Science and Fiction

I’m reading a great book right now: astronomer Mike Brown’s neat memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. This is the guy who discovered something larger than Pluto, setting into motion the controversial 2006 reclassification of the former ninth planet as a dwarf planet.

Lots of good science, written for the thoughtful non-scientist, interwoven with bits of his life story: grad school, courting, marriage, and baby daughter. Some hijinx from the scientific community, too.

Brown explains the back story behind the search for planets in the outer solar system–Pluto’s neighborhood and beyond. The Caltech scientist meets his future wife in the basement of the Mount Palomar Observatory. How cool is that?

This is a highly recommended read, especially for the inside human side of science.

I recently finished Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail, a slightly less impressive book. Less impressive than his previous Culture novels.

At first glance, this book appears to have a theological relevance. There are computer-simulated hells to which the disembodied consciousnesses of dead persons are sent.

Unbeknownst to her, one character has a “recording device” planted into her brain as a young woman, and when she dies, the device broadcasts her personality, memories, skills, and such across interstellar space to a Culture ship.

This, of course, isn’t theology. It’s just technology.

Over the years, I’ve read almost every Culture novel, mostly in order of appearance. It’s a challenge for an author to create what is essentially an anarchic utopia, where citizens are unencumbered by poverty, accidental death, constructions not only on their freedoms, but also their whims.

In the Culture novels, the conflict is from outside this safe society of thirty trillion: what happens when people outside the Culture do bad things, or when individuals within the Culture have to break their own rules to protect a greater good?

A non-Culture society sets up and promotes virtual reality hells. Under the shadow of controversy about this, it is decided to hold a VR war to determine the fate of hell: to abolish them or continue them. One side, however, decides to cheat.

Banks wrote a slew of Culture novels in the 90′s. He’s recently brought out two, this one, and Matter (2008). I found the latter very difficult to get going. A caution: any review is necessarily subjective, even by my own standards. I’ve been reading mostly sf short stories the past few months, so my patience with more complex novels and their slower start-up routines may be tested. I like Iain Banks and his work. Maybe he’s set high standards that I don’t see being met in these later books.

My main problem with the Culture is that its society as a whole seems to produce a boring sameness of indulgence and materialism. And even the exceptions, those agents whose missions make up the stories of the Culture novels, they all seem rather the same, too. The concepts are really interesting, usually. Though a virtual reality afterlife is an extremely tame idea compared to alien artifacts, galactic-scale warfare, or even a doctor of a king on a backward planet. The setting almost seems to be a smarmy nod to religion: let me set up some gods and hells and show you how faith doesn’t work.

Surface Detail also involves a manufactured fleet of three-hundred million warships, but that’s far from the centerpiece of the story. The Culture deals with it as easily as a leafblower, a rake, and a match will resolve November tree litter in a backyard.

In his novels, Iain Banks has created one large character, the Culture itself. That character is untouchable, unmovable, incorruptible. So I ask: where’s the needful conflict to get a large novel moving? Sometimes things are too perfect. And no amount of grisly violence can resolve that.

In a way, the Culture has an analogue in Christian fiction. Like God, it can never be touched or moved. Real three-dimensional characters will always be more interesting. But if you’ve never read a Culture novel, I strongly recommend reading at least one. Banks is an outstanding author who, just from my perspective, seems to be in some sort of slump.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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