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Iain M Banks and the Culture

In June 2013, we lost a modern great of Science Fiction - Iain M Banks.  A friend of mine asked me to help him understand the nature of I(M)B, so I wrote the following.  While it was put together somewhat quickly, I think it's a reasonable summary of what to expect from I(M)B.  This article contains spoilers.

"Hi ...

My thoughts on I(M)B and his works...

I've read one (only) of his non-SF works - Espedair Street - which is a tale of the rise and fall of a band, told from the viewpoint of one of the survivors.  It's a long time since I read it, and it's fairly dim, but in my memory it's noted as a credible novel, written by somebody who could conceivably have been in a band.  It's prompted me to buy a few more, sitting on the shelf, waiting for a rainy day, or maybe go back and revisit it sometime later.  So far, I've done neither.  A quick flick back through the pages, and I see it ends on a redemptive note, with the protagonist having decided not to kill himself and having found a certain peace with himself, his memories and his co-survivors.  In this, it is consistent with the SF, with which I'm more familiar.

So on the SF side, I've read most of his Culture novels - except the latest, which is waiting in audiobook form for a long journey.  I have no doubt that I'll read it sooner rather than later.  I've also read a couple of his non-Culture SF novels.

The Culture is huge in scope, powerful, anarchic and liberal.  Its history spans millennia and IMB takes his readers on a wildly zig-zagging course through that history.  An example is the Idiran War - a pivotal event in the evolution of the Culture - yet IMB skirts the war, and his principal tale of the era (Consider Phlebas) tells of an isolated and late incident in the war, from the PoV of a minor character enlisted in the struggle and of dubious loyalty to either side, and of his pursuer, of the Culture.  IMB skilfully engages the reader with representatives from all sides - having read the novel "out of sequence" I knew I was supposed to sympathise with the Culture, but was fully-engaged also with the anti-Culture protagonist.  In the end, there's a huge gunfight, and most of the cast, including the protag, die heroically/gloriously, with the Culture agent surviving.  The quest, it turns out, has been fruitless (in that the secret of the super-weapon had already been lost).

The novel embodies many traits of the Culture series:

  • the protag dies, or is changed in unexpected ways

  • the outcome is rarely the obvious - but is usually satisfying, and balanced

  • the vast majority of the Culture is ignorant or unengaged, but a small core of dedicated players from Contact or Special Circumstances brings sufficient power or ingenuity to bear at a non-obvious cusp point to resolve the issue

  • a minor character turns out to be a more-powerful manipulator/protector.  This character may well be an Artificial Intelligence

  • there may be multiple levels of manipulators - keep scratching

  • the AIs are often quirky, humorous, capricious.  And have access to phenomenal destructive power out of proportion to their size.


As a result, when embarking on a journey with the Culture, you are never in doubt that the Culture will triumph - either hidden power or liberal ingenuity will win out.  But the triumph won't be what you expect, though it will leave you satisfied, and possibly wistful, for you may well lose a protag with whom you've become very well aligned.  The novels, therefore, are more about the journey, which you will spend in the company of interesting beings of all allegiances and none.  In the later novels, you can expect four or five major story arcs, apparently utterly distinct, yet which will be ingeniously spiralling towards their eventual resolution point, besides which the strands of (say) the Lord of the Rings appear obvious and banal.

Put another way, IMB is the Frederick Forsyth of the Culture.  The average Culture citizen would have no visibility of the events IMB describes, for the historymakers who are the protags of the novels are unsung and forgotten - and often buried.  I venture that such a citizen wouldn't even recognise the events - galaxy-shaking as they might be - for the veil of Special Circumstances shields them from view, and leaves barely a ripple on the pond of official history.  IMB is the all-seeing secret historian.

FWIW, then, that's my take on the novels and the appeal of IMB.  Hope it helps."

Since writing that, I have completed The Hydrogen Sonata, which I enjoyed, not least because of the fine reading on the audiobook (Peter Kenny) but still haven't made any progress on the non-SF portion of his work.

But it's on my list to do.  I owe him that and more.

The Science of Expiration Day

Science Fiction is the literature of the “what-if”.  Change some aspect from the world today, and in theory, you have a science fiction story.  That doesn’t exempt you from the requirement for a decent plot, and characterisation, without which you don’t have a sale, but the “what-if” is key.

