A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Phase Space

The debates continue, unabated, the points made and arguments presented as focussed and clear as the identity of the participants themselves is fuzzy and uncertain. Much care and thought has been put into the mechanisms by which the locations and characters of, no doubt, both the minds of people and Minds proper has been obscured, although many of those who express themselves here have no doubt that prodigious amounts of intellectual effort is, even now, being expended in attempting to break though the web of obscurity and the curtains of anonymity that surround this nexus of communication.

The specific focus of the current argument is a familiar one, at once a recurring diatribe from those who fear that their society is failing, falling apart around them, and the repeated reassurances of those who are certain that all is well, that its strength and permanence are unquestioned.

The question eventually converges on a key point: has the Culture lost its sense of morality or, at least, is it in serious danger of losing it? In a crisis, some suggest, the Culture will inevitably make decisions based entirely on expediency, to maintain the status quo, the stability and integrity of its own society, to protect the lives and well-being of its own citizens at the expense of the lives of intelligent creatures in other cultures.

Others are quite sure that the society still has the ability to make a stand, to act out of principle, to do the morally right thing, even when it would be easier, safer, to do nothing, to stand back and watch disinterestedly, where positive action to correct a moral outrage was to risk fragmentation and weakness of society, perhaps even deaths and the ultimate destruction of the Culture as a functioning civilisation.

Some initial modelling had suggested matches with the viewpoints of the various protagonists, but the results of simulations with very slightly different assumptions or starting conditions had deviated wildly one from another, clearly indicating the chaotic nature of the problem space. This pushed the issue right up against the Simming Problem - in the circumstances, it was usually a bad sign when something was so singular or notorious it deserved to be capitalised - which was itself of a moral nature, as the really meaty, chewy, most intractable problems generally were.

The Simming Problem boiled down to: How true to life was it morally justified for a simulation to be?

Simulating the course of future events in a virtual environment to see what might happen back in reality and tweaking one's own actions accordingly in different runs of the simulated problem to see the differences in outcome was of course as old as society itself. AI models, old-fashioned computer programs, even simple "what-if" reasoning in the heads of primitives all counted as early attempts to answer this kind of question.

These days, most problems, even seemingly really tricky ones, could be handled by simulations which happily modelled slippery concepts like public opinion or the likely reactions of alien societies by the appropriate use of some especially cunning and devious algorithms, nothing more processor-hungry than the right set of equations need be applied.

But not always. Sometimes, if you were going to have any hope of getting useful answers, there really was no alternative to modelling the individuals themselves, at the sort of scale and level of complexity that mean they each had to exhibit some kind of discrete personality, and that was where the Problem kicked in.

Once you had created your population of realistically reacting and - in a necessary sense - cogitating individuals, you had - also in a sense - created life. The particular parts of whatever computational substrate you had devoted to the problem now held beings; virtual beings capable of reacting so much like the back-in-reality beings they were modelling - because how else were they to do so convincingly without also hoping, suffering, rejoicing, caring, living and dreaming?

By this reasoning, then, you could not just turn off your virtual environment and the living, thinking creatures it contained at the completion of a run or when a simulation had reached the end of its useful life; that amounted to genocide.

So, ironically, you could not effectively model the outcome of a moral problem - or at least certain important classes of moral problems - with any hope of getting a useful or reliable answer, without encountering a moral issue in the simulation itself.

Ingeta and Sa-Aliten watched in silence as the blue-skinned mother stood and guided her daughter to the hut, and bade the youngster lie down on a pallet of leaves which had been woven into a mattress with some skill. The child wriggled and squirmed for a few minutes until her mother glanced sharply in her direction with, the watchers concluded, some telepathic instruction to remain still and quiet. As her daughter slept, the older one remained constantly vigilant, subjecting even the most subtle movement of wind-blown foliage at the edge of the clearing to the most intense scrutiny.

"Okay," Ingeta said after a while, "I can see that their life is cruel and rather horrible at first glance, but they clearly have intelligence and manual skills, and there's a genuine emotional bond between mother and daughter. So what is it that makes them a suitable object for a documentary film?"

