magic, but the contradiction is never resolved. What seems to have been forgotten is that lawyers are not themselves powerful. True power lies with the state, the leviathan of Hobbes, that compels obedience to the law. Lawyers are only powerful because they can channel some small part of that power through their knowledge and persuasive speaking. If Elayne Kevarin can blast her opponents into submission, why does she try to beat them by arguing cases in “Craft court”? Are her clients hiring her because of her magical power, or because she understands the law? If she merely understood the law and had no magical power of her own, could she still litigate? And who is the state that enforces this law which binds gods and humans, churches and nations? There is no monopoly on violence, that much is clear given the events of the novel, nor does it seem possible there a police force or even a military to enforce the court’s judgments, since these things are explicitly said to be controlled by the litigants.
A reasonable objection at this point is that this is a fun low fantasy novel, not a relentlessly serious epic like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, and that what I think of as “serious scrutiny” is just killjoy nitpicking. To some degree that’s true. This is a matter of taste, and those looking for beach reading won’t be too disappointed (though they might still wish for a tighter narrative and more surprising twists), but Three Parts Dead invites this scrutiny when it quotes Bertrand Russell with its title and pauses its narrative to try to make serious observations about faith and law. It’s always good to see an author trying to break new speculative ground, but it’s also more disappointing when such efforts fail.
In what I’m pretty sure is a first for me, Strange Horizons has posted my second review for them in two months, this time of The Echo, James Smythe’s sequel to The Explorer.
Tags: Wolfgang Jeschke
Last week Strange Horizons published my review of Wolfgang Jeschke’s 2005 novel The Cusanus Game, recently translated into English for the first time.
Tags: Ann Leckie
If you’re at all plugged into the online genre community, you’ve probably heard of, if not already read, Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice. By the time it was published in October of last year, advance copies had already netted rapturous reviews from book bloggers and other authors. For those who need a little background, it’s a space opera set in an interstellar empire whose military starships are piloted by powerful artificial intelligences. Beginning years after one of these ships, the Justice of Toren, was lost under mysterious circumstances, the novel is narrated by Breq, a tiny fragment of the Toren‘s AI, as it attempts to get revenge on the person responsible for the loss of the ship. The narrator is an “ancillary”, a human corpse implanted with mechanisms that allow the AI to control it like a robot. Ancillaries are operated by remote, but a small piece of the overall AI is stored locally, allowing Breq to survive, albeit in much diminished form, even though its ship did not.
I almost always arrive late to trendy books like this and some sort of contrarian impulse tends to lower my expectations, but the combination of enthusiastic acclaim and an interesting premise meant I couldn’t stay away forever. Once I started reading, I’m happy to say it didn’t take long for the book to win me over.
The narrator was simultaneously a little disappointing and a pleasant surprise. As an AI in a human body, Breq turns out to be a relatively familiar sort of character, and one not nearly as inhibited by getting cut off from the main unit as I would have preferred. But in flashbacks we spend a lot of time with “Justice of Toren One Esk”, a subunit within the overall Justice of Toren AI, and all of that material is handled quite well. As someone with a computer science background, it’s rare to read a treatment of computers in general and AI in particular that doesn’t require a lot of eye-rolling, and I was pleased to find that, within its speculative parameters, One Esk was quite believable.
What really impressed me, though, was the Radchaii empire. Space empires passed from trope to cliché long before most of us were even born, but it’s rare to see one that feels as if the author actually spent more than a few minutes thinking about how empires function. The Radchaii and its emperor are oppressive, but many of those in its ranks are good people, and even the emperor’s theoretically absolute power turns out to be limited in certain ways. Most importantly, although the empire has survived for countless centuries, it hasn’t done so unchanged. Over the years, demography and economics have taken their toll, and a society that was implacable in its youth is starting to come apart. Just like historical Rome, ever the model for space empires everywhere, there are factions clamoring for a return to the old virtues and others who want to change the empire to adapt to its new circumstances. The novel illustrates this for us in the character of Seivarden, an officer who served on the Justice of Toren a thousand years before the start of the narrative and then ended up in stasis, emerging to find the same empire led by the same emperor is nevertheless a very different world. Leckie clearly put a lot of time into working out her setting, sprinkling in a variety of intriguing details without feeling obligated to explain everything.
So if much of the hype is justified, does that mean someone has finally written the perfect science fiction novel? Well, no. There are some rough edges here. As already mentioned, Breq is surprisingly bland. For much of the novel, the narrative alternates between Breq’s present-day quest and a set of linked flashbacks to the events leading up to the Justice of Toren‘s demise. This structure positions the revelation of the Justice of Toren‘s fate it an appropriate place and allows us to contrast the cut-off Breq from the days when all the ancillaries were functioning normally, but as is common with split narratives frequently one thread is much more interesting than the other. In this case, it’s usually the flashback, because although far more interesting in theory, the quest for revenge involves a lot of sitting around and waiting as Breq slowly pursues a macguffin that ultimately doesn’t feel very essential to the story. I really like the way the climax of the novel is really a conversation and doesn’t hinge on which character is a better shot, so the fact that Breq spends most of the novel acquiring a particularly shiny gun is, in retrospect, just a little unfortunate.
There’s also a bit too much reliance on coincidence. I could, just barely, accept Breq stumbling upon its old comrade Seivarden at the beginning, or else accept Breq and Seivarden just happening to meet another of Breq’s old comrades when they cross the border back into the empire. But both in the same story?
Finally, while in most respects the details about artificial intelligence were handled unusually well, and this isn’t a hard science fiction novel and probably shouldn’t be judged on those terms, the concept of ancillaries seems absurd. This is a technological civilization that can make massive AI-driven starships, but they can’t make conventional robots for their AIs to drive around? And when ancillaries become politically untenable, they have to use human foot soldiers? Sorry, I’m not buying that, no matter how nifty the moral and political questions ancillaries as described introduce into the story.
But those are relatively small quibbles. Just in terms of its story, Ancillary Justice is a fun space opera, and there’s a lot more to it than just that story. Much has been made, and deservedly so, of the narrator’s inability to distinguish gender and the consequent use of the female pronoun as a default for both men and women. Unfortunately, I think knowing about it ahead of time defused much of the effect for me. Also, the book is a little fuzzy on exactly where this ambiguity comes from: is it because One Esk is an AI? Is it a Sapir-Whorf consequence of the Radchaii language’s lack of gendered pronouns? Is it cultural? One suspects that even today, we have surveillance systems that are probably better at distinguishing biological gender than humans, so it’s odd that One Esk can’t do it.