If that “what-if” is a simple extension of our current understanding of the universe, then the science fiction is “hard”.  So “what if we had a colony on Mars?” is essentially an engineering “what-if”, or a financial “what-if”, rather than requiring new physics.

At the other end, “what if there were elves?”.  Probably magic.  Probably fantasy.  But possibly “soft” SF, or even “hard” SF if it’s just a matter of DNA.

So where does Expiration Day fit in this spectrum?  How much of my speculation has some kind of basis in early twenty-first century science?  Or is it just magic?

Let’s start with the fertility problem.  When I began writing the novel, back in 2006, I set the start of the fertility problem in 2010, and imagined an unexplained fall, that by 2049 meant that few human children were being born.  In 2010 the population actually reached 6.9 billion, and then I demanded that within a year the number of successful births would just tumble off a cliff.  I carefully avoided giving a specific cause in the novel, though I kicked out a few suggestions:

  • Radiation of various sorts – there’s plenty of it about, whether from the sun, or from our own obsession with ever-faster communication.  Who’s to say that such-and-such a frequency wouldn’t resonate unpredictably with some delicate stage in the reproductive process?

  • Some biological agent.  Terrorism, perhaps.  A rogue state, such as the USA.  Or just natural mutation.  Our bodies are full of odd bits of life and near-life that don’t cause any known diseases, or haven’t been linked to any.  Just a little mutation is all that’s needed.

  • Auto-immune problems are on the increase.  We’re making lots of new, big molecules, and discovering that familiar substances in nano-particle form have very different properties.  Our body sees a molecule it doesn’t like, constructs a new antibody, and sends it hunting.  We trust that the antibody only hunts the intended target, but sometimes it also accidentally targets unrelated cells, like bone marrow, or the pancreas.

For it to strike everywhere practically simultaneously isn’t difficult.  Anything wind-borne can circle the globe in less than a week.  Anything a human can catch and then sneeze out again can get from London to Sydney in a day, with a stopover to to let some bugs off at Singapore.  And if whatever-it-is only attacks the reproductive system, we’d never detect the vector in time to quarantine it.

So, we notice that the birth rate plummets – what does humanity do then?  We can’t have children – but what do we do?  Assume that the world is not full of patient saints, who will wait calmly for scientists to find a cure.  A few authors have had a crack at this - read “The White Plague” or “The Children of Men”.  Humans fight.  My neighbour’s wife has just had a kid, but my wife can’t.  So if I want offspring, maybe I just need to impregnate someone who can have kids.  Kidnapping and vigilantism at the local level.  Populist politicians blame the neighbours and find they’ve got a tiger by the tail.  That’s the Sabine Wars – the premise of “The White Plague” raised to international level.

So now Oxted invents the neurotronic robot.  Actually, I think he needs to already have some experimental models prior to the crisis - the brain at least - and be using them to solve all the engineering problems around building robot bodies to emulate human children.  Even so, this is the what-if that significantly transcends the state of the art.  Robotics and AI aren’t really very close yet, at least not in the science journals I’ve seen.

In the novel, I assert that the existence of child substitutes is a significant contributor to ending the violence, with the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations being the other.  Stick and carrot, punishment and reward.  I guess it also depends on how bad the Sabine Wars were – I suggest that if they were to wipe out 90% of the world’s population, you might reach a point where you just want the slaughter to stop.  Maybe.

The Uncanny Valley.  A robot that’s not quite human feels scarier than a clunky robot.  Definitely good science that’s well-documented.

Using exotic matter with negative mass to achieve light-speed travel.  I mention this in passing as being how Zog’s people travel about the galaxy.  I didn’t want to create a race of superbeings.  Giving Zog’s people FTL travel and near-immortality would have done that.  So I made Zog’s people long-lived, but limited them to travelling the galaxy at light-speed, and worse, to having to live through every minute of the hundreds of years it takes light to travel the distances between stars.  And a galaxy that was devoid of life, save for a single, tantalising hint of a now-defunct civilisation.  But special relativity tells us that travelling at light-speed takes lots of energy, and you get time dilation.  Besides, it’s been done before, lots of times- the classic novel here is Poul Anderson's Tau Zero.  I wanted to do something different, to reduce the energy cost of interstellar travel, but not at the price of slowing or stopping time.

