Iain Banks (known as Iain M Banks when he’s writing science fiction) had the most extraordinarily fertile imagination. It was one of the reasons his books have been so loved and respected. His last SF book before he died of cancer in June at only 59 was The Hydrogen Sonata, in his Culture series. I’d not read any of his books before but was very struck by the way people talked about him over the summer, and so decided to make amends. Well, I certainly dived into the deep end.

His is a kaleidoscopic, phantasmagorical and bewildering cosmos – species, star systems, cultures, histories, galaxies.

Iain M Banks - Hydrogen Sonata

They’re all there – and I frequently got simultaneously lost and mesmerised by it all (good job there’s an extended list of dramatis personae at the end). But it is written in the most natural and often humorous way (shades of Douglas Adams?). The key feature of the last book is the phenomenon of ‘Subliming‘ whereby Races and even Minds (artificial intelligence machines, usually space ships, which have far exceeded the power and potential of their biological creators) leave the materiality of ‘The Real’ for a greater, superior existence in immateriality. There is great mystery about it though occasionally some return from it – but struggle to describe it to those in The Real.

Banks certainly had no time for religion of any kind. He was an honorary associate of the National Secular Society and a supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland. Here he is in full flood in an interview at the back of the book:

Now, while religions tell us next to nothing useful or true about the universe, they do tell us an enormous amount – perhaps an embarrassing amount – about ourselves, about what we value, fear and lust after. It is now those dreams that we might realistically think about fulfilling. And that’s fertile territory for a skiffy writer, and relevant, because we stand on the brink of creating things like gods – AIs, we continue to extend our life spans significantly and we seem on the way to blurring the boundary between the real and the virtual to the point of irrelevance. On matters where only religious writing and faith previously seemed qualified to comment, SF is now able to speak with some degree of authority – at the very least – propose alternative angles for looking at the same dreams. Though of course there will always be those who choose to disagree, unable to accept that religions are simply part of our wacky narrative history rather than direct, if laughably contradictory, conduits to absolute truth. (p610)

Which made it all the more striking to find a moment like this one. Hilariously, 2 spaceship Minds are chatting (as they do through the book) through their ‘avatoids’ – The Caconym and The Zoologist. The latter has returned from the Sublime and The Caconym is understandably curious to know what it was like.

The Real – with its vast volumes of nothing between the planets, stars, systems and galaxies – was basically mostly vacuum; an averaged near-nothing incapable of true complexity due to its inescapable impoverishment of structure and the sheer overwhelming majority of nothingness over substance. The Sublime was utterly different: packed with existence, constantly immanentising context, endlessly unfolding being-scape.

Like many a Culture Mind, The Caconym had tried simulating the experience of being in the Sublime; there were various easily available and tweakable packages which Minds passed from one to another, each the result of centuries of study, analysis, thought, imagination and effort. All claimed to give a glimpse of what it must be like to exist in the Sublime, though of course none could prove it.

And all were unsatisfactory, though each had its adherents and some even had what were in effect – shocking this, for the Culture’s Minds – their addicts. (p174)

After being pestered, the Mind gives in.

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson (Tate Modern 2004) taken by John Carter
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson (Tate Modern 2004) taken by John Carter

The Zoologist looked troubled. Eventually it said, “When you come back from The Sublime, it is as though you leave all but one of your senses behind, as though you have all the rest removed, torn away – and you have become used to having hundreds.” It paused. “Imagine you,” it said, nodding at The Caconym, “being a human – a basic human, even, without augmentation or amendment: slow, limited, fragile, with no more than a couple of handfuls of very restricted senses. Then imagine that you have all your senses but – say – touch taken away, and most of your memories as well, including all those to do with language, save for the sort of simple stuff spoken by toddlers. Then you are exiled, blind and deaf and with no sense of smell or taste or cold or warmth, to a temperate water world inhabited only by gel fish, sponges and sea-feathers, to swim and make your way as best you can, in a world with no sharp edges and almost nothing solid at all.” The Zoologist paused. “That is what it is to return from the Sublime to the Real.”The Caconym nodded slowly. “So, why did you?”

The Zoologist shrugged. “To experience a kind of extreme asceticism,” it said, “and to provide a greater contrast, when I return.” (p176)

Wow. Now, don’t misunderstand. He’s not talking about The Incarnation (with capital letters) – he’d no doubt despise the sheer absurdity of the doctrine as any good secularist would. And this is not to suggest that eternal realities are immaterial – his vision of the Sublime seems very Greek and not Hebraic. Isn’t interesting, for example, how the apostle Paul contrasts present day reality with the next life’s reality through the imagery of tent vs house in 2 Cor 5:1-4  (i.e. the next work is much MORE solid, substantial and real)?

But doesn’t this remarkably capture something of the humiliation, sensual deprivation and renunciation of The Incarnation? Isn’t that precisely what Paul goes on to allude to, albeit with specifically material imagery in 2 Cor 8:9?

The only difference is that this wasn’t done out of some experiential curiosity. It was done out of grace and love.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Chris Green

    Well done, Mark – though you have plunged in at the deep end, as you say! Try starting earlier on. I’m not a big Sci Fi reader, but I’ve consistently enjoyed this series, fizzing with ideas, often laugh out loud funny in its brilliant inventiveness and occasionally deeply (and morally) shocking.

    1. quaesitor

      Any you’d particularly recommend – I definitely found this one had all the things you describe in spades. Though I think I need a bit of a break from The Culture before re-immersion!

      1. Christian Bensel

        There’s no reason not to start with the classic “Consider Phlebas”. And then work your way through them all… Don’t start with “Use of Weapons” (two narrative strands told in reversed order ect + exceedingly grim).
        The last books felt like a tour through “what’s wrong about Christian theology according to the author”: Materialism and Theodicy (in the book called “Mater”), eternity and hell (“surface detail”), the idea of holy books and heaven (“hydrogen sonata”).
        But what Banks always captured extremely well from my point of view is what we could call the sinful nature of humans.

  2. Chris Green

    I think any one you start at feels like being plunged into the middle of an imaginative river in full spate! Look to Windward was very fine, as was Use of Weapons

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