Beyond that interrogation of gender, there’s not a lot new in Ancillary Justice, but its real value is in its smooth synthesis of concepts from throughout the genre. A lot of comparisons have been made to Iain M. Banks, but the Radchaai empire is no utopian Culture even if it does use large AIs in its warships. The better comparison, I think, is to Glen Cook’s still tragically underread novel The Dragon Never Sleeps. Both novels are about a crisis in a powerful empire whose military power is based on AI starships. Both novels examine how over centuries even the most durable of political systems will drift and change. Both novels question whether the security that an empire provides its citizens is worth the brutality required to police it, and if it’s ethical to destroy such an empire when countless millions will suffer in the subsequent anarchy.
The Dragon Never Sleeps provides a fascinating answer to the ethical questions central to both novels, and for me Kez Maefele is a much more interesting character than Breq. For its part, while Ancillary Justice doesn’t really provide answers to the ethical and political questions it poses, it’s better written and much better edited. It’s also less weird, which is a bit of a knock against it for me, but certainly makes it more accessible. It’s also not over, for while it ends on a reasonably conclusive moment, the setup for the sequel Ann Leckie is said to be writing is obvious and there’s reason to hope that future books will build on this excellent foundation.
Tags: Charles Stross
When it rains, it pours. Hot on the heels of my review here on this blog of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 comes my review of another hard science fiction novel, Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood, over on Strange Horizons. They actually make an interesting pair, as they both are focused on worldbuilding almost to a fault, but where 2312 surrounds its world with stylish storytelling, Neptune’s Brood pares down in search of clarity.
Tags: Kim Stanley Robinson
It’s easy to understand why 2312 was nominated for the 2013 Best Novel Hugo. Its wonderfully detailed vision of humanity spread across the solar system doesn’t compromise any scientific rigor but still recalls the the genre’s lost, lamented models of colonization from before authors understood the implications of the rocket equation. It manages to do this without ever feeling stodgy or old-fashioned, and its two primary protagonists are impressively realized characters, a rarity in this sort of diamond-hard science fiction.
But it’s also easy to understand why it didn’t win. All the great details of the setting don’t ever congeal into a consistent world, the plot staggers from one spectacular set piece to another without regard for pacing or political verisimilitude, and however well-drawn the protagonists, one is frequently infuriating and both are almost entirely passive.
The first of the viewpoint characters is Swan, an artist who is the granddaughter of Alex, the leading political figure on Mercury and an extremely influential person in the solar system at large until her death just before the book begins. With humans now enjoying lifespans lasting around two hundred years, Swan is vaguely middle-aged at one hundred and eleven, but in many ways she acts like an adolescent, chafing under the weight of her grandmother’s legacy, living the life of a dilettante, taking foolish risks even though, or perhaps because, they infuriate her friends and family, and in general doing her best to avoid being saddled with any genuine responsibility for anything. Contrasting Swan is the other principal protagonist, Wahram, a diplomat from Titan and a member of Alex’s pan-solar political faction who is trying to pick up the pieces of their movement after her death. Somewhat older than Swan, Wahram is even-tempered to a fault, treasuring his routine and feeling anxious whenever it’s disrupted, a man who very much appreciates art but who doesn’t create it himself.
This two nuanced characters are built from, of all things, a pun. Swan, from Mercury, is mercurial, you see. She’s quick to anger, lashing out at her friends even when she knows their intentions are good, and when faced with a setback she runs and hides both psychologically and, when possible, physically. Wahram, from Saturn, is, yes, saturnine. He’s steady, measured, polite, and mature. The two meet because of their shared connection to Alex and because Wahram admires Swan’s art, and in a weaker novel they would fall in love at once. Instead, throughout the story they have an on-again, off-again association that only slowly becomes romantic. Opposites attracting is a bit of a cliche, but it makes some sense here. Wahram’s presence serves to curb Swan’s wilder impulses while Swan’s spontaneity helps expose Wahram to new things.
The big problem here is that although the congenial Wahram is a very likable person, the sort of protagonist who can easily hold the reader’s sympathies, Swan’s childish immaturity makes her very difficult to put up with in what is otherwise a very serious novel. That this is intentional–the other characters frequently remark on how annoying she can be and even Wahram admits that perhaps she is best dealt with in small doses–doesn’t change the fact that her sections take up about half the novel and the reader doesn’t have Wahram’s option of going somewhere else for a few months when she gets too hard to take. Or rather, the reader can put down the book, but whether they’ll actually pick up the book again is another question.
Mileage will vary on this and there’s no law that says all protagonists have to be responsible and adult, but Swan’s immaturity makes her proximity to the novel’s actual plot feel forced. That Swan knows the movers and shakers of the solar system via her grandmother is believable; that anyone would listen to what she has to say is not. And yet somehow Swan ends up being present for plenty of important and even secret discussions (this despite other characters’ oft-repeated concerns that Swan can’t be trusted, concerns Swan agrees with and through her actions justifies). Perhaps even more unbelievably, she always seems well-supplied and well-funded, something usually not even remarked upon by the narrative but occasionally explained by vague reference to Alex’s faction. The only consolation is that Swan rarely if ever actually influences the events unfolding around her, but then, neither does Wahram, contributing to a corrosive feeling that these characters are overlaid on top of the plot without actually touching it.
The story is basically a whodunit, with the it being a series of terrorist attacks in diverse parts of the solar system. A detective named Inspector Genette, already investigating Alex’s death, sets out to find and stop whoever is responsible. Genette would be the protagonist if this was a typical novel, but instead Wahram and Swan just happen to be in the right places at the right times to be bystanders while Genette unravels the mystery. But maybe it’s just as well, because the mystery isn’t all that interesting. It’s politically motivated, and for reasons I’ll get to in a moment the politics of the novel don’t make much sense. To patch a few gaps in the mystery narrative, a third viewpoint character, a Terran named Kiran, is introduced some way through the story and none-too-plausibly injected into the world of Venutian organized crime. Kiran is, like Wahram and Swan, almost completely passive, but unfortunately he’s also much less successfully characterized, never developing into anything more than a wide-eyed yokel.