So, things with zero mass can travel at the speed of light.  Photons are the classic example.  Ergo I need to give the ships zero mass.  Fred Pohl’s Gateway uses an unexplained mass cancellation device for his mushroom ships, but I wanted to stay closer to known physics.  Instead, we shroud ordinary matter with exotic matter with negative mass, so that it exactly cancels out.  Think of the rubber-sheet universe, where masses distort the rubber sheet.  Photons, being massless, don’t bend the sheet, and they move unimpeded at light-speed.  Current physics says that’s the normal (or only, or at least the default) speed for zero-mass particles.  Likewise my exotic matter shrouded ships.  But photons don’t age, says the theory.  I suggest that’s because a photon is a point, so there’s no “inside” where time can have meaning.  The shrouded ships carry their own internal “rubber sheet” – a little mini-universe, separate from the outer universe, a bit like a black hole, but with “ordinary, positive” masses inside.  So a photon inside the shell has its rubber sheet to travel across, bounded by the shell of exotic matter, but this means that you can have space-time events inside the shell, with photons that define the ordering of those events, and so time flows “normally”.

That all depends on Zog’s people finding or creating the right kind of exotic matter to have negative mass.  A bit difficult, for many reasons.  For starters, standard model physics doesn’t suggest the need for any particles of negative mass.  Then, the consequence of Newton’s Law of Gravitation is that negative-mass particles will accelerate towards positive-mass particles (though the positive-mass particles will accelerate away from the negative-mass particles, while the overall momentum and energy of the system stays unchanged).  So you need to create equal amounts of negative-mass matter on the left and on the right of the positive-mass payload you want to move, probably in the form of a solid shroud that you can close into a sphere.  Still, that’s an engineering problem, once you accept the existence of negative mass particles.

And how would you make negative-mass particles?  Probably quite cheaply, because Einstein’s E = mc2 tells us that negative mass can be created out of negative energy.  So it might even become a neat power source, better than fusion.  Start with zero energy, separate out equal amounts of positive and negative energy (so no net change), use the negative energy to make negative-mass particles and use the positive energy to light and heat your cities.  Might need a Maxwell’s Demon to bat all the positive energy one way and the negative energy the other way, but how hard can it be?  How’s that for some really off-the-wall speculation?

Hmm...  That’s a lot of explanation for a throwaway line in the novel, but I wanted a very specific universe for Zog’s people to live in, as the backdrop for my vision of Tania’s future.  That story is in my head, being transferred to paper (or at least, a Word document).  Let’s see if I can sell the notion to Tor…

Goodreads reviews

Listen.  I’m a first time author, and maybe I don’t know how the world of books works, but there’s something wrong with my reviews on Goodreads.

'What a shame', you say.  Or maybe 'man up and take it on the chin'.  Every author gets bad reviews.  Live with it and move on.

Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining, because I’ve had some great reviews, with insightful comments, and some quite decent star ratings.  There are a bunch of people who’ve read the book, enjoyed the process, and then want to tell the world of Goodreads about this gem they’ve discovered.  And there’s a reviewer who thought it sucked, but she was kind enough to say why.  I may disagree with her reasons, or I might wish that she’d persevered with the book, and discovered maybe that it was aimed at her age group after all.  But I’m not so egotistical that I can’t cope with a few one star reviews, and even learn from them.  So thank you, Laura, for being brave enough to tell me what you thought.  You probably are my target demographic for the book, and yet I didn’t give you enough reasons to stick with the book – my fault.  You can’t be all things to all people, at least not in a single book, but that’s no excuse for losing a prime target reader.

So what’s my gripe?

My gripe is that (almost) every one of them feels compelled to reveal the plot.

No.  Back off.  That’s my job.  I’m the author.  I decide what details to reveal, in which order.  I want to build surprise, suspense.  I want to take you on a journey, helping you feel the right emotions at the right time.  (That includes making sure that neither the cover artwork nor the blurb on the back of the book spills the beans.  So a lot of thought went into making sure that the blurb is intriguing enough to make you read the book, does not tell any lies, but does not tell too much of the truth either.)

