PTJ on The Hydrogen Sonata: Actors on the Sci-Fi Stage

21 December 2012, 1915 EST

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Individual and collective actors, whether in science fiction novels or in those social contexts we conventionally refer to as “real life,” rarely behave in a completely random manner. Indeed, socially meaningful behavior — or, more concisely, action — demands a certain degree of intelligible coherence in order to be acknowledged understood as such. There must be grounds for action, and those grounds have to be at least minimally or weakly shared by the various interpreters of the action, because it is precisely those grounds in terms of which the action can be understood as making sense; grounds give reasons for the action in question. One of the intriguing parallels between “fictional” and “factual” action lies in the narrative character of both kinds of action: “actors exist in stories and nowhere else” [1], whether we are talking about stories generated by the actors themselves or stories generated by a separate author. We narrate action, whether the actions of ourselves or the actions of others, and we do so by deploying shared grounds as reasons that render actions intelligible within a given context — a context shared by the readers and interpreters of the action in question.

The challenge of the science fiction author is to somehow create a sense of reality despite the unreality of… interstellar travel, machine intelligences whose capacities exceed those of their original biological designers, and similar wonders.

The especial challenge of the science fiction author is that those narrations of action cannot (at least, cannot wholly) derive their plausibility from their deployment of grounds that form significant parts of the everyday lives of the readers of science fiction novels. This is because science fiction, almost by definition, involves “unreal” settings and situations: things at odds with or at least not practically envisioned in contemporary science and technology, capacities beyond those that we presently possess, future or alternative worlds which we do not conventionally think of ourselves as inhabiting. At least not directly. The challenge of the science fiction author is to somehow create a sense of reality despite the unreality of a world often characterized by interstellar travel, machine intelligences whose capacities exceed those of their original biological designers, and similar wonders. Even more important, the actors within that fictional world have to be narrated as acting in intelligible ways, which requires grounds that must seem plausible despite their impossibility in our present world.

Banks’ latest novel opens with a conversation between the virtual captain of a starship and the machine intelligence that “is” another starship, at least inasmuch as any intelligence “is” its body. Most of the conversation is baffling, making reference to things that only become clear later in the novel: the Gzilt civilization was once mentored by the Zihdren, the Zihdren have left a message to be delivered at a later time, and the content of the message (“a type of admission, even a confession,” p. 8) might shock the Gzilt civilization to the core. And the Zihdren ship is destroyed by a Gzilt warship. The second scene in the novel takes us to the surface of the planet Kwaalon, where we see Vyr Cossont endeavoring to play a piece of music specifically written for an instrument that had not been invented when the piece was written, and also specifically written as a kind of an elaborate hoax or criticism: less the perfection of a genre, but a reductio ad absurdum. This is Vyr’s “life-task” (p. 14), something to complete before she follows the rest of her civilization into the Sublime, and it is almost an instance of complexity for its own sake:

She had even started thinking of giving up entirely, beginning to agree with those who held that life-tasks weren’t really about accomplishing anything beyond the passing of time before all such tasks, ambitions, goals and aspirations became — supposedly — laughably irrelevant and petty. (p. 14)

Both the Gzilt as a whole and Vyr in particular are thus engaged in something that is, at first glance, prima facie absurd; both are also putting forth extreme effort to achieve this absurd goal. That much we can recognize, and that is the level on which the actions of these actors are rendered intelligible: an existential level at which doing something rather than nothing seems preferable. We have no direct grasp of what it might be like to have four arms (as Vyr has modified herself to have) and play a mind-numbingly complex piece of music on an Antagonistic Undecagonstring; nor do we have any direct grasp of what it might be like to deliberately destroy an intelligent starship that has is carrying a message in which a civilization to which we previously looked up apologizes for some grievous, previous wrong. But we don’t have to; it is enough that we recognize the parallels between the Gzilt, Vyr, and ourselves, as we put immense effort into perhaps absurd things because the alternative — doing nothing — is in some way unbearable.