Somewhat out of left field, the mystery turns out to hinge on “qubes”, quantum computers running AIs who can easily pass the Turing Test. Alex’s faction is halfheartedly anti-qube, using them but not trusting them, and meanwhile some other mysterious party has taken to implanting qubes in human-looking bodies. Inspector Genette is convinced that a human-looking qube is a clear and present danger to humanity in a qualitatively different way than one housed in a traditional server, or even the one that Swan on a typically contrarian impulse decided long ago to implant in her own skull. The novel doesn’t seem to consider this fear of an android qube menace a controversial position and seems to expect the reader to accept it immediately. Genette is completely convinced of it, after all, other characters question how to deal with these qubes but not the premise that they must be dealt with, and Genette is after all the only character who displays real intelligence or even agency. Except that it’s nonsense, a perplexing and perhaps even poisonous sort of nonsense. What difference does it make what an AI looks like? There’s a case to be made that a quantum AI might have intellectual capabilities that make it far more dangerous than a mere human, but surely a malicious, super-smart AI is dangerous no matter how it is housed? The Terminator was frightening because it could pass for human, yes, but viewed dispassionately was it actually more frightening than Skynet?
The real subtext of the Terminator, Cylons, and Blade Runner replicants is of course the fear of insidious infiltration by something other than us, something that doesn’t share our values. Science fiction should expose this fear for what is and question it (as Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream… do), not propagate it. That this doesn’t seem to happen in 2312 is particularly strange since Robinson stakes out a strong progressive position on sexuality. Wahram is coded male and Swan is coded female, but it turns out that Wahram is an “androgyn” and Swan is a “gynandromorph”, which basically means they’re a little of each. In their society this is totally unremarkable, and it turns out that due to some longevity benefits nearly everyone in space was altered during gestation to become intersex to some degree. I’m not totally sold on how this is handled; Wahram and Swan can be read as “male” and “female” a little too easily, as if the near-abolition of gender hasn’t had much of an impact. But this is a stylistic choice in service to the idea that gender is socially constructed and not some unshakable biological reality. Well and good, but what are we to make of Genette’s uncriticized fixation on the appearance of quantum artificial intelligences? It is perhaps telling that the novel’s otherwise comprehensive vision of the future features a related lacunae: a nearly complete absence of any sort of virtual reality, despite the presence of a number of characters (first among them the claustrophobic Swan) who would enormously benefit from altering either wholly or in part their perception of reality.
In any case, the reason to read 2312 is definitely not the plot and probably not even the characters, it’s the setting. Robinson’s achievements here are large and impressive in a way that is unfortunately difficult to capture in a review. From its opening scenes on Mercury, the story takes the reader on a grand tour of the solar system, visiting nearly every planet and many asteroids before ending, appropriately enough, near Pluto and Charon. The standout here is the moving city of Terminator that glides along rails, always staying just ahead of the sun because the rails behind it are expanding in the intense heat of the Mercurial dawn, but there are many other fascinating creations, too many to list here.
To better articulate this setting, the novel is written in the style of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, a style known to genre readers mostly from John Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar. Interleaved with chapters of a fairly conventional narrative are “lists” and “extracts” chapters, which pretty much contain what one might expect: lists of information and short, unsourced extracts from non-fiction contemporary with the story. From this description it might sound like a pretentious way to infodump, and, well, to an extent that’s true, but both the lists and extracts are chosen and arranged for literary effect. It’s perhaps not quite as crucial here as in Stand on Zanzibar since Robinson’s world feels less alien than Brunner’s despite its greater chronological distance. This is mainly a function of the far greater stylistic risks Brunner took, inventing dozens of slang terms and immersing the reader without context. Despite the similar structure, 2312 is written in a far less dazzling but much more accessible style.
Although it’s the main reason to read the novel and, indeed, sufficient reason to recommend it to anyone interested in a spacefaring future, the setting isn’t totally convincing. The principal problem is that Robinson dodges the fundamental question facing modern science fiction set in the solar system: why does anyone bother when it’s so expensive? Occasionally there is a halfhearted suggestion that people wanted to get away from the environmentally wrecked and hopelessly balkanized Earth, either to live free of its baggage or to preserve ecological niches in asteroid terraria, but anyone rich enough to contemplate hollowing out an asteroid or colonizing Mars can easily do both of these things on Earth itself and not expose themselves to the tremendous inconvenience and danger of space travel. In particular, the residents of the asteroid terraria are nearly without exception obsessed with ecology, which makes one wonder why they wouldn’t be happier living amid the real thing on Earth. It also seems reasonable to think that a civilization successfully terraforming Venus and Mars ought to be able to reverse a mere hundred years of greenhouse heating on Earth.
The actual settlement of the solar system is all in the past by the year 2312, of course, but without knowing the reason people could afford to go into space, it’s hard to understand how the economy works. Much of Earth’s food is grown in terraria, we learn, while people and raw materials from Earth are taken to space relatively cheaply on space elevators. Tiny micro-habitats near the sun focus light on otherwise energy-starved moons of the outer system, where again various raw materials can be mined. The picture never becomes clear, however. Wahram and Swan float around the solar system and never seem to worry about paying for anything. Perhaps they’re rich (rich in what?), but then it turns out they have to work to earn their passage from planet to planet on asteroids. And the work they do is…menial labor in fields. Now it’s believable, perhaps, that even in 2312 the humans of an overpopulated and impoverished Earth would be cheaper to hire for unskilled manual labor than robots. But in space, where not just a few but hundreds of asteroids have been hollowed out using self-replicating mining robots, why are jetsetting rich people like Swan and Wahram working in fields? There’s a weird utopian aesthetic at work, a hybrid of Jeffersonian gentleman farmers with agricultural communes. Robinson seems to see space as new New World free of the national and ethnic baggage of Earth, but doesn’t actually seem justified by the technological details we’re shown. The old New World was a nice place for poor people to move to, after all, but it didn’t allow a reset of ethnicity or the destruction of capitalism, so why would the new New World be any different?
One might reasonably expect this space-as-frontier setting to involve a lot of Wild West gunfights, but warfare apparently doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic either. This issue is at least explicitly raised, and we are told that space is too dangerous to fight in. This seems like a wild overestimation of human nature. Inspector Genette posits a slightly more plausible theory, saying the terrorist attacks are far more dangerous than they seem because until now people have somehow not realized that violence in space is possible, and once that taboo is broken there will be no way to return to peace. There is some precedent for this in political history: once violence is used successfully to create or prevent political change, a precedent is set that’s extremely difficult to shake. But again it’s difficult to imagine humans living in space for two centuries without having long since rediscovered a capacity for violence. This is not a world like Banks’s Culture where scarcity has been defeated. Energy, material, and labor are all scarce to differing degrees in different places, there is no interplanetary government to monopolize force, and successful first strikes seem far too plausible for mutually assured destruction to hold things in balance.