Everyone else is a reader and potentially a reviewer.  If you’re a reviewer, and you liked the book, your challenge is to encourage other people to try the book for themselves, and to experience the book as you experienced it.  So don’t tell them the plot.  Please.

As reviewer, you’ve just put down the book.  My book.  Hopefully there’s a tear on your cheek.  Why’s it there?  Because you’ve just been on a journey with my protagonist.  Maybe you’ve been a step ahead of the protagonist, and seen the pitfalls before she did.  Some readers do.  Adam Meiswinkel did, but wisely realised that it’s the journey that’s important, and sat back and let me guide him through it.  Even more wisely, his review tells you nothing about the plot, but everything about why you might want to read the book and how to approach reading it.  I should also commend Lars for his review, which reveals some plot details (but nothing that I’d regard as a spoiler) but concentrates on the originality of the ideas and the pace of the book.  He wraps up his review by telling his readers how he felt at the end of his journey, hoping that they’ll be intrigued.

One other comment for now - Lucie wrote “The summary on the back really needs to be revised”.  No.  Because it’s not a summary.  It’s a teaser, to get you interested in the book.  No lies, but not too much truth either.  Yes.  Because maybe Lucie felt that there was a bit too much misdirection in the blurb, and in hindsight I can see why she might think so.  Anyway, one of the clever folks at Tor has seen the same deficiencies, taken a step back and done a new back cover blurb that does a far better job.  You can see it on Amazon and elsewhere.  Thank you, Lucie.

I’ve read a fair bit of crime fiction of the whodunit variety, and in some ways I admire it even more than SF.  The crime writer pushes the ‘tell no lies, but not too much truth either’ dictum to the limit.  If the writer tells too much truth, the reader can see what’s coming, and the resulting journey is no more exciting than a “Ghost Train” in the daylight.

Reviewing crime fiction is therefore arguably the hardest of disciplines, because if the reviewer gives away any plot details at all, there’s a much bigger risk of showing the endpoint of the journey, and nullifying the whole effect.  (So don’t do it.)  Maybe I ought to try both the writing and the reviewing of crime fiction…

Am I being over-picky about spoilers?  I don’t think so.  Sure, every author wants to sell books, but any author with integrity wants his readers to enjoy the reading experience as designed.  I’m genuinely grateful for every review that my book has received, and not just for the five star ones.  Every review has brought value, whether to me as an author or to the wider world of potential readers.  Even the one star review(s).
Thank you.

PS.  My own reviews of other books are at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/24755851?sort=review&view=reviews# .  I hope that I’ve managed to practice what I preach.  If not, I’m sure you’ll let me know!

What is Man, that thou art mindful of him?

I’m fascinated by robot stories.  I love them, always have, since I read Harry Harrison’s “The Velvet Glove”.  I can’t be sure, but I think I read that even before Asimov’s I, Robot.  (That said, I definitely read The Rest of the Robots before I, Robot.)  At any rate, though the precise chronology is unclear, The Velvet Glove is always what surfaces first, when I poke around the early robot story memory cupboard.  Moreover, I usually have to look up which Asimov story featured Nestor (Little Lost Robot), Herbie (Liar!) or Robbie (I may be making that one up) but Harrison’s Jon Venex was a proper hero for an eleven year old boy, a robot hero who fought the villains with his wits.

So I’ve now dared to write a robot story of my own, and I’d be the first to admit the challenge of finding something new to write about robots.  Self-aware robots?  Jon Venex was certainly self-aware.  As was R Daneel Olivaw, and Helen O’Loy.  Robots with a soul?  Jasperodus (The Soul of the Robot) had one of those, though at the risk of spoilers, its provenance was unique.  A teenage robot?  Nope – there was a whole TV series about a teenage robot, though it never crossed the pond to the UK where I live.

A bass-playing, teenage robot?

That may be it.  That may be my contribution to the great canon of robot literature.

What’s the attraction of robot literature, then?  That’s really where I’m headed.  Why do we like reading about metal men (and women)?  I suggest it’s because they hold up a mirror to ourselves.  That’s true whether the robot shows us as we are, or else - not too paradoxically - the robot shows us what we are not.

