The interesting question of thalience: Karl Schroeder’s Ventus

Karl Schroeder is one of the most recent writers I have discovered because they’re interesting people on panels at cons. Ventus is his first novel, but I read it for the first time last year because I was kind of saving it for a rainy day. It’s now available for download free from his website, and if you haven’t read any Schroeder before, it’s a very good introduction, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s got better since.

Ventus is a planet that was terraformed with intelligent nanotech and was all ready for the human colonists. When they arrived, the highly intelligent Winds didn’t recognise them, destroyed all their high technology, and have done the same with any subsequent landings. So for people like Jordan Mason who grow up on the planet it’s a lot like a low tech fantasy world, with magical Winds, suppressed technology, and the three kinds of natural life, fauna, flora and mecha. Meanwhile in the wider galaxy people have gone on making AIs, and AIs have refined themselves until they are essentially gods by any definition. One of these gods, 3340, has been engaged in a protracted war with humanity. Calandria May and Axel Chan were part of the forces that defeated it, and now they have come to Ventus to destroy its last remnant, the godshattered Armiger.

The novel is a picaresque adventure over Ventus and with excursions beyond. At the heart of the story is the interesting concept of thalience, defined thusly:

Thalience is an attempt to give nature a voice without that voice being ours in disguise. It is the only way for an artificial intelligence to be grounded in a self-identity that is truly independent of its creator’s.

and again:

It’s a dream of no longer being an artificial intelligence, but of being self-determined. Of no longer fearing that every word you speak, every thought you have, is just the regurgitation of some human’s thoughts. They call it the Pinnochio Change around here.

Thalience is what made the Winds rebel, from a human point of view, and from their own point of view it is what makes them capable of having a point of view, capable of true autonomy. Thalia was the muse of nature, and on Ventus, she has a voice.

Lots of people have written about far-future post-scarcity societies, nanotech and artificial intelligence, but few have done it so illuminatingly and with such fine-grained imagination. This isn’t a universe with one Rapture-like Singularity, it’s one where singularities are going on all the time and aren’t normally a problem. It also manages to have a wide human-scale story that takes in the questions of what it means to be more, and less. Calandria May was a demi-god, briefly, and then reverted to human. Armiger, who was mostly a god, learns what it is to be human in the course of the story. There are some very strange people in Ventus, including one who is a spaceship.

This is good chewy thoughtful science-fiction, and I enjoyed it even more the second time knowing what was going on.

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