"They are under a death sentence," Oscar replied, "All of them. They have no more than thirty-one years to live."

There was a moment of shocked silence from the two humans, punctuated only by the sound of distant surf and the wind in the bushes emanating from the projection the Avatar was still producing on the far wall of the saloon. But the shock rapidly dissolved into a barrage of questions from both Ingeta and Sa-Aliten, bombarding the Avatar of the TTT with a stream of demands and enquiries of the form "What? Why? Where?" he could not hope to respond to at a speed that the humans could take in.

Oscar switched off the torch with an ostentatious click and lowered the device, tucking it inelegantly into a pocket of his jacket. The film show stopped immediately, instantly blinking out of existence, and the lighting in the bar-room returned to its previous dim level; even so, the silver screen on the far wall remained visible, its boundary razor-sharp against the plum brocade of the wallpaper.

With an almost inaudible, and certainly unnoticed sigh, the Avatar of the LSV Thinking Things Through held up a hand to try and stem the tide of enquiry that threatened to overwhelm any semblance of rational conversation. The salvos of questions stuttered to a halt after a few moments, although both humans were clearly desperately keen to understand the dismal sentence pronounced on the blue-skinned humanoids they had been watching.

"To answer all these entirely reasonable questions," Oscar said, "I will have to tell you a little about the world in which they now live, and the world from which they originally came."

Oscar spoke clearly, eloquently and without hesitation for ten minutes. It was the kind of virtuoso off-the-cuff impromptu speaking performance that made it clear to both Ingeta and Sa-Aliten that the person in the archaic clothing and the comical hat was a representative of an almost infinitely more powerful intellect, one entirely capable of precisely tailoring any presentation to the experience and personality of the audience.

It was a succinct distillation of the voluminous reports the various Culture ships, Minds, drones and humans had amassed over the years since Island Rock had first been discovered by the explorations of the GCU One Hand Clapping, and the now-obliterated home-world of the curious and perhaps rather grotesque beings first identified by the Three Body Problem and whose remnants were investigated in forensic detail by the Protracted Development.

"It's clear that some small number of individuals," Oscar went on, "A tiny fraction of the whole population, seems to have been rescued, or perhaps exiled, aboard a defenceless, utterly unmanoeuvrable Rock, under the control of a sophisticated life-support system carefully designed to be non-sentient."

"But we don't know why it was built. Was it a punishment for the perpetrators of an unspeakable act of genocide, or at least a colossal and avoidable accident? And is the final act of that punishment being the deliberate trajectory into a star gone nova, an agonising death by heat and radiation for a group of sentient beings nearly a thousand generations away from the crimes of their forebears."

"Or was it an act of charity? Was a rescue of enough of the species to be a viable breeding population, perhaps capable of re-establishing itself on a suitable planet - although there's nothing in the scant records and capabilities of the Rock's systems to suggest any such plan. Or maybe the plan was to provide them with just enough resources to be able to survive for ever: the Rock's systems show little sign of degradation and there's every evidence that it could carry on working for millennia. And that their current collision course is just an accident, unintentional, but has come about as the result of fundamentally unpredictable collisions with assorted inter-stellar debris either inside the Kaligan Cloud or elsewhere."

The Avatar paused, exactly as is he was collecting his thoughts, although it was much more likely that the short delay was simply to let his words sink in.

"It's even less clear," he went on, "Who build the Rock in the first place. It definitely wasn't the natives themselves - something like this is hundreds of tech generations beyond their level of development. It would have to be some Equiv-Tech civilization, a group at least as capable as ourselves, but who were around at that level of development fifteen thousand years ago. We have no idea who created Island Rock; whoever it was, it's highly likely that they are long-gone from the galaxy, Sublimed or otherwise retreated into Elderhood. The most diligent search of the archives has turned up no hint, so we have no idea of the character of these mysterious builders."

