Dan Nexon on The Hydrogen Sonata: To Sim, Perchance to Dream

22 December 2012, 0935 EST

Tardiness sometimes confers advantages. In this case, those advantages revolve around knowing the contents of most of the other contributions to this forum. They also include being confident that I need not summarize the contents of Iain M. Banks’ superb new novel. I can also, of course, intimate that the only reason my comments are not insightful as those of my colleagues is that I did not wish to replicate what they have already written. And, indeed, I intend to focus on the theme of “simulation” and how it relates to The Hydrogen Sonata’s existentialism. Before I proceed, however, I should note that what follows is a spoiler-rich zone that assumes knowledge of the novel. Those who have not read The Hydrogen Sonata should consider carefully whether or not they wish to proceed.

One of Banks’ great strengths is to take ideas familiar to science fiction and obsessively work them through to various logical and philosophical conclusions—however ultimately ambiguous. The central character of his series is usually The Culture itself, and in each recent iteration he has subjected it to the unfolding of one notion or another seeded in earlier books. And as the Drone Hassipura notes in The Hydrogen Sonata, “meticulous care can seem” obsessive “to those unwilling to recognize it for its true worth.”

The Algebraist, which is emphatically not a Culture novel, provides as good a place for me to start as any. In it, Banks names the dominant galactic belief-system “The Truth.” The Truth claims “with some justification, to be the ultimate religion, the final faith, the last of all churches. It was the one that encompassed all others, could account for and embrace all others. They could all ultimately dismissed as mere emergent phenomena of the simulation itself.”

Indeed, the Truth holds that life-as-we-know-it is nothing more—and nothing less—than a simulation. Once a sufficient number of intelligent beings accept that fact, according to The Truth, “the value of the simulation to those who had set it up would disappear and the whole thing would collapse.” Or perhaps the point of the simulation is “a test” designed to see if its subjects recognizing it as such. In either event, there might be a reward—perhaps cake—involved.

The Truth is, in the world of The Algebraist, “the first real post-scientific, pan-civilisational religion….The Truth could even claim to be not a religion at all, where such a claim might endear it those not naturally religious by nature. It could be seen more as a philosophy or even as a scientific postulate backed up by unshakeably firm statistical likelihood.”

The “simulation hypothesis” captures a rather venerable current in human belief systems: that the reality we inhabit is but an illusion that masks a really-real meta-reality. Indeed, some form of the simulation hypothesis probably lurks in every candidate for the status of “religion.” Shamanism, Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, and Marxism…all contain important cognate commitments to the misleading nature of “surface” reality. Needless to say, it is also catnip to certain species of philosophers, stoned college students, and science-fiction writers.

The Culture novels, of course, have long been concerned with the interplay of simulation, simulacrum, religion, and materialism.

The Culture novels, of course, have long been concerned with the interplay of simulation, simulacrum, religion, and materialism. As Chris Brown notes in his contribution, the Idiran causus belli against the Culture was theological in nature. The Culture had, in their view, overturned the correct cosmological order by subordinating biologics to machines. For the Idirans, The Culture combines smug self-idolatry, hedonism, and secularism.

They Idirans are not, in fact, wrong. The Culture produces god-like artificial intelligences “so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).” [1] Indeed, in The Hydrogen Sonata QiRia affirms the descriptive accuracy of the Idiran critique. He tells Cossont that “The Culture stopped being a human civilisation almost as soon as it was formed; it’s been basically about the Minds for almost all that time.” But he dismisses, in effect, the Idiran’s normative corollary. To begrudge the centrality of the Minds would be “insane.”

In case readers weren’t paying attention during Consider Phlebas, Banks reminds them in nearly every novel the degree to which machines ‘call the shots’ in the Culture (for lack of a better term to describe exercising superior agency in quasi-anarchical polity). Not only do they manipulate other civilizations with the aim of nudging the galaxy in the morally and ethically correct direction (i.e., toward that forged by the Culture), but they also manipulate Culture citizens—and especially (but not exclusively) human ones. They do so, maddeningly enough for detractors of the Culture, while usually also trying their best to respect and protect the rights of those being manipulated.

As artificial intelligences, Culture AIs, whether the über-complex Minds or the usually-smarter-than-augmented-humans Drones, are, in a sense, simulations of sentient intelligence that are superior to the real thing (if “real” means “biological,” and biological sentience is not itself a kind of emergent simulation). But there are other varieties of simulation in the Culture novels. These include the “mind states” (often called “souls”) of sentient beings that may be “backed up,” transferred, and duplicated. Very early in the series we learn that these mind states may exist entirely in virtual environments, including simulated afterlives. Surface Detail explores this last notion, positing not only virtual hells but a virtual war among virtual combatants to determine whether to abolish those aforementioned virtual hells. I should probably note that resorting to force to resolve political disputes has been sometimes termed an “appeal to heaven.”