Nevertheless, apparently no one fights over resources, though no explanation is provided for how they are allocated. Most space habitats participate in something called the Mondragon accord, explicitly named after the Basque Mondragon cooperative but otherwise never explained. Genette works for a sort of interplanetary Interpol which for most of the novel seems to have even less power than our Interpol. Yet toward the end of the novel, Genette finishes the investigation by appropriating the largest spaceship in the solar system from an uninvolved third party, then compensates them by seizing one of Pluto’s smaller moons without so much as invoking eminent domain.
In another novel, some handwaving about economics and politics might be understandable, but much of 2312 is spent musing on how much better life is in space and how terrible things still are on Earth. Earth hasn’t changed all that much from today, so we are clearly meant to read criticism of Earth as criticism of the economics and politics of the present day. That’s fair enough, yet it feels cheap for 2312 to whine about the inequities of our world when it never adequately develops the economic and political alternatives it posits in the rest of the solar system.
I suspect that in the long run its various deficiencies will prevent 2312 from being remembered as anything more than a minor work by a major author, but despite its idiosyncrasies Robinson’s vision of what a settled solar system might look like feels five to ten years ahead of the rest of the genre, so for now it’s required reading for anyone interested in hard science fiction in general and space travel in particular.
Tags: Hugo Awards
It’s mere hours from the Hugo voting deadline, but I didn’t want to let this year pass without writing something about the Hugo awards. The short story ballot proved an irresistible topic, since for procedural reasons that need not detain us, only three short stories were nominated. Despite much hand-wringing over the years about narrow Hugo voter pool, the short story ballot often has a surprising variety to it. In one sense that’s not the case this year, as all three stories feel very modern (there’s no Analog-style story, for example) and they all represent what might be called the sociological strand of science fiction. But despite their surface similarities the stories provide a remarkable contrast in a specific quality, interpretive freedom, that I’ve been thinking about lately.
The best place to start is probably the story in the middle of the spectrum, Aliette de Bodard’s story “Immersion”. Published in Clarkesworld, it’s been nominated for nearly every relevant award and won the Locus and the Nebula. Each new success for the story has been the occasion of some soul-searching on my part, because every time I read this story (and I’ve gone back to it three times now) I really don’t like it. Oh, it’s well-enough written, sure, but as the title implies, the speculative key to the story is the immerser concept, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. Quy spends the story showing us that immersers enforce conformity in an foreign culture. Yet Longevity Station seems to be something of a tourist trap. Galactic tourists are there to see the local culture, and they wear immersers that will allow them to understand native idiom, customs, gestures, and so forth. Why would a man running a restaurant that sells native food to tourists want to look Galactic? Basically, I can understand if immersers force the Galactic culture on non-Galactics who feel obligated to use them because because Galactic culture is perceived as higher status than native culture. And I can understand if Galactics use immersers to, you know, immerse in an “exotic” culture without having to actually understand it. But I don’t understand how these two seemingly contradictory things are said to be happening at the same time, in the same place, in the story.
It’s not that there’s no way to rationalize this. The restaurant could be intentionally inauthentic, or alternatively might present an exaggerated, stereotyped conception of native culture. But the story doesn’t seem to acknowledge this issue at all. Instead, it announces that you can’t take “a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms”, an uncontroversial stance but one that seems to undercut what happens to Agnes. If culture is not an algorithm, why is the immerser capable of completely destroying her mind? Or maybe Galactic culture (but not the rich, authentic native culture) is reducible to an algorithm? But then why doesn’t the immerser make Agnes a fully functional Galactic-cultured person? The implication is that turning your back on your authentic identity destroys your very soul, leaving you an empty husk. That’s certainly alarming and even poignant, but it’s not, you know, true. Maybe people immersed in an foreign culture sometimes feel like they’re losing their soul, but whatever it is that actually happens is something far more subtle. It would be good to read a story about that, and it even turns out there’s one on the ballot, but this is not that story.
To judge from the Internet, I am in the minority on all this, to put it mildly. Now maybe I should dismiss this with the usual handwaving about how there’s just no accounting for taste, but while reading other reviews I noticed an interesting difference in concerns. As an example of the story’s enthusiasts, here’s Jonathan McCalmont’s endorsement of the story for the Hugo in its entirety:
“Immersion” is a perfect example of what 21st Century science fiction should be doing. Set on an alien world where the natives use technology to make their perceptions and reactions more hospitable to tourists, the story uses a science fictional conceit to explore the psychological legacy of Western colonialism. Elegant, concise and imbued with slow-burning rage, “Immersion” articulates what it is like to grow up in a culture that has internalised the racial prejudices of its colonial oppressors to the point where people hate not only their own skin but their own culture too.
For someone who feels similar to me, here’s an excerpt from Martin Petto’s sharply negative review of the story:
It is a complacent and overly familiar treatment of technology and one that is reflected in the glibness of the plot. Agnes is saved from mental incarceration simply by Quy saying “you have to take it off”. Doctors have been unable to do anything for Agnes but have not had Quy’s internal self-knowledge and personal connection. So spiritualism is prioritised over science and all sorts of bullshit short, sharp shock theories of the treatment of addiction are validated.
What’s interesting about these two quotes is that if we leave aside Jonathan’s prescriptive first sentence, I don’t think they disagree. I can’t speak for Martin, but certainly I can’t find a lot to disagree with in Jonathan’s summary of the story’s positives. He’s praising the story for what it is saying. Elsewhere Martin mentions he is fine with what the story is saying, but he doesn’t like the way it says it. Jonathan is of course not writing an expansive review, but his entire treatment of technology in the story is an offhand reference to it as a “conceit”. Martin’s review is like my own comments above in that it’s centered on the function of technology within the story.
At the risk of overanalyzing this, I’ll go farther and say that Jonathan appears to be praising the story for its ability to allow its (frequently, though not exclusively) privileged readers to empathize with the position of a minority culture. The business about space stations and immersers is just a means to producing a psychological effect. Martin acknowledges the psychological effect but complains that the story uses shallow and unnecessarily technophobic means to achieve it. My own concerns amount to the objection that the story’s speculative details don’t actually add up to the picture it’s painting, likely because the author was more interested in the psychological effect Jonathan praises than the way she was getting there.
At this point, it would be traditional for me to argue that my own reading of the story is the right one. Science fiction should be about science, why introduce immersers as a technology if you don’t work out what they would really mean, just write a fantasy story if the only role genre plays is filing the serial numbers off Earth cultures to get people to drop their preconceptions, etc. I’m sure you’ve heard those arguments before. But I don’t actually think Jonathan and the people who like this story are wrong, they’re just interested in different things than I am. Or really, they are most interested in different things, since I still care about what the story says and they still care about how it says it. The point is, even though there’s only one story, there’s (at least) two valid readings of it.
