The Hydrogen Sonata Forum: Iain M. Banks Replies

23 December 2012, 0930 EST

I am, genuinely, immensely flattered that the contributors to this Forum have taken the time to read my work with such attentiveness and given its subject matter — both willed and un- or sub-conscious — such careful thought.

CJB’s piece: the comparison with Excession is partially the result of a decision. I remember at the time I wrote the earlier novel being worried I’d gone too far down the route of making the ships/Minds the centre of attention (I still doubt I’ll go much — maybe any — further down that road), but I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the years that it seems to be the favourite of a lot of people. I certainly decided to make The Hydrogen Sonata more about the Minds and their discussions than the last couple of novels, partly due to that long-term response. The out-of-context-problem comparison between the excession itself and the whole subject of the Sublime isn’t one I’d thought of, but chimes — a good point.

Even when I was writing the relevant passages of Surface Detail I thought, again, I was maybe taking the whole ‘orrible-realm-of-torture’ schtick too far. Chris Brown is not the first to raise the objection and I think I might indeed have got too involved there; just taken it too far because it was an interesting technical challenge. I think of my imagination as a very large, somewhat over-enthusiastic puppy sometimes, tearing off into the undergrowth and coming lolloping happily back with something utterly disgusting clenched in its jaws which it just can’t wait to drop at, or even on, my feet. Guess further training required. It’s not so bad I’d think about revising for future editions, but it does unbalance the book a little.

Yes; heaven. The idea (and obviously I think that’s all it is, for now) is suspiciously — while still, I think, inevitably — bland; even Dante found it hard to make it remotely as interesting as Hell.

re GvdR’s piece: I realised I was risking making the whole business of the novel look a bit pointless, making the plot revolve around a revelation that might not — and eventually does not — make much of a difference to anyone concerned; partly this just seemed to fit with the end-of-days feel I was trying to achieve with the Gzilt (not that I’m entirely happy I achieved that — too much of the stuff with the Gzilt feels business-as-usual, rather than feeling somehow redolent of ennui and decay, which was what I was aiming for). It’s also supposed to harmonise with the seen-it-all-before attitude of QiRia. Partly, also, it’s just trying to do something even slightly different with standard plot dynamics, something that has engaged me from the start; way back with Consider Phlebas I wanted to make it clear fairly early on that the McGuffin wasn’t that important — its capture might shorten/lengthen the war by a few months — and so on. It’s almost too easy with SF to have every plot hinge on something threatening the fate of the universe, so drawing the focus in to concentrate on something more banal — even ‘likely’ — feels more responsible somehow. Whether the general readership agrees with this is another matter, of course.

I like the idea/encapsulation of utopia being about transforming tragic violence into a comedy of errors, also the idea of communication, in a sense, being an end in itself, a non- (or at least not entirely, even not principally) utilitarian mode of artistic and even ethical expression.

The thing about purpose — and the end of the book being about completion and abandonment, and freedom — is linked into what QiRia says about meaning. It’s everywhere, and — in a sense — everything.

re IBN’s piece: I found the comments on the meshing of the spiritual/religious with the provable — and the quote from Geertz — very interesting. Part of that I’ve been suggesting through the last few Culture books is that our ideas about religion and spirituality form a sort of first draft, a posited, for now purely emblematic blueprint for the future: wishes, dreams, and fantasies that might serve as a compass offering a heading towards what we might genuinely achieve in actuality, through technology. In the end I wouldn’t call the Sublime truly spiritual at all; it’s just another mode of existence, obeying the laws of physics (though, admittedly, some of those laws are ones we on Earth haven’t discovered yet), albeit one not immediately tied into the most obvious trammels of what we know as the whole of reality and the Culture knows as the Real. Though I could be wrong, of course. Nevertheless, I’d suggest that absolutely no part of any religious experience or spiritual feeling takes place anywhere other than within the mind of the person undergoing/reporting that experience or feeling, and that religion tells us next to nothing about the universe and the way its principal systems work, but almost everything we might need to know about the way human beings work, certainly about what we ache for and live in terror of.

Also, I’m starting to think I made the actual, final act of Subliming too casual, too much of a joke. I just meant to make it easy, anti-climatic, slightly banal, once the Presences are in place, but obviously it’s coming across as a bit too dismissive, or something that I’ve dismissed. This isn’t quite what I intended. Ah well.

re PTJ’s piece: First I ought to mention that the reason that the use of Earth as a control sample (mentioned in footnote 4) is never brought up elsewhere in the stories because it’s just a tiny part of a control group of such civilisations (a group sizeable enough to be statistically valid … and I can report that the Culture takes a pretty rigorous line in such matters) in the single vast experiment that is the Culture’s interference-based foreign policy. The only way the Culture can be reasonably, evidentially sure it’s doing the right thing — especially over the civilisational long-term, which for us would mean over at least ten thousand years or so — is by running a control group of civs allowed to go their own merry/miserable way without the Culture doing anything at all other than quietly observing, and then comparing/contrasting the spread of outcomes over such meaningful amounts of time. (As the Culture has only been properly around for about nine/ten thousands years, the results are only now starting to trickle in.)

Other than that, the conclusion of the piece is pretty much exactly how I feel (and wanted to be seen or taken to be feeling, within the context of producing such a work, if I may put it like that) and the quote from QiRia is, I confess, one of those parts of the novel I hoped might be remembered. Lastly, the final footnote (6), is accurately regarding my purpose in writing the sentence it refers to.

…all of which sounds quite pompous, which is to do a disservice to the piece itself — apologies.

re DHN’s piece; this focusses (generally with more clarity than the novel, distressingly) on the — to me — entirely fascinating question of simulation/virtuality (more to the point on deceptive simulation/virtuality, where an aspect of the truth — and a fairly fundamental aspect, at that — is kept secret from the protagonists of the simulation/virtuality). Personally I cleave to the Argument of Increasing Decency, as articulated in the book, and would back this up with the idea put across in Transition (not a Culture novel, though arguably … very easily arguably … SF) that any philosophical argument or explanation that makes the same or less sense than solipsism may – at least tentatively – be discounted. There’s also that saying about a difference that makes no difference being no difference…

I could go on, but I have time constraints here, what with the festive season almost on us and a new non-skiffy book-plan to fettle, so I’d better close; sorry if any of this reads as a bit rushed. Thanks again.