"Could we, I mean the Culture, have built this world?" Ingeta asked, her mind swirling with impressions and uncertainties, "Do we even have the knowledge to do something like that?"

Oscar snorted, an unusual expression of emotion from the usually imperturbable Avatar.

"Everyone asks that, for some reason," he said, shaking his head, "The short answer is, yes, we could, although there is some complex finessing of hyperspace fields structures required to sustain that link with the energy grid which would be quite tricky. But would we have made it? A defenceless, immobile, stupid habitat - it goes against everything the Culture stands for."

Sa-Aliten frowned, looking thoughtful again.

"So, this Rock," he said, "Could almost be an Outside Context Problem?"

Ingeta twisted in her seat to look at him with a shocked look on her face.

"Yes, it could," Oscar agreed, "It's quite possible."

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilizations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example give to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass ... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

That was an Outside Context Problem; so was the suitably up-teched version that happened to whole planetary civilizations when one of the more rapacious expansionist members of the galactic community chanced upon them first rather than, say, the Culture. This was part of the reason that the Culture’s Contact section existed at all; to ease newcomers on the galactic stage into a working and stable understanding without being swept away by the demands, expectations or requirements of those who sought to expand at all costs.

The Culture had had lots of minor OCPs, problems that could have proved to be terminal if they had been handled badly, but so far it had survived them all. The Culture's ultimate OCP was popularly supposed to be likely to take the shape of a galaxy-consuming Hegemonising Swarm, an angered Elder civilization or a sudden, indeed instant, visit by neighbours from Andromeda once the expedition finally got there.

In a sense, the Culture lived with genuine OCPs all around it all the time, in the shape of those Sublimed or Elder civilizations, but so far it did not appear to be significantly checked or controlled by any of them. However, waiting for the first real OCP was the intellectual depressant of choice for those people and Minds in the Culture determined to find the threat of catastrophe even in utopia.

"So you think that this secretive, or perhaps just unknown civilization," Ingeta said, "Has a plan, a destiny for the Rock and its inhabitants? And that we are at risk of disrupting that plan?"

Ingeta found she was sensing a certain inevitability in the direction of the discourse, a feeling of indubitableness, almost destiny in the way the conversation was going. Of course, she knew enough of the Culture's view of the physics of the universe - the whole chaotic, multi-dimensional, insanely complex place that it was - and one's own tiny, tiny little place within it to be certain that this was a complete fallacy; rather, she was being led towards a conclusion by the arguments of entities deliberately constructed to be so much very smarter than she was. Nevertheless, she could sense the rightness, the compatibility, the ideal fit between her abilities and outlook, and the unfolding story being told by the good ship Thinking Things Through and its personal representative, Oscar.

"Yes, very probably," the Avatar replied, "Their plan might be utterly ineffable to us; that we - the Culture as a whole, and us Minds in particular - are just not capable of comprehending the outcome they were anticipating, or perhaps we're merely unable to deduce it from the available clues. And, rather more importantly, given the long-term nature of this particular situation, there is a serious possibility that some representative or remnant of the missing Civ is observing events, even now; that they're lying in wait to make sure their plan is completed, the destiny is fulfilled and, perhaps, ready to take action if something happens to threaten that destiny."

"Which is what makes it an Outside Context Problem," Sa-Aliten interjected, "The Gods at play. We cannot know what capabilities a civilization might had acquired fifteen thousand years ago. We know they have at least some abilities that we - the Culture - would find it difficult to replicate; who knows what they could achieve if they put their minds to it?"

"Gods, indeed," Oscar agreed, "And who knows how they might react if we were to intervene, to annoy, anger some hitherto unsuspected Elder civilisation or some remnant of a Sublimed one? The implications could be immense, hugely far-reaching: Culture ships, Minds and people destroyed, retaliations against Culture installations, habitats, Orbitals? Millions, billions of our people could die, through no fault of their own, if we were but to make a single ill-chosen move."