Both of these absurd actions, the performance of the sonata and the destruction of the Zihdren ship, take place in the shadow of the Subliming, the voluntary effort by the entire Gzilt civilization to quit the material universe (the “Real”) altogether in order to enter a not-well-understood realm beyond the actual and henceforth cease to have much of anything to do with the material universe again. The difference between Subliming and committing suicide is in some ways not well defined, since in both cases the formerly living being or civilization ceases to be so for basically all practical purposes, except that the existence of the Sublime is “mathematically verifiable” (p. 63), unlike other forms of the afterlife in other traditions. The Culture, as usual in Banks’ Culture novels the paragon of liberal individualism and its concomitant emphasis on placing all aspects of social life on the basis of reason alone, generally finds the whole issue of the Sublime somewhat embarrassing, representing as it does the ultimate limit of the Culture’s vast knowledge and hence the limit of its continual effort to ground its actions on careful reason. So study of the Sublime takes a back seat, among the Culture’s largely starship-encased Minds, to the pursuit of other valid and validatable areas of knowledge: whether an intervention into a lesser-developed civilization is likely to produce positive results, how best to construct the fabulous Orbitals on which the majority of the Culture’s biological citizens live, and — consequentially for this novel — precisely what message the Zihdren were trying to send to the Gzilt.

Why precisely the Culture cares to know the contents of this message is complex: the Zihdren (technically, the Zihdren-Remnant, left behind by the Zihdren when they themselves Sublimed millennia before) have requested assistance, there is a possibility that the contents of this message could produce interstellar chaos among the Gzilt and their neighbors, the Culture has something of a “reputation for enlightened interference to protect” (p. 76), and:

Also, it’s just interesting. Here’s something we don’t know but we can maybe find out, and it’s something that other people don’t want us to know. How much more seductive can you get? (p. 202)

So the Culture appears to both want to pursue this knowledge for the sheer joy of knowing, and for the contribution that knowledge can make to deciding on a course of action. Both constitute recognizable grounds for action, both in the Culture and in our world, but as the novel unfolds, both are called into question.

After a series of diverting adventures, the Minds do succeed in learning the content of the message: the Gzilt civilization is in large part based on a fable, a fable about its own cosmic distinctiveness that was in fact perpetrated by a small group among the Zihdren in order to settle an academic dispute about the development of civilizations, and the Gzilt’s revered Book of Truth was in fact a “sociological experiment” (p. 497). This fable had in fact formed part of the Gzilt’s decision to Sublime earlier in their development than other civilizations had: “there is indeed evidence that the Gzilt believe their own presence amongst the Sublime will somehow change things dramatically for the better there…also that they — wilfully, and against all evidence — regard Subliming not as retirement but as promotion” (p. 72). And it appears that this fable is complicit in the fierce efforts made by some of the rulers of Gzilt society to ensure that the Subliming goes as planned, regardless of consequences and regardless of who is hurt or killed along the way. But the limits of knowing just what difference this message to the Gzilt will make is made clear by the second of two fundamental Problems [2] encountered by the Culture’s Minds as they try to work out the future course of events by running and re-running simulations of the situation: the Chaos Problem, which “meant that in certain situations you could run as many simulations as you liked, and each would produce a meaningful result, but taken as a whole there would be no discernible pattern to them, and so no lesson to be drawn or obvious course laid out to pursue” (p. 276). The issue with the Gzilt and the Zihdren message is in fact such a problem, which leaves the vastly intelligent minds only one option: “Constructive Historical Integrative Analysis,” which the Minds themselves call “Just Guessing” and which bears more than a passing resemblance to the kind of case-specific practical wisdom we ourselves bring to bear on thorny present-day social and political problems.[3] Of course, this means that the pursuit of knowledge can’t exhaustively answer the question of what to do, whether for Minds or for us, and this in turn makes the instrumental justification for the pursuit of knowledge somewhat suspect.

We are thus left with the more intrinsic justification: knowledge is to be pursued because pursuing knowledge is joyous and valuable in itself.

