Yesterday, one of my all-time favourite authors died at 59, after announcing two months ago that he had terminal cancer. Iain Banks wrote wonderfully imaginative books; he could paint detailed landscapes, describe human emotions with real depth and create technology and alien races that takes your breath away.
He wrote ‘straight’ novels (as he called them) and science fiction novels under the name Iain M Banks. I’ve particularly enjoyed his science fiction novels over the years. For me, science fiction takes away the boundaries that ‘straight’ stories have to work within, like gravity and ageing. And with those boundaries taken away, the imagination from authors like Mr. Banks soar.
In his first science fiction novel, Iain introduced the Culture, a human-based society that spans millions of planets. Running this society and creating the technology needed for it to work, was too much for humans and so they created Artificial Intelligence entities called ‘Minds’.
Every aspect of society, from the political system down is run by Minds who have developed personalities of their own. Even their spacecraft, some of which are as large as cities, are built by Minds and contains a Mind to run it. These Minds also name their ships, which give a inkling into the personality the Mind has developed; Nervous Energy, Sleeper Service, Problem Child, Death and Gravity and Fate Amenable to Change.
Iain’s words can sometimes leave my head in a bit of a spin and always a smile of my face. I recently re-read his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, and here is one of those passages. I hope it does the same for you and makes you smile too.
The Mind had an image to illustrate its information capacity. It liked to imagine the contents of its memory store written out on cards; little slips of paper with tiny writing on them, big enough for a human to read. If the characters were a couple of millimetres tall and the paper about ten centimetres square and written on both sides, then ten thousand characters could be squeezed onto each card. In a metre-long drawer of such cards maybe one thousand of them – ten million pieces of information – could be stored. In a small room a few metres square, with a corridor in the middle just wide enough to pull a tray out into, you could keep perhaps a thousand trays arranged in close-packed cabinets: ten billion characters in all.
A square kilometre of these cramped cells might contain as many as one hundred thousand rooms; a thousand such floors would produce a building two thousand metres tall with a hundred million rooms. If you kept building those squat towers, squeezed hard up against each other until they entirely covered the surface of a largish standard-G world – maybe a billion square kilometres – you would have a planet with one trillion square kilometres of floor space, one hundred quadrillion paper-stuffed rooms, thirty light years of corridors and a number of potential stored characters sufficiently large to boggle just about anybody’s mind.
In base 10 that number would be a 1 followed by twenty-seven zeros, and even that vast figure was only a fraction of the capacity of the Mind. To match it you would need a thousand such worlds; systems of them, a clusterful of information-packed globes…. and that vast a capacity was physically contained within a space smaller than a single one of those tiny rooms, inside the Mind….
We have lost one of Britain’s best authors and someone who can take you to places unlike any you will ever know.
To you Iain…thank you.
Image: my bookcase