The subject of “virtual afterlifes” received its first sustained attention in Look to Windward. There Banks also connected it to the elaborative subject of The Hydrogen Sonata, i.e., the Sublime. As Neumann has already discussed, in Look to Windward we learn that the Chelgrians are the only known civilization to have partially sublimed. Those that did were apparently disappointed to discover that the Sublime was not, in fact, the Chelgrian heaven. They therefore created one of their own. Upon death, Chelgrian consciousness is transferred to that heaven in a fashion suspiciously similar to digital “back up” in the Real. Thus, the sublimed Chelgrians (the “Chelgrian-Puen”) perform—and make actual—the duties of their mythological gods. This comports with what Banks earlier informs his readers in Look to Windward: that “the implication” of the scant evidence available “was that Subliming led to powers and abilities that gave those who had undergone the transformation an almost god-like status.”

Although the word “simulation” appears only thirty-six times in The Hydrogen Sonata, the concept clearly has thematic significance. Cossont’s android bodyguard, Eglyle Parinherm, remains stuck in the “default status assumption” that it is operating in “simulation mode.” Scoaliera Tefwe awakes from storage to “glowing red letters along the bottom of her field of vision” that read “SIMULATION.” Later on, Banks provides an expository interlude on the “Simming Problem.”

In essence, sufficiently advanced technology enables simulations of the kind our own agent-based modelers only dream of: running simulations with entire societies of artificial intelligences. But with great power comes great responsibility; the more accurate our agents, the more they become morally indistinguishable from non-simulated ones.

If the prototypes had rights, so did the faithful copies, and by far the most fundamental right that any creature ever possessed or cared to claim was the right to life itself, on the not unreasonable grounds that without that initial right, all others were meaningless. By this reasoning then, you couldn’t just turn off your virtual environment and the living, thinking creatures it contained at the completion of a run or when a simulation reached the end of its usual life: that amounted to genocide, and however much it might feel like a serious promotion from one’s earlier primitive state to realize that you had, in effect, become the kind of cruel and pettily vengeful god you had once, in your ignorance, feared, it was still hardly the sort of mature attitude or behaviour to be expected of a truly civilized society, or anything to be proud of.

Further ruminations on this topic lead to the simulation hypothesis. And if the hypothesis is correct, what about the simulators themselves? Banks invokes (and then questions) the “Argument of Increasing Decency”:

Which basically held that cruelty was linked to stupidity and that the link between intelligence, imagination, empathy and good-behavior-as-it-was-generally-understood—i.e., not being cruel to others—was as profound as those matters ever got. This strongly implied that beings capable of setting up a virtuality so convincing, so devious, so detailed that it was capable of fooling entities as smart as-say-Culture Minds must be so shatteringly, intoxicatingly clever they pretty much had to be decent, agreeable and highly moral types themselves. (So: much like Culture Minds, then, except more so.)

But that too might be part of the set-up, and the clear positive correlation between beings of greater intellectual capacity taking over from lesser ones—while still respecting their rights, of course—and the gradual diminution of violence and suffering over civilisationally significant periods of time might also be the result of a trick.

This is all the domain of secularized theology. Or, if you prefer, theological secularism. As The Truth claims, we are in a realm of speculation where the two are impossible to distinguish. This seems appropriate. After all, the Culture novels present us with multiple god-like entities and places pan-humanity in the shadow of a secular heaven called “the Sublime.” Such a setting allows Banks to continue to work through a central problem of the Culture novels: the nature of being, moral obligation, and ethical conduct from an existentialist vantage point. Does it matter if life is a simulation? If the universe is, as Look to Windward suggests, “indifferent?” Or if gods—whether Minds or the superior beings of the Sublime—do watch over us?

Does it matter if life is a simulation? If the universe is, as Look to Windward suggests, “indifferent?” Or if gods—whether Minds or the superior beings of the Sublime—do watch over us?

The answer manifests in Beats Working’s apparently pointless act of self-sacrifice; in Caconym’s decision to abort Zoologist’s simulation—the very same simulation Caconym earlier invokes in its (apparently futile) attempt to convince the Sublimed-and-returned Mind of the importance of even the least significant simulated life; and in Vyr Cossont’s performance of “The Hydrogen Sonata”—a work by a long-dead artist that exists only to score a point in an aesthetic debate—in a ghost city….itself constructed by a long-sublimed race, and now abandoned by her own now-vanished civilization.

None of this is unfamiliar territory for fans of Banks’ Culture novels. What The Hydrogen Sonata does, I think, is to affirm its existentialist dispositions in light of an increasingly fractal imagined universe. The ship Minds may be god-like, but, as we learned in Excession, they are almost nothing before the raw intellect and power of, in essence, an trans-universe elevator. The gap between Minds and the Sublimed seems wider than even that between humans and Minds. And now we have hints—in the form of the timing of the Zoologist’s departure back to the Sublime—that the Sublime is a much more active, if still inscrutable, force in the Real than earlier books might have led us to believe. But whether Sublimed or in the Real, Minds or pan-humans, Ronte or non-sentient insects, simulated or not, we must ultimately live or die with our own choices. Perhaps this is why many see the Culture as an “ambiguous utopia.” But that’s a complaint not with a rather pleasant post-scarcity society, but rather for the universe itself. If the universe has a complaints department. Which is kind of the problem in the first place, no?

[1] This quotation is from Consider Phlebas, Banks’ first Culture novel.