Intrigue, Plots, and What to Do When You Have Everything: Excession

ExcessionI’m back in love with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.  As I noted earlier this year, I found Use of Weapons less than gripping. However, the subsequent novel, Excession, has restored my faith in Banks’ ability to weave a compelling if very complex narrative. In this novel, a strange artifact that has briefly appeared 2500 years ago and baffled the Culture’s attempts to understand it, has suddenly reappeared. There ensues a variety of attempts by different Minds to study/control/claim the Excession and a number of tangled plots unfold. While I have to admit that at times it is difficult to keep straight which Mind is responsible for what actions, this complexity does help to deepen our experience of Banks’ imaginative world. The Culture is incredibly complex in that it is “run” (or maybe a better word is overseen) by a large number of vastly intelligent, sentient AIs who live in massive spaceships. Each of these Minds has a distinct personality and, as Excession reveals, a different sense of how the Culture should conduct itself towards other species, events, and technologies. This book, more than any others I have read, puts the Minds on center stage as primary characters. I really liked it and hope that the rest of the books continue this trend because the human characters are sometimes weaker or less interesting.

This weakness may be because most of the human characters ultimately have little sense of purpose or guiding desires in their lives. They live very affluent lives with very little to fear as their genetically modified bodies can self-repair, any desires or needs are easily met by the Culture’s many technologies, and they always have the option to Store themselves  (enter a kind of cryogenic sleep) or be reincarnated into another body. Basically any of the desires and needs that guide our own lives are entirely absent from theirs. They have no need to worry about jobs, food, pleasure, or other such mundane concerns. Instead, they find various ways to entertain themselves – Jernau immerses himself in the study and mastery of all different kinds of games in The Player of Games while Cheradenine Zakalwe finds the improvising and difficult work of being a Contact agent fulfilling in Use of Weapons – with most content to live pampered lives aboard the huge General Systems Vehicles (GSV) or Orbital (massive ring worlds). What makes the two primary human characters of Excession interesting – Byr Genar-Hofoen who is a Contact agent living amongst a brutally cruel species called the Affront and Dajeil who is living a self-imposed exile aboard an Eccentric ship that reconstructs historical battles with Stored bodies – is the ways that they find meaning. Byr tries to sleep with every woman he meets while Dajeil is a committed scientist of sorts who believes in a monogamy. Their relationship becomes a key part of a plot between various ships that is ultimately secondary to the conflict around the Excession.

Now, I found this part of the book less compelling because it lacked the kind of weight that the Excession plot holds, and yet it is a crucial part of the way that Banks moves between events of a massive scale and the tiny human-scale. Banks has the difficult task of trying to keep from being caught up in the epic events of a potentially cataclysmic event and alienating readers in the process. I believe that the human plot is a way of keeping the novel more intimate. And yet, it seems a lesser part of the narrative for some reason. I won’t spoil the ending, but he does weave the two plots together in a compelling way that helps shed light on the Minds’ strange habits and obsessions.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to fans of Banks’ Culture series. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as a first foray into his world as it requires a fair bit of background knowledge to pick up some of its humor and various plots.

Banks, Iain M. Excession. London: Orbit, 1997. Print.


Proto-Internet Science Fiction: Neuromancer

Neuromancer_(Book)It’s back to science fiction for me, and what a treat William Gibson’s Neuromancer is. Having taken some time away from sci-fi, I suppose I was a little skeptical about coming back to it. However, I devoured Gibson’s novel. Reading it in 2013, it’s easy to overlook just how much Gibson was predicting the coming Internet age. Henry Case, the novel’s protagonist, is a washed-up hacker who is living out what he thinks are the last few days of his life in Chiba City, Japan – a slum and crime haven. He introduces readers to a world where cybernetic implants and prosthetic devices are common-place, where the world is connected across cyberspace (a term that Gibson coined), a world where corporations rule and where the global trade of information exists in a world unto itself. All of this must have seemed way ahead of its time as ARPANET, the Internet’s forerunner, only came into existence in 1969 and in 1983 became a subnet of early forms of the Internet. This was cutting-edge technology and Gibson imagined how it could become a global realm that did not so much offer equality/democracy/information to everyone as to reinforce existing hierarchies. Now that some of the initial triumphalism about the Internet has washed away, it seems increasingly clear that the Internet itself is not a free space, but one that is controlled and contested by many parties. Anyways, I was floored by how much Gibson seems to have gotten Internet culture right. Of course, expecting sci-fi writers to be prophets is unfair as, at heart, I believe most writers are just trying to tell a good story.