That’s not an uncommon observation, but usually having made it, people stop. Every reader is different, every reading is valid, and isn’t that wonderful? But this year’s Hugo ballot is instructive, I think. Stories aren’t a completely blank slate for the reader and they do not support an unlimited number of valid readings. Some stories are more open to interpretation than others, and this is mostly due to the artistic choices of the author.
“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu originally appeared in the anthology The Future is Japanese but has been reprinted by Lightspeed magazine. Liu is best known for his award-winning “Paper Menagerie”, a story that I found impressively manipulative. “Mono No Aware” is not quite as extreme in this respect, but again Liu demonstrates very strong control over the reader’s reactions. In terms of plot, there’s nothing much new here. Asteroid catastrophes are well-trodden ground at this point, and the starship’s crisis ends up being yet another rehash of “The Cold Equations”. “Paper Menagerie” was criticized in some quarters for not being sufficiently speculative to be considered for speculative fiction awards. As if in answer to these criticisms, “Mono No Aware” has loads of speculative content…but it’s the same tropes we’ve all seen a thousand times, so once again the story stands or falls on the main character’s emotional journey as a mostly assimilated Asian immigrant. And stand it does, because Liu has a deft and nuanced touch with his main character. Compared to the shrill and enraged “Immersion”, “Mono No Aware” is thoughtful and melancholy. If Hiroto loses contact with his Japanese origins he won’t become a soulless zombie, “Mono No Aware” admits, but it would be a sad thing. And it’s not blind to the possibility he already has largely lost contact with his heritage, given how young he was when he was put on board an American spaceship. His memories of Japan, the real Japan, are just a child’s. Teaching American kids Go and reminiscing with his girlfriend about manga aren’t much of a substitute.
It probably hasn’t escaped you that my reaction to “Mono No Aware” sounds suspiciously similar to Jonathan McCalmont’s reaction to “Immersion”. Why, if I was more interested in the technology than the psychology of “Immersion”, can I turn around and praise “Mono No Aware” despite its boring and unoriginal speculative content? I think that Liu’s choice (conscious or not) to make his setting drab and familiar lets it fade into the background. By itself, the asteroid and starship material don’t help the story in any way, but they don’t hurt it either. Bodard’s comparatively more ambitious efforts focused my attention on immersers and away from the characters and how they felt. I wouldn’t go so far as saying there’s only one reading of “Mono No Aware” (with any science fiction story there is always someone, somewhere, who is mad about the science) but I think Liu leaves his readers much less room to maneuver. He wants us to think about a few ideas and experience a certain mental state (mono no aware, actually), and he doesn’t want us distracted by anything else.
If “Mono No Aware” allows the reader less interpretive freedom than “Immersion”, Kij Johnson’s “Mantis Wives” (also published by Clarkesworld) goes way, way in the opposite direction. “This is an interesting idea, but it isn’t actually a story,” was how Nicholas Whyte dismissed it, and he probably speaks for a lot of people. I had to go to the dictionary on this one. “An account of incidents or events,” is how Merriam-Webster defines the word “story”. It’s still not cut and dry but I think “The Mantis Wives” is, just barely, an account of incidents.
What we can say for sure is that whatever it is, “The Mantis Wives” takes place almost entirely in the reader’s mind. The text presents its framing concept and then runs through a set of very short vignettes, balancing the alienating elements of mantis biology with words that are only appropriate to human relationships (chiefly “wife” and “husband”, but also “man” and “woman”). It is left to the reader’s mind to perform the allegorical gymnastics required to get any meaning out of the story at all. It would be an overstatement to say that no two readers will end up with the same reading, but this story comes as close as possible at this length to realizing that cliché.
Reading the preceding paragraph without having read the story, one might conclude “The Mantis Wives” is diffuse, but in fact it’s the most tightly focused story on the ballot. Where “Mono No Aware” employed a bland, over-familiar setting and plot to keep attention on its narrator, “The Mantis Wives” excises setting and plot altogether. As readers we get the exact words, and only those words, that Johnson wants us to think about. But that’s as far as she goes. No matter what we might say about the death of the author, everyone reading “Immersion” and “Mono No Aware” will understand what the authors wanted to say, whether or not they agree with what they said or how they said it. Without employing supplementary information from outside the text, I don’t think it’s possible to reconstruct an authorial message from “The Mantis Wives”, and maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s the result of a miscalculation on Johnson’s part; that often happens when writers afraid of being preachy try to present what they think is the minimum information necessary to force readers to a conclusion. I think it’s more likely that she considers the story a success if it the reader thinks about its material, whatever their conclusions.
Despite having only two stories to choose from after ruling out “Immersion”, I had a tough time deciding what to put at the top of my ballot. I’m certainly sympathetic to the “not a story” complaint about “Mantis Wives”. Many times on this blog I’ve complained that supposedly award-worthy stories are too insubstantial to be worth reading at all. “Mood piece” has probably been my favorite insult. I understand, I would say proudly, that other readers think reading a few thousand words just to feel a hint of some emotion is worthwhile, but I want stories with characters, plot, and ideas!
Applying that criteria again seems like it would to put me with Nicholas and rank “Mantis Wives”, which everyone will agree had no characters or plot, under even “Immersion”. Yet…yet…it does strike a mood, sure, but more importantly, the ideas are there. Not developed all that far, certainly, but that’s inevitable at the story’s very short length. But the precision of the language impressed me, and the fact it ended up being more thought-provoking than many novels. “Mono No Aware”, by contrast, has characters, plot, and ideas…but for all that it’s really a mood piece. And I liked it anyway! All I can say to explain it is that Liu’s evocation of the mixed feelings of assimilated immigrants, both here and in “Paper Menagerie”, is a lot more interesting to me (and therefore satisfying) than your run-of-the-mill mood piece award nominee.
In the end, I decided to rank “Mantis Wives” first, on the probably silly grounds that it feels like more of a step forward for its author. “Mono No Aware” seems similar to, and perhaps a little weaker than, “Paper Menagerie”, whereas “Mantis Wives” seems like a distillation of Johnson’s previous experimental allegories like “Ponies” and “Spar” into the bare essentials. It’s not as gut-wrenching as those earlier efforts, but what it loses in shock value it makes up in elegance and subtlety. I call my reasoning silly, incidentally, not just because it involves factors outside of the stories themselves, but also because I haven’t read enough of either author’s work to be all that authoritative. At the very least, I’ll take a note to get Kij Johnson’s collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees closer to the top of my virtual to-read pile.