We are thus left with the more intrinsic justification: knowledge is to be pursued because pursuing knowledge is joyous and valuable in itself. Whether this pursuit is joyous for the Mind (the Beats Working) that loses its life, or for the Mistake Not…’s travails including the loss of one of its avatars, is open to question; certainly the pursuit is not especially enjoyable for the casualties of the Mistake Not…’s effort to elude its Gzilt pursuers by suddenly jumping inside a planetary transit system. Increasingly, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake comes to resemble the same kind of absurdity as the performance of the 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, the violent termination of an envoy from a mentor, indeed, Subliming itself. In all of these cases, the basis on which action is carried out resembles nothing so much as a constitutive or fundamental myth or commonplace, something that is neither true nor false in itself but rather productive of the conditions of truth and falsity for other claims. For the Gzilt, this is the myth of their own specialness, which is related to the Zidhren’s long-ago actions but not reducible to it, since it has taken on a life of its own over the intervening millennia and is encoded into the institutions, both formal and informal, of everyday life among the Gzilt. For Vyr, the myth is that playing the Hydrogen Sonata “note perfect, straight through, without a break save for the few seconds between individual movements” (p. 14) is the sort of thing that one of the Gzilt’s greatest stringed instrumentalists ought to be doing in her last days. For the Culture — as for liberal societies in general — the myth involves the pursuit of knowledge together with the “enlightened interference” to which that knowledge is supposed to lead, again, regardless of consequences.[4] In all three cases, we have a fundamental conviction about who an actor is, leading to a set of actions justified ultimately in terms of that constitutive identity, and persisting even when the consequences start to become undesirable.

Banks’ answer to these instances of what we might, following Weber, call an “ethic of conviction” [5], is not to foreground the fundamentally tragic vocation of the political actor who must strive to bring her or his ideals into dialogue with the practical costs and consequences involved in wielding authority. Instead, Banks leaves us in a rather more existential place: all three actors pursue their courses to the end, but only Vyr seems to achieve any clarity by doing so. The Gzilt, having expended copious resources both collective (military assets) and more personal (the unborn child of one of the master Gzilt schemers) to guarantee that the Subliming happens on schedule, quit the material world…and the course of the universe seems quite unaffected. The Culture ships, having learned the Zidhren secret, decide not to share it with the Gzilt…and then turn “the whole factious, murderous escapade into something semi-mythical to take its place in the ongoing history of Terrific Things The Culture And Its Brilliant Ships Had Got Up To Over The Years” (p. 516).[6] By contrast, Vyr plays the Hydrogen Sonata all the way through, and then walks away from the elevenstring instrument, still living, with an immense freedom of action borne by her transcending of her own myth into the sheer potentiality of being alive. This kind of personal redemption is what Banks offers: no ultimate cosmic meaning, no final answer, but the ongoing variety of sheer living. As QiRia, the oldest living being in the Culture, puts it in what might serve as the novel’s ultimate moral lesson:

Meaning is everywhere. There is always meaning. Or at least all things show a disturbing tendency to have meaning ascribed to them when intelligent beings are present. It’s just that there is no final Meaning, with a capital M. Though the illusion that there is might be comforting for a certain class of mind (p. 211).

On this basis, the intelligibility of the novel’s actors and their actions is most powerfully consummated: the details differ, but the fundamental dilemmas of living in a meaningful but not entirely knowable universe are more or less precisely the same.

[1] Ringmar, Erik. 1996. Identity, Interest and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 74-75.

[2] The other Problem, the Simming Problem, deserves at least an essay of its own.

[3] Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2001. Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4]In the novella “The State of the Art,” Banks has the Culture itself conduct an experiment very similar to that conducted by the Zidhren, except in reverse: to test a theory, the Culture decides not to interfere in the affairs of Earth, thus putting the pursuit of knowledge ahead of practical consequences, in this case, consequences for us. Oddly, since prior Culture activities come up in the discussion among the Minds about how to handle the Gzilt situation, this episode is not mentioned. Perhaps the Culture’s guilt keeps it silent?

[5] Weber, Max. 2004. The Vocation Lectures. Indianapolis: Hackett Press, p. 83.

[6]The fact that this description could, perhaps, be applied to Banks’ Culture novels taken as a whole suggests that it is not unreasonable to read Banks as issuing a cautionary note about the seduction of tales of violent action, even violent sci-fi action, and suggesting that we keep in mind the human costs of such thrilling adventures even as we enjoy them. But that’s yet another essay.