Sunday, February 03, 2013

The decamillennial man

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, space fantasy

The galaxy of the Culture may not be the Milky Way. The time is certainly not our own. The roughly humanoid body plan of many, probably not most, species seems the only trace of anthro-hubris. Space travel is accomplished in hyperspace, vaguely defined as a buffer space between "concentric universes" (Interestingly, the notion that there may be two hyperspaces available, one 'within' and one 'without' is not explored). Space ships of a mere kilometer or two are considered small, and the largest "ship" mentioned has 11 billion residents. Energies are casually expended that we might expect to require the annihilation of stars. Machine intelligence has taken two directions, one called AI, the other Minds; only the latter are self-reflective and self-directed.

Thus freed from constraints of physics as we know it, in The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M. Banks strings a 500-page novel across a substantial portion of a galaxy as replete with space-faring species as our poor Earth is filled with jet-setting peoples. One such species, the Gzilt (Derived from guilt? Likely), is on the verge of Subliming. This is no mere "going to Heaven" aspiration by some suicidal cult. Numerous species have Sublimed, and the readiness of the Gzilt to do so is betokened by the Presence, a dark, teardrop shape dozens of miles high hanging above their major cities.

Upon this backdrop, but presented as introductory, before all this setting up, a smallish ship zips into Gzilt space, bearing a message from a long-Sublimed culture. A Gzilt ship destroys the ship before its message can be delivered. The plot proceeds as the young Gzilt woman Vyr and a coterie of Culture ships and their Minds (no ship is entrusted to a mere human) track down an alternate source of the lost message, which is thought to challenge the veracity of a Scripture volume called the Book of Truth. Vyr's key contact is QiRia, species never stated, but humanoid, who claims to have been present at the founding of the Culture some hundred centuries earlier.

Vyr Cossont, a mere half-century or so old, is a musician who has had an extra pair of arms grafted on so she can play an enigmatic instrument called—among other things—the elevenstring, which actually has at least two dozen strings, some of them internal, making tuning rather tricky. It is played with two bows. The Hydrogen Sonata is the only major piece of music written for the elevenstring, and indeed preceded its invention; a ticklish joke by the author. Vyr is also the most recent contact of QiRia, some 20 years prior. Considering the book's title I began to wonder if the Sonata itself encoded the message; not really. Rather, an amputated portion of QiRia does, and the collecting of this relic forces the climax of the action.

QiRia interests me the most. Alone among the galaxy's trillions (or quadrillions) he persists across the centuries in full consciousness, not spending long periods in Storage as others do who wish to experience far-flung time periods. A former lover of QiRia is one such: awakened, ported into a new body, and sent to find and contact him while Vyr is half across the galaxy. QiRia has used technology to be able to store his centuries of memories throughout his body. Other authors have speculated that we might lose most of our older memories if we were to live for two or three centuries or more, and that someone who remembers events more than a century before would be exceptional. Here we find a technological alternative.

How does QiRia cope with the ennui of having seen it all before? He seeks novel experiences. He has loads of time, so early in the book he has spent a couple decades as a "leviathid", a whale-like creature, and his more recent jaunt back in human form is to dwell in a very noisy place, where cyclonic winds tease titanic organ-pipe sounds from a series of tunnels drilled through a mountain range. It makes me wonder, what sense of purpose can remain in one who has outlived a couple of hundred generations? Living for millennia would seem normal if everybody did so. When death is rare, though, would people rush to experience everything they can quite so obsessively? Yet the panic of mortality might still be as keenly felt, no matter how long delayed.

I like an author like Banks who can so casually deliver loads of engaging ideas (Of course, he just may protest that it is really hard work!). The Culture of this novel, and probably a few others, as embodied for us in a number of ship Minds, is insouciant and playful, yet deadly serious as needed. It struck me as an echo of what the US might be had The Articles of Confederation not been superseded by The Constitution. I don't recall a book that has explored that notion.

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