Friday, July 27, 2007

Alastair Reynolds' "Turquoise Days": Planatory scale plant-based hive intelligence

After you discount the sometimes jargon-filled narration, & some very unspellable character & place names, this is generally a readable story - though not extraordinary in any way.

Central theme of the story is a planet-scale hive intelligence of primarily plant origin, in the tradition of Issac Asimov's Nemesis. Only the planet is rather watery; so the green material comprising the thing is sea based. Though sometimes it can synthesize bird-like creatures to communicate with physically far-off regions, there is no Nemesis-style telepathic ability.

Another subsidiary but major plot element is visit to an isolated human-inhabited watery planet by another group of humans on their way elsewhere, in the tradition of Arthur Clarke's "The Songs of Distant Earth". Only what the visitors want is more complex to describe, & the visitors don't have benign intentions.

A third very visible plot element is apparently borrowed from "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. The hive intelligence comprises of nodes - kind of islands floating on the surface of ocean with very complex local geography. Only these are physically anchored via multiple kilometer-length stems to seabed - somewhat like old banyan trees. But these nodes are short lived, constantly shifting, & somehow able to communicate with other nodes chemically via sea water. When faster communications are desired, they synthesize bird-like creators ("messenger sprite") that carry the message to destination, & then die.

Story is set at an unspecified time into future. Humans can travel between stars, though they stay in transit for years. Action happens in some unspecified region of galaxy; there is no mention of our solar system or earth anywhere - though you find mention of things influenced by Thai & Inuit traditions (probably an oversight by author).

Story summary.
Turquoise is the watery planet of the story, has two moons, & its name comes from the color of its ocean's waters.

Juggler, the hive intelligence, covers all of oceans. Its plant-like components quickly eat up almost any material that comes into contact with them.

Humans live in artificial "snowflake" cities made from metal, floating in the air, & supported by "vacuum bladders". There are a lot of cities - usually with unspellable names. Sometimes the cities are married; it sounded like Bombay/New Bombay combination, but they apparently are differently related (I am not clear how).

Hive intelligence absorbs all kinds of "conformal" alien creatures - somewhat like Nemesis, but more completely; physical individual ceases to exist. Over its life, it has absorbed many sentient space farers, besides humans that are regularly absorbed. Each absorbed individual enriches overall hive intelligence, & also retains a good level of individuality within hive mind (but without an individual body).

Sometimes, the hive communicates with human swimmers by growing kind of physical tendrils with the swimmer's brain, apparently without harming the individual, but also changing the individual in subtle ways.

Story opens where a research team of two sisters - Mina (elder) & Naqi Okpik - is flying to examine a node that has recently appeared. They observe some anomalous behavior on the way - too many bird-communicators flying around; we will learn the reason at the end of story.

Some hours after they drop examination probes into the node, a new phenomenon happens. A kind of lagoon has appeared in the midst of the node, much like similar trap in "Life of Pi". They go swimming, communicate with the hive, & only Naqi comes back alive. Other sister is absorbed by the hive. Naqi will play a major role through the story.

While sisters were flying, we learned that an interstellar ship, "Voice of Evening", has been detected heading towards this world. There is much speculation, & a complicated government censor of news; ship will reach two years down.

A tangent story has also been brewing - a 20 year old project called Moat. It's like a huge 20 kilometers wide well sunk into the ocean floor; I could not understand why ocean doesn't eat the walls of this well. In near future, the water inside the Moat will be isolated from surrounding ocean. Researchers hope to learn something about inter-node communication processes of hive from this experiment. Though a good amount of action happens at Moat, this side track is actually irrelevant to the main story.

Anyway, the visitors land two years later. Big spaceship is parked in orbit; a party of a dozen lands via a shuttle, & are reluctantly welcomed. They describe their purpose of visit as an intention to study Juggler. Apparently, Juggler-like beings exist on many worlds, but have been "contaminated" by human interference; the one here is still more virgin than others, since people on this world prefer remaining isolated.

After much drama, we learn the visitors are from a religious cult. There leader, Ormazd, was a despot that ran from his own world just in time a century back, stopped by Turquoise in the spaceship "Pelican in Impiety", & was absorbed by the local hive. Current cult leader is Amesha Crane, the daughter of despot, & leader of this expedition.

Apparently, the Juggler can be bribed, or traded with. You can trade "a puzzle, or something rich in information" in return for a favor from Juggler. Our visitors want the pattern of cult leader imprinted on their individual minds - so we will end up having many despots! There is a spy, Rafael Weir, among the visitors with a neural weapon to kill the Juggