Jul 282014

ExcessionI just read Excession, the fourth of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, and really enjoyed it. It’s different from the others I’ve read in that for the first time, the main characters are not the various aliens that make up the Culture or have contact with it. Instead, this novel’s most engaging characters are super-intelligent computers, the Minds that run everything the Culture.

The computer intelligences that take centre stage here are funny and odd and, for most of the novel, communicate in what amount to emails and internet forum posts. They are a mixed group of misfits, do-gooders, trolls and weirdos. There are even some hippies. Perhaps most interestingly, these machines are fully formed characters that read as a very human group of computer (!) nerds who find themselves trying to save the world. That they have very different ideas of what that entails is a principal source of the drama.

Characterizing Machines

As I finished the novel, I spent some time flipping back through it and thinking about how Banks makes the computers seem both mechanical and human. Soon after, Nicolas Carr reposted a text he’d written about the Turing Test. His satirical suggestion for determining whether a machine manifests intelligence is that, like humans, an intelligent machine must be one that can experience boredom. His aim is to dismisses the possibility of creating artificial intelligence. What I realized when I read his piece, however, was that in Excession Banks humanizes his powerful, intelligent machines precisely by showing them coping with boredom.

Confronted with the plodding motion of a more-or-less human world that they understand completely and manage perfectly, the Minds respond in two ways. First and most often, they imagine fictional worlds for themselves by daydreaming mathematically. In doing this, they become fanciful, creative and even artistic. Second and much less often, the Minds (also) immerse themselves in human history and build relationships with individual humans. One such “friendship” masquerades as a pivotal aspect of the central plot for the entire novel.

It’s interesting that both Banks and Carr, working in different modes and for different purposes, both imagine an intelligent computer becoming bored. It’s fascinating that the novelist sees this experience of boredom as the ground for the machine having a character and relationships and not as a failing or a weakness.

Nov 232013

The Player of GamesThis is Iain M. Banks’s second Culture novel and then one that made me fall in love with the series.

Two things stuck out to me as I read: the overt sexual politics and the narrative strategy.

The sexual politics: this is a novel about a member of an enlightened, tolerant society who finds himself in a place where power is structured sexually. What’s interesting here is that readers–American, British, Canadian, in other words, Western Anglo–will likely identify with the protagonist, the member of the Culture confronted with alien sexuality. And yet, those readers are not like the protagonist. They are like the alien culture. Our society is sexist, like theirs. Our sexism is arbitrary, like theirs. It is held up by and holds up religious and political institutions. In the Culture, sex does not operate as a fundamental distinction between people because all people can and most people do switch from one sex to the other and back again. This is queer transsexual liberation operating from the centre as a norm rather than from the margin as critique. It’s like watching the queen of Canada sniff into her teacup with disdain at someone who’s too bigoted to consider a sex change.

The final scene in the novel makes the implications of this approach to sex and sexuality material. The protagonist, home again, discovers that a former female lover has been living as a man while he was away but is transitioning back to a female body. This lover’s body is at a stage where it lacks anything but ambiguous, rudimentary genitalia. Yet these two, happy to be together for the night and with no plans for anything to carry over beyond that night, don’t care and aren’t hindered. What matters to them in that moment is each other and not each others’ bodies. It’s a powerful scene.

(Incidentally, this disruptive sexuality is matched by an equally disruptive anti-racism: the members of the Culture are brown-skinned and are genetically modified to allow them to mate with other species. Their adaptability is grounded on the embrace and celebration of miscegenation.)

I have less to say about the narrative. I’ll just point out that as is the case with The Use of Weapons, there is a discovery at the end of the novel that changes the meaning and implications of what has gone on before. This discovery is not as meaningful as the one in The Use of Weapons–the alien culture’s game is an allegory of their society and a tool for organizing society–but it is a nice way to end the book and once again serves as a demonstration of Bank’s control over his material.

Nov 032013

The Use of WeaponsI’ve just read The Use of Weapons. It’s the third of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels and as good as the first two. (This Link leads to his Wikipedia page.) Unlike The Player of Games (and more like Consider Phlebus), this novel is difficult to plough through at times: the basic structure of alternating chapters is an obstacle to putting the story together for the first third or more of the book, and even once an over-arching story begins to form, the chronology is fragmented enough that entire segments feel disconnected from the rest until well into the book’s final third.

And yet the writing is crisp, controlled, and evocative, and the world described is simply fascinating. This book—and the series—is a great read. That said, if you are thinking about reading it, don’t follow the jump, because there are spoilers. Continue reading »

Apr 302013

Marain, the Culture’s quintessentially wonderful language…has…one personal pronoun to cover females, males, in-betweens, neuters, children, drones, Minds, other sentient machines, and every life-form capable of scraping together anything remotely resembling a nervous system and the rudiments of language (or a good excuse for not having either). Naturally there are ways of specifying a person’s sex in Marain, but they’re not used in everyday conversation; in the archetypal language-as-moral-weapon-and-proud-of-it, the message is that it’s brains that matter, kids; gonads are hardly worth making a distinction over.

The Player of Games

Oct 232011

Consider PhlebusConsider Phlebas tells of a galactic war between a human-computer and an “alien” civilization. A sentient computer (a Mind) is lost on a planet and both sides are trying to find it. I enjoyed it. If it was a bit too “action movie in words” in sections (is there anything more tedious that reading a fight sequence) there are other sections that are stunning. The two first-person chapters told by the Mind, the long description of the Orbital (and later its destruction), the game of Damage and the two appendixes (why do I always like appendixes and glossary’s in novels) stand out.

Now, I don’t read science fiction very much. I watch movies, but don’t read books. There are probably a lot of reasons. Sci-fi always seems a bit macho on the page: gear-head, hard-tech stuff or computer-nerd fantasy. Neither really appeal to me, and when it’s neither, it’s often silly. The biggest problem is that “genre” often becomes a vehicle for “childish” in sci-fi, a missed mark that disappoints and offends me so badly I’ll put the book down.

Sci-fi I’ve liked have been things like Dune and Frank Herbert’s other books (The God Makers and The Messiah Complex stick out) and C. S. Friedman’s The Madness Season. Otherwise, my sci-fi picks were always sci-fi fantasy hybrids: Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and, when I was much much younger, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity trilogy.

Dune hits pretty squarely what I enjoy in sci-fi: an interest in large-scale philosophical and political questions allegorized into space-travel terms. (I’ve had Dune on the mind since summer. It is a book about gridlock and religion and works as an allegory of the 21st century. I’ll probably reread it and post more detailed thoughts in the coming months.) These books are sci-fi but the drama, the interest is on the decidedly non-scientific humans at the center of the story.

The Madness Season does something less elaborate but just as enjoyable: transform gothic fears into technological terms without reducing them. (I’ve been thinking about steam-punk and wondering if some of this might crop up there.) Oddly enough, this book, like The Madness Season has a changeling as its protagonist, and like Fiedman’s book, a central element of the plot is this character’s struggle to be someone coherent, to maintain some kind of identity.

I plan on reading the next of Bank’s Culture novels. I’ll wait a bit though. This book was long. I had a hard time giving so much time to…I hate to say it, but it’s true….a genre novel. At least at this time of year.