And that’s what made Neuromancer work for me: it presents a clever story that traverses nearly the entirety of Gibson’s imagined world. Case is approached by Molly, a hired gun with polarized lens implanted over her eyes, with a hacking job that will pay handsomely (and restore the neural damage done to Case by some pissed-off former employers). From here, Case enters into a world-travelling journey, working with a ROM version of a now-dead hacker, to prepare for a hacking run against one of the largest corporations and its monolithic AI. Oh yeah, Gibson is all over AI in this novel, but it’s not a fear of robo-pocalypse, but something far more interesting.

I think one of the most interesting things about reading this novel was seeing how much it actually resembles Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). I read on Wikipedia that when Gibson saw the first 20 minutes he was in despair as he felt like every reviewer would see his novel as a rip-off of that film. I don’t think that this happened (Neuromancer pulled a triple crown of awards, winning the Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Hugo Awards), but it is amazing how close these two worlds line up. I’m not sure why this happened, but I am guessing that in the early 1980s, something about Japanese technology, mixed with a good dose of yellow peril (racist fear of an Asian wave) helped to concoct the perfect cultural context for Scott and Gibson to work with. At the same time, Gibson’s novel leaves Japan for Turkey and the United States before ending up in a space station. I feel like someone has probably written a Master’s thesis on the convergence of these two seminal sci-fi works.

Overall, Gibson’s Neuromancer is a great read. It is fast-paced and tosses in a number of twists that keep you guessing while also being intellectually stimulating.

I highly recommend this novel to sci-fi fans. Of course, in saying this I am probably preaching to the choir as this is already a well-loved sci-fi classic.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Science Fiction, 1984. Print.

The Moon Strikes Back: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

moonRobert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a sprawling novel about a lunar colony’s revolt from Earth’s domination. Check out the vintage cover on the right. It is pretty awesome, and I thought that this novel was pretty great as well. The novel has a huge scope touching on everything from political structures, space warfare, global politics, to environmental and social politics on the Moon. This is a massive novel in many ways with a fully realized world. Heinlein has thought through this world along with creating his own unique Lunar slang that is at first somewhat obnoxious to read, but begins to fit quite well by 50 pages in.  The book was published in 1966, 3 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, yet Heinlein creates a believable and engaging lunar world – the lower gravity levels on the Moon mean that when some of the Loonies, as they are called, travel to Earth, they struggle against its much higher gravity levels while on the Moon people tend to live much longer because their bodies do not have to work as hard.

The Moon had become a modern day Australia with all of the convicts, unwanteds, and political dissidents being sent to the Moon to work off their sentences. Of course, there is no easy way to get back to Earth and Heinlein theorizes that after a certain amount of time on the Moon’s lower gravity, the body goes through irreversible physiological changes that means a return to Earth would be extremely painful. So, the Moon becomes a place of permanent exile. The Loonies themselves are incredibly resourceful and live in a kind of frontier world nominally controlled by the Lunar Authority (a kind of colonial authority). The novel also has interesting gender dynamics given that there are so few women on the moon, families are matrilineal and women, more or less, have the final say in the general culture. If a man raped a woman, he would be killed by all the other men without trial or second thought. There are a number of different family structures at work, different forms of polygamy essentially, that make the Moon a kind of eccentric backwater of revolutionary ideas.

One critic, Adam Roberts, talks about how it is easy to get sucked into debating the politics of this novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. The Lunar revolution is a quasi-Marxist revolution mixed with a post-colonial rebellion. The narrator, Mannie, is a computer technician who forms a key part of the revolution ring-leaders along with Prof, an exiled political rebel from Earth, and Wyoming, a Marxist from Hong Kong Luna. Prof espouses a form of rational anarchism that permeates the novel’s political language yet does not overtake the action.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a self-aware computer named Mike? Well there is and Heinlein simply justifies it by arguing that at a certain point Mike simply reaches a critical mass of networks, circuits, and processors. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (possibly my favorite science-fiction novel) was published 2 years later, so both these books present interesting takes on artificial intelligence. In this novel, Mike’s capacities are nearly limitless and he becomes a crucial part in the Lunar revolt. Yet, he is oddly human as well and one of the more interesting subplots in the novel is his maturation and growth from a kind of infant-like state to a mature adult (if I can anthropomorphize him like that).

Heinlein’s novel is incredible and well worth pushing through some of the slower parts in the beginning. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sci-fi read.

Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. Print.