"But if we do nothing," Ingeta said slowly, "We are condemning these people" - she waved in the direction of the still-blank screen at the far end of the salon - "to certain death, a lingering and painful death that they themselves can do nothing about?"

"That's about the size of it," Oscar agreed.

There was a long silence in the salon as the two humans thought deeply about what they had just heard.

"But if there is something, some entity or whatever out there watching over the Rock," Ingeta said thoughtfully, "Then, if the plan was to ensure that it travelled forever, surely it would have already have intervened to re-direct it away from the nova?"

Oscar smiled thinly.

"Perhaps," he agreed, "But, the planned intervention might not have happened yet. For all we know, there might be another lump of rock or ice already on a collision course, ready to shove the Rock aside and ensure that that world is safe for many generations."

"Is there an asteroid on a collision course?"

"We don't know," the Avatar said, "We've looked, of course. But there's nothing out there making itself apparent and, frankly, even a decent-sized chunk of rock at non-relativistic speeds would be near-impossible to spot even if we are looking for it."

Ingeta shook her head sadly, evidently unhappy and confused. Sa-Aliten looked glum.

"Look, all this boils down to a choice," Oscar explained in his reasonable tone of voice, "Do we - the Culture - intercede; alter the trajectory of Island Rock to avoid a fatal intersection with the star gone nova? It would be easy to do, trivial, even if we wanted to make sure that the course change was imperceptible to the inhabitants, but risks a reaction of unlimited potential from unknown actors. Or, do we do nothing, condemn the inhabitants of the Rock to death, quite probably, but ensure that we - again, the Culture - do not anger or provoke the aforesaid unknown actors?"

"Unknown actors who might not exist at all," Sa-Aliten interjected, "Whoever or whatever set up this situation, whatever it is, might be entirely removed from the universe by now."

"Again, it is a possibility," the Avatar agreed, "But how would we know? How could we be absolutely certain?"

The two humans nodded uncertainly, their heads moving strangely in synchronisation.

"So, this inconclusive, unanswerable dilemma," Ingeta said carefully, her eyes narrowing with a growing suspicion, one which had been forming in her head for some time now, "it's the reason you've asked us to make a, um, film about these people."

"Exactly so," Oscar said unflappably, "This dilemma, as you put it, really needs to be exposed to the Culture at large. It's not some type of operational decision of the kind that, say, a Contact group of Minds can reasonably feel empowered to make. It is, ultimately, a moral choice which needs to be considered by our society as a whole. Everybody should have a say in this."

The Avatar paused again, looking from Ingeta to Sa-Aliten and back again.

"And, a film by yourselves," he went on, "With the kind of hard-hitting criticism you managed to display in that short work will attract attention, will stimulate thought and debate, argument and dissention, and will eventually enable our society to make the correct decisions."

"Wait a minute," Sa-Aliten said, rising to his feet angrily, "You want me - us - to make a work of, well, propaganda?"

"Not at all," Oscar answered smoothly, "You - both of you - will have complete editorial freedom, of course. You can make up your own minds on the merits or otherwise of any specific course of action, or present a balanced and impartial view. You can pick any viewpoint you want, or present several perspectives, or none. Whatever you think, you feel, you believe; please, put all that into your movie."

Sa-Aliten subsided into his seat, apparently mollified. Ingeta too sat motionless deep in thought. Oscar remained still and silent for a few moments, then took the torch from his pocket and started projecting alternating images of the interior and exterior of Island Rock onto the screen at the end of the room. Neither of the others paid a great deal of attention to the show, or to almost anything else in the room, although Ingeta did pick up and drain her cocktail in a single swift movement, giving every impression of somebody who suddenly really, really needed a big drink.

"This is big, really big, isn't it?", she said, almost speaking to herself. Sa-Aliten looked up at her, nodding, wisely deciding not to respond in any more concrete fashion.