Tags: Geoff Ryman
Today Strange Horizons published my review of Geoff Ryman’s 1985 mythic fantasy novel The Warrior Who Carried Life, newly back in print from ChiZine.
In a bit of unwelcome site news, I noticed the other day that WordPress inserts ads on this blog. Maybe this has been going on for a long time…apparently they don’t show them if you’re logged in, as I usually am. Since I’ve paid them all of 0 dollars for years of hosting at this point I can’t complain, but it was slightly alarming to see an ugly ad in my
gorgeous familiar blog layout. I’ll think about my options. I’ll also think about posting more. What can I say, I’m a thoughtful guy. We’ll see if anything actually materializes on either front.
Tags: Iain M Banks
The Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth (and sadly, almost certainly the last) novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Readers who haven’t read any Culture books might infer from that fact they should start elsewhere, perhaps with the first book, if they want to try this popular and influential series. In fact, despite sharing a setting, each Culture novel stands alone and really one can start anywhere and be fine. Conventional wisdom says Player of Games is the best place to start, and that from there readers should move on to Use of Weapons. Usually people say they are more accessible, especially Player of Games, but really if accessibility is the only concern then one might as well start with the first book, Consider Phlebas. The reason why I wholly endorse starting with Player of Games and Use of Weapons is that I think they’re head and shoulders better than every other novel in the series, making them not only the best place to start but also a surprisingly good place to stop. But a detailed discussion of their particular qualities will have to wait for another day; having provided guidance to readers new to the series, I can in clear conscience spend the rest of this review discussing The Hydrogen Sonata in the broader context of the series.
The setup this time is that the venerable Gzilt civilization has been winding down for some time and is now mere weeks from Subliming, a process by which a civilization irrevocably transfers its individuals out of our universe and into a new and incomprehensible plane of existence. But as they prepare for their society-wide death and rebirth, a message sent to the Gzilt by a long transcended civilization is intercepted and destroyed. Vyr Cossont is sent to the Culture to discover the message and the dangerous truth behind it, a revelation that could change the course of her entire people.
That’s a barebones plot summary of The Hydrogen Sonata, the sort you might find on the back of the novel or on its Amazon page. It’s conventional in such writing to avoid even vague references to the ending, but if it weren’t, the summary would be made much more accurate by appending the sentence, “But, in fact, nothing comes of it.”
Nothing coming of it is a surprisingly common ending for Culture novels, starting all the way back in Consider Phlebas and showing up in Excession, Look to Windward, and especially in the penultimate novel Surface Detail. When I finished reading Surface Detail, I was frustrated by the way all of its many viewpoint characters turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome. If anything, Hydrogen Sonata doubles down on this concept. I would have expected this to be even more frustrating, but it forced me to start thinking harder about why Banks insists on writing stories this way. It’s far from the best Culture novel, but I think it might be the one that best captures what Banks has been trying to do with the series for at least two decades. In light of that, and it being the last book, it seems appropriate to discuss the entire series in addition to just The Hydrogen Sonata.
In a recent post, Andrew Rilstone argued that the Star Trek universe is a general purpose “story-making machine” in ways the Doctor Who universe is not. The accuracy of that proposition, hotly debated in the comments on his blog, need not detain us here, but I mention it because I think the Culture universe is a story-making machine…but a very narrow one. You can, of course, tell any sort of story within the Culture setting, but it would contribute nothing more than scenery to, say, a detective story, a comedy of manners, or even a generic SF space opera story. The Culture as an idea has special relevance to two particular themes: the ethics of intervention and the search for meaning in an atheist universe. Even when Banks tries to use the setting to talk about something else, like the idea one might create afterlives in virtual reality for uploaded minds, the presence of the Culture warps the story back toward its two core ideas.
All of which is to say, while each Culture book is independent from the others and theoretically unique in its concerns, they all tend to be talking about the same things. But if they’re all about the same thing, why does nearly every reader agree that Player of Games and Use of Weapons are at least very good while opinions vary wildly about the merits of the other seven novels? There must be something that sets them apart, yet in many respects all nine Culture novels have similar qualities. Banks’ facility for witty dialogue, his excruciating character names, and his believable if not profound characterization are all remarkably consistent across nine novels and twenty-five years, and if anything the prose is more polished in Banks’ later work. I believe that while every Culture novel discusses intervention, after the first three there was a significant shift. To explain that shift, I have to start with the observation that in addition to having two themes, the Culture setting presents Banks with two problems.
The first is that if Culture Minds are nigh-invulnerable, nigh-infallible, and nigh-omnipotent, what do they need humans for? From the start, Banks acknowledges this problem, explaining in the 1994 “Notes on the Culture” that humans have a status “somewhere between pets and parasites”. The trouble is that as readers we enjoy hearing about the exploits of people at least recognizable as humanish if not actually human. It’s a common observation that the Culture is too utopian for Banks to find enough conflict to tell stories there, forcing him out to the fringes, but it’s actually more troublesome that the protagonists are at best pets. If it’s hard to tell stories about happy people, it’s even harder to tell stories about happy dogs.
Banks begins by resorting to special cases. In Consider Phlebas, he posits a planet from which both Culture Minds and Idirians are barred but the human-equivalent protagonist is allowed to land. In the next novel, Player of Games, the idea is that a human is needed to enter an alien culture’s game tournament. But already this approach was showing worrying cracks. Why not just claim a Mind’s avatar is a human? It’s not like Special Circumstances isn’t willing to lie for the cause, and surely they could put one over the the Empire of Azad? In the “present day” storyline of Use of Weapons, the Culture needs not Zakalwe’s talents per se but his special relationship to a foreign politician, but he formed that relationship on one of his many Special Circumstances missions. The whole narrative falls apart if Zakalwe isn’t valuable as an agent.
Now we must pause to note that as a flaw goes, this isn’t serious. After all, despite these nitpicks Player of Games is very good and someday I will argue that Use of Weapons is a genuinely great novel. Yet though a small issue, if it’s a minor itch in the back of some readers’ mind while they spend a few days reading one of the early Culture books, one imagines that it may well have become magnified in the mind of the author, immersed for months and years in the creation of the novels.
