Mar 30 2009 10:35am

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.

1. Viviannn
Love the adjective "chewy" in this context. :)

Ventus is a work of such wild imagination that it got a bit exhausting towards the end. It was as if, since it was his first novel, Shroeder had to stuff in every neat idea he'd ever had. I imagine his later novels may be a bit calmer; I must get around to reading them sometime.

I don't much care for the idea of "giving nature a voice." Human arrogance; how do we know it doesn't already have one, that we can't readily hear?

Although Ventus is not horror, it has one scene that is horror par excellence. I wrote about it on my blog.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Viviannn: His later novels are better paced, but not much less idea-dense.
3. Viviannn
bluejo: Wow. That's amazing.
rick gregory
4. rickg
Ok Jo, this is getting scary. Your last few posts all touch on what I think of as favorite novels of mine that most people don't know about... (looks around for the webcam... ) :)

You hit on the reasons I liked Ventus... but especially that it sidesteps the Singularity issue by dealing with it as something that's not a one-time event the other side of which is a mystery.

Also, the idea that every single thing on the planet is nanotech, hooked together and alive has probably been done before, but Ventus really brought it home in several scenes where the characters had to consider that fact.

Funnily enough, the way it starts I thought it might be a novel set in one of those pastoral societies where something odd happens and we follow the simple folk as the learn the world is bigger... and I nearly didn't read it. In a small way it IS that... but way, way more.
Agnes Kormendi
5. tapsi
I also read this book last year and I loved it!

I loved how it started like a really traditional fantasy book with the young craftsman haunted by mysterious visions, who has to save the world (whether he likes it or not) and then all of a sudden it expands into this very colourful science fiction universe... and then zooms back to an evil god named 3340. I was amazed by Schroeder's ability to connect all these elements in a fresh and surprising way.

And the ending was just beautiful.

"Lady of Mazes" was great as well, though I suppose reading "Ventus" first helped me a lot, as I was already familiar with a things that would otherwise have taken quite some time to fully understand (like some aspects of the manifolds) and I could keep up with the book's pace.
6. John Ludlow
I'm actually reading this at the moment, almost finished. I've also been reading Schroeder's Virga novels and while the later novels show how he's matured as a writer, Ventus is awesome just because of this fascinating idea of thalience.

Funny, because I only picked this book up by chance. I was browsing Waterstones about a year ago looking for space operas, eventually settling on Sun Of Suns. Loved it, so my girlfriend bought me Queen Of Candesce for Christmas. Loved that as well, so I got Pirate Sun and started checking out his website and stumbled on this little gem as a free download. Hooray for ebook readers!

I'd like to see more of this concept explored - perhaps Lady Of Mazes will do that.
Blue Tyson
7. BlueTyson
Yes, you certainly can't say that Lady Of Mazes is less ideas-dense. :) Bit of a mind-melter.

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