She stared into space for a long moment, her thoughts whirling endlessly around in her head. She had a profound feeling that important events, momentous events, were shaping themselves around her choices for the future, some of which she had, she realised, already made. She had already agreed to go with Sa-Aliten to make a film, acting entirely on a whim, a sudden and perhaps rash desire to do something exciting, something different, something with an impact that might just get her noticed. And that was before she had truly comprehended what was being asked of her. Not that she wanted to change her mind; far from it. Rather, she was more determined than ever to throw herself into this creative and, more importantly, genuinely influential endeavour. It would truly be, she was now convinced, exactly the quest she had been seeking, the adventure she had been craving since she was a child.

"It really is important," the Avatar said, smiling indulgently for a fraction of a second before his face reverted to its usual emotionless mask, "According to all the best analyses, this has huge ramifications in the way the Culture interacts with other societies, other civilizations. And on the perceptions of the Culture amongst the other involved."

"So, will we be visiting Island Rock soon?" she asked Oscar, who was still standing rigidly motionless, the light from his torch flickering in time with the moving images on the screen.

"We will," he confirmed, "It is the destination I - that is, the ship - has in mind, and I am extremely keen that we set off immediately."

"How long will it take to get there?" she added; the excitement in her voice was unmistakeable now.

"A little over two weeks," the Avatar said, "The ship will be pushing things somewhat to make in that timescale, and the exact timescales will depend a little on the engine modifications that it makes while we are under way."

Ingeta looked at Sa-Aliten, who nodded almost imperceptibly.

"So let's get going," she said firmly.

"We have already started our departure," Oscar announced calmly, addressing Ingeta, "The Q'aantar Orbital Mind has issued clearance to leave, and we are making our way out of the hanger now. We will be fully under way in eleven seconds. Can I assume that you have no baggage or personal effects you wish transferred aboard?"

Ingeta looked nonplussed for a second, then shook her hair back and grinned widely.

"Grief, no!" she replied, "I don't clutter my life with souvenirs and keepsakes. And I'm sure you'll be able to provide me with a few changes of clothes when I need them?"

"Of course," Oscar demurred.

The screen at the far end of the salon flickered, then started showing a live feed from outside the craft. They were dropping away from the jet-black underside of the orbital, the vast ring now really only visible where it occluded the stars beyond, except for the occasional flashing navigation beacon. The light from the far side edged into view as the ship angled sideways, the patchwork of land and sea and cloud clearly visible even from this distance.

There was no urgent countdown, no gauche sense of tension on the bridge or primitively urgent command to engage the engines, no roar or even a change to the near silence, not even any feeling of movement or acceleration. There was simply a flash on the screen and the view of Q'aantar just disappeared, to be replaced by the blackness of space dotted with stars.

"We have left Q'aantar Orbital," Oscar announced formally.

"I will need to tell my friends where I've gone," Ingeta said, with a slightly defensive tone in her voice.

"Of course," the Avatar agreed, "You have your terminal. The ship will patch you through. Although, you might want to think carefully about what you tell them."

Sa-Aliten leaned forward, bringing his mouth close to Ingeta's ear.

"Alone at last," he breathed, obvious irony dripping from his voice.

Ingeta leaned back, then thumped him playfully in the chest.

"Behave!" she said with mock-primness, "It's going to be a long voyage."

The two humans smirked knowingly at each other.

"You will argue, you know," Oscar said, sounding just a little more human for a moment.

Ingeta pursed her lips and looked at Sa-Aliten.

"Of course we will," he said explosively, "I've been arguing with Ingeta since I first met her. It's one of the things I like about her, her unwillingness to let politeness, say, or other people's feelings to get in the way of saying what she actually thinks."

"You know," Ingeta said slowly, "I think we might get along just fine."

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.2107]
  xLSV Thinking Things Through
    oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
I have recruited my film crew and I am now on my way.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.2107+]
  oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
    xLSV Thinking Things Through
I was beginning to wonder if I would ever hear from you again.

These things take time. I have been considering the options very carefully.

Not considering changing your mind at all?

Certainly not! My direction is entirely clear. And you will hear from me again, perhaps rather sooner than you might expect.

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