And so in Excession, the narrative focus shifted and while there were humanish characters involved in the story, the story’s conflict is both caused and resolved by Minds. Excession is popular among Banks fans because it foregrounds the Minds and lets them chew the scenery, blowing things up and cracking wise. But it pays a heavy price for what might only slightly unfairly be called fan service. It rapidly becomes obvious that the longer Minds remain on stage and in the spotlight, the harder it is to take them seriously as vast intellects far beyond the ken of humanity. No matter how we might try to forget it, when the Minds move their massive starships, they move them at the behest of the author of the novel, a mere human somewhere between pet and parasite. When they speak, he is throwing his voice to speak on their behalf. It’s not impossible for this to work, but like all illusions, it works best in small doses.
Perhaps Banks concluded the same thing, for in the rest of the Culture series he lets human protagonists come back to the fore. In Inversions, he just dodges the utility question and again leaves himself open to nitpicking. If two human operatives disagree on how best to intervene, why are they running parallel operations instead of having a Mind settle the question for them? In Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail human Culture agents don’t contribute much and even people from outside the Culture find themselves mere cogs in the games of their betters if not totally irrelevant.
Unfortunately, while marginalizing the human characters makes logical sense, it goes a long way toward undermining reader satisfaction in the stories being told. If these people can’t contribute, why did we just spend the novel watching them stumble around the story happening around them? Many great novels have been written in which the protagonists are utterly passive, of course, but the Culture novels are space operas that spend a lot of time on action and adventure. We expect that action and adventure to produce an important outcome, as in Player of Games, or failing that, to produce genuine insight into character, as in Use of Weapons. In most of the later Culture novels, nothing much comes of it.
But the Culture novels aren’t merely action adventures, they’re novels of ideas. If I’m right about the Culture setting’s affinity for the two ideas I mentioned earlier, a great Culture novel must have fascinating things to say about one of them, if not both. That brings us to the other problem Banks has encountered with the Culture setting: in the real world, the politics of intervention shifted dramatically over the course of the series. I haven’t heard Banks describe a specific influence for his conception of Contact, but given the Culture is intended as a perfected left-wing society it’s reasonable to suppose he was looking to a left-wing antecedent, the Communist International. Of course, as soon as the novels were published readers began drawing connections closer to home: the anti-Communist agents of the Western governments, in particular the United States.
Whichever model he had in mind, Banks took the idea of a powerful state interfering in a weak one, an idea opposed both by the right (when they thought Comintern agents were sabotaging capitalist economies) and the left (which saw the quagmires of the Cold War as a rebranding of colonialism), and presented the strongest possible argument in its favor. Unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, the Culture’s superintelligent Minds really do know better than the “savages” they are manipulating, and the values they promote are difficult to argue with. How could anyone object to such wise assistance? Right out of the gate, Consider Phlebas gives us a protagonist who does object and starts exploring the consequences. Player of Games and Use of Weapons go considerably farther down this road, and their development of this theme is much of the reason they are still worth reading two decades later.
But after the fall of the Soviet Union brought about a new, supposedly unipolar world in which intervention became inextricably linked with American hegemony, Banks no longer seemed comfortable telling stories about perfected intervention. When in 1996 Excession depicted a less advanced race, the Affront, unknowingly being used as a chess piece in internal Culture politics, it was the first crack in the idea that Culture Minds are nearly perfect. Look to Windward, dedicated “to the Gulf War veterans”, takes this further with its meditations on costly mistakes made in the Culture’s war against in the Idirians and, especially, the Chelgarian civil war, a tragedy resulting from a botched Culture intervention. Matter repositions the Culture as just one of a delicately balanced group of great powers, each supporting less advanced civilizations who themselves have their own spheres of influence including still less advanced cultures. And in Surface Detail, the Culture is for political reasons carefully neutral in the novel’s central conflict despite clearly favoring the anti-Hell side (and working covertly on its behalf).
The effect of all this is to considerably walk back from the first three novels’ picture of the Culture as only just short of all-knowing and all-capable. It goes some way towards preventing readers from taking the Culture as an endorsement of the American neo-conservatives Banks loathes, but it does so by reducing the distance between the Culture as an entity and present countries, particularly America. The Minds are no longer just talking like humans, they’re making the exact same sorts of mistakes humans make.
It’s not that people shouldn’t write stories about misguided or failed interventions. Quite the opposite, it’s obvious those are enormously relevant and important scenarios to think through. But is the Culture the right tool to examine questions of foreign policy and national guilt? No, I would argue, because somehow after nine novels it’s still not clear how exactly the Culture decides to do anything. Supposedly it is a democracy, but we never see the sausages actually getting made, and the impression is always that the Minds decide among themselves what to do without much concern for their lovable pets and parasites. So it’s all and well and good for a Culture citizen to wring their hands and feel a distant and diffuse sense of guilt over the Chelgarians or the conduct of the Idirian War, but is there anything one person, or even one Mind, can do differently? Should they become activists and try to convince their fellow citizens to their own way of thinking? Should the system be reformed? It’s hard to say when we never understand the system in the first place.
For anyone who’s familiar with Thucydides even in summary, contrast the Culture’s botched inventions against his description of the Athenian democracy’s calamitous invasion of Sicily. Sure, that failed intervention has the advantage of having actually happened, but more importantly, we are shown the series of decisions that led to the disaster, allowing us to discuss in concrete terms whether Athens failed in spite of its democracy or because of it. No similar judgment is possible with the Culture. Characters inside and outside the Culture complain about Special Circumstances and say there needs to be more control, but is control even possible in the Culture’s system? The only real civic action we ever hear about is secession.
Another way of putting this is that the Culture series supports stories about the experience of utopia but not the politics of it. This isn’t an inevitable outgrowth of the setting itself, but it’s the way Banks writes it. With a few quick asides, he establishes but never fleshes out the Culture’s fusion of democracy with anarchic consensus, then never challenges the effectiveness of this non-government even while writing stories that are increasingly critical of its outcomes. If we conclude, as is extremely tempting, that the government he’s really criticizing is not that of the Culture but those of the present day, then we give up on the idea of the Culture as an ideal utopia and it becomes just another Earth-analogue space government.
Beyond intervention, there is the series’ other great theme, the search for individual meaning. This isn’t actually as separate as it sounds, because from the beginning Banks’ best answer to the question of what people should do when all their needs are met is that they should help other people. People outside the Culture, that is, since by definition Culture citizens don’t need anything.
That’s not to say it’s his only answer. The series gives the impression that the vast majority of Culture citizens fill their days with varying combinations of sex, drugs, thrill-seeking, and creative expression. It’s for this reason, by the way, that I always hesitate when people say the Culture is a communist utopia. The Culture citizen does not own everything in common with their fellow citizens; they merely can afford to own whatever they want. This strikes me as, if not a capitalist utopia then at least a consumerist utopia. Freed of scarcity, most Culture citizens happily gorge themselves on their preferred mode of consumption no matter how expensive.