Sure, sometimes robots are just funny, but look at young children, and you’ll see the same traits.  A young child learning to be human is funny, sometimes painfully so.  They mimic what they see, but with the eye of a child, and the adult observer laughs, or winces at an uncomfortably accurate parody.  So the next time you read Asimov’s “Lenny” or Harry Harrison’s “The robot who wanted to know”, and find yourself smiling at a certain naivety…

But more often, writers use robots to show us our own darker side.  Take Harry Harrison’s “The Velvet Glove”.  Remembering it was published in 1956, try switching robot Jon Venex for an Afro-American, and see if the story changes in any essential way.  Put another way, could “To Kill A Mockingbird” be re-written as a robot story?  So Harrison wisely realised that the same story bypassed our prejudices better when set in a robot future rather than in an emotionally charged present.  It becomes a trade-off – write the same story with robots, and you’ll get your message across with less resistance (but to a smaller readership), whereas write the story about a real oppressed minority and the oppressor will simply ban your book (and maybe send goons to kick down your door).

Or take Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.  How is this different from modern-day white-cop-black-cop partnership?  Again, Asimov is writing at the time when the American Civil Rights movement was becoming active (1953).  In hindsight, was Asimov writing SF, a detective novel, or social commentary?  Certainly his robots – even R. Daneel Olivaw – were property.  The destruction of R. Sammy is not murder, but simply vandalism of property – a concept familiar to slaveholders everywhen and everywhere.

Asimov’s Bicentennial Man takes the theme of robot equality a step further.  Under what circumstances would mankind admit cyberkind as brothers?  Asimov rejects the militant solution – that robots should seize humanity, without regard for whether flesh-and-blood humankind is will to grant it.  The robot Andrew Martin becomes human only when he fully accepts the limitations of humanity.

The next interesting theme in robot fiction is that of consciousness and the soul.  Every human claims to have consciousness (alternatively referred to as self-awareness).  Ultimately, though, this is unprovable.  I can assert that I am self-aware, and my own experience – duration, memory and continuity of point of view – support the notion of an identity that is more or less fixed over a lifespan.  The notion of a Turing Test is at best a comparison of two individuals’ answers to conform to an ill-defined norm of a “human” response.  For a machine to pass a Turing Test is the closest we can come to proving that it is self-aware, and that is only true if we grant that all humans – the benchmarks – are self-aware.  If you want to throw the notion of a soul into the mix, then good luck to you.  Barrington J Bayley did, though, in his novel “The Soul of the Robot”, equating that with a sense of self, coupled with a sense of the transcendent.  Why do I have a soul, when others of my kind do not? asks Jasperodus.  Disappointingly, perhaps, Bayley comes down on the other side of the discussion to me, though perhaps that’s simply to leave open the option of a sequel to explore the other option.

I have to admit a sneaking admiration for Ray Bradbury’s robots.  The ones who stand in for real people (such as Nettie and Braling Two in Marionettes, Inc), who carry on the relationships in the absence of their originals.  As selfish and occasionally murderous antidotes to Asimov’s fawning positronic creations, Bradbury’s sinister, ticking automatons are truly wicked, in the old sense and the new.  The moment when you rest your head on your lover’s chest and hear the tik-tik-tik-tik, or your own doppelganger decides he doesn’t want to go back to his crate in the cellar – ah!  Bradbury’s mechanicals definitely have no heart…

Mixing blogs and 1&1

So I'm a soon to be published author, and my publisher - Tor Books of New York - wants to know if I'm a computer-savvy type, ready to engage with my readers over the internet. Facebook, Twitter and blogging, I guess.

So I've made a start, and grabbed the necessary domain name williamcampbellpowell.com , plus the associated namespace for twitter and facebook. For now, those latter are just on hold, but I've used 1&1 Website Builder to put in a barebones website. When I get some fixed content, I'll fill that in, but for now I just want to embed a blog site on one of the web pages.

My start point is a book called "Build your own web site the right way using HTML and CSS", which has a chapter on how to embed a blog. OK, so it recommends Blogger as a simple blog service to set up. That didn't work, so the next choice is LiveJournal.com. Let's see how we get on with that.

I'll stop here - this is my first LiveJournal blog. Let's see if I can follow the simple instructions and get this blog to embed.

I'll keep you posted...

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