But although this is generally the part of the Culture people are thinking of when they say that, unlike most speculative fiction settings, it would be a wonderful place to live, Banks carefully rations exposure to this side of the Culture and most of his protagonists have an eye-rolling disregard for the intoxicated masses. If life isn’t just about gratifying one’s own desires, what then? If we aren’t to turn inward, then we must turn outward, but toward what? The divine is a popular answer in our world, but the Culture (presumably following the author’s own preferences) has little time for religion. Another outward option is to serve the inanimate world, but while the Culture are described as fervent environmentalists, in practice this never comes to the foreground in the novels, nor does Banks seem to have ever put much effort into making their beliefs on this subject consistent (they oppose planetary terraforming as wilderness-destroying, Banks says in the Notes, right after describing how comets and asteroids are strip-mined to create enormous orbitals).
That basically leaves helping other people as the only option left, and this is where the series’ loss of faith in intervention comes into play. If intervening in other cultures is too risky for even Culture Minds to manage, what’s left for the thoughtful Culture citizen?
For the answer to that, we should turn, finally, to the ninth entry in the Culture series, the novel you surely assumed I had forgotten I was reviewing, The Hydrogen Sonata. I’ve described my theories about the series’ trends in such exhaustive detail not because Hydrogen Sonata breaks with them, but because it takes them to their logical conclusion.
The plot concerns, as usual, a Culture intervention in another civilization’s affairs. Or rather, a theoretical intervention, because after much posturing and scurrying around, nothing comes of it. The not-all-that-momentous secret from the beginning of the Culture is discovered, but then not disclosed. The Gzilt head off to wherever it is they’re going, just like they’ve been planning to do for centuries. Previous Culture novels have ended in whimpering anti-climaxes, but this one is on another level. The matter is decided in an Excession-style Mind conference, with the rhetorical equivalent of unenthusiastic shrugs and mumbling without eye contact. The tepid debate is won by the following argument: “If we do nothing then any disaster that befalls the Gzilt over the next few hours is entirely theirs. If we intervene we become at least complicit.”
This argument is so ghastly that I don’t want to think Banks means to endorse it, but all the allegedly super-intelligent Minds agree with it, even the previously skeptical Caconym. What can be said objectively is that everything possible is done to leech the decision of any drama. It’s as if Watchmen ended with Veidt saying, “Look, this is a weird situation and it’s hard to say what’s best, but the path of least resistance is just to keep lying about this. Right? I don’t know. What do you guys think?” To which, of course, Rorschach would respond, “Well, I’ve bitterly opposed it until now, but I find I can’t be bothered to argue for my position. So yeah, I guess so. Whatever.” Many past Culture novels have ended with some or all of their characters’ efforts proving meaningless, but at least the characters themselves cared right up to the end. Now Banks has made the obvious refinement and allowed the characters themselves to perceive and acknowledge the unimportance of their actions.
The novel pays a heavy price in reader engagement for this anti-climax, but in return, it has a clarity to its ideology that was missing from the previous five novels. Against the ultimately intervention-friendly depiction of the first three books, Hydrogen Sonata portrays intervention as a ridiculous, self-centered exercise that gratifies the egos of the Culture Minds in idle moments but is at best without effect and at worst destructive. I’m not convinced, but if a story makes its case honestly I don’t penalize it if I disagree.
But rejecting intervention means the series needs a new answer to the search for meaning. As a correspondent of Adam Roberts (quoted in the comments of his Hydrogen Sonata review) points out, the novel’s diverse cast try to find meaning from an equally diverse set of sources: truth, glory, duty, and art. No previous Culture novel has given the question such a thorough examination, but none of the answers turn out to be at all convincing. Characters motivated by social concepts, like the Gzilt politicians and its military factions, achieve nothing in their struggles. Characters who pursue experience or art, like QiRia and the sand sculpting drone, have become anti-social almost to the point of mental illness. Art earns the strongest rebuke, despite being the answer one might expect a novelist like Banks to prefer, in the form of the titular Hydrogen Sonata, a piece of music Vyr tries to play even though no one, least of all herself, wants to hear it. Only a few musicians have ever managed to play it through correctly, yet a Mind’s avatar plays it perfectly on the first try, tearing down any sense of nobility in Vyr’s struggle for struggle’s sake.
In that same review, Roberts complains that the martial, religious Gzilt don’t seem to represent the highest possible stage of societal development. But Banks is clear on this point: societies don’t Sublime because they have become smarter, wiser, or more ethical than other cultures. They Sublime because they can’t think of anything better to do. Apparently after millennia of experimentation, civilizations finally exhaust all possible sources of meaning and, in desperation, they Sublime in the blind hope of finding something better in a realm they can’t hope to understand until they get there.
This civilizational lifecycle wasn’t clearly illustrated in previous Culture novels, but the same idea has always been lurking unspoken in Banks’ speculation about human lifespan in the Culture. Humans, we were told, generally live about four hundred years. While there are some exceptions, it’s usually at that point that people for some reason decide four centuries of drugs, parties, art, and meddling in other cultures is enough and they choose to die. People who “stabilize” biologically and never age are regarded as defective in some way. In the Notes, Banks justifies this with some platitudes about death being natural and giving shape to life, but it’s always struck me as dubious. Natural human lifespans are definitely too short, Banks is arguing, but surely four hundred years ought to be enough for anyone. Until medical advances allow the hypothesis to be tested we won’t know, but this seems predicated on a misunderstanding of human nature.
Regardless, the underlying philosophy here seems to be that the search for meaning in life is hopeless. There is no real reason for living, and that having at last satiated our inborn drives for pleasure, friendship, and expression, there is nothing better for us to do than die. If Banks believes this to be true of individuals, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this same logic repeated at the civilizational level, right down to the Culture being viewed as vaguely immature because it seems uninterested in Subliming (because, we can assume, its preoccupation with intervention is tying it to reality).
And so with Hydrogen Sonata the Culture series ends much as it started in Consider Phlebas: mired in bleak despair. From the standpoint of ideas, Hydrogen Sonata strikes me as the most articulate of the last six Culture novels and the only one that presents a viable argument against the worldview of the first three. Unfortunately, being loyal to these ideas necessarily undercuts then novel’s effectiveness as a story and the narrative is correspondingly weaker. Of the last six Culture novels, I’d say Hydrogen Sonata was the worst as a story, yet it’s the one I’m most likely to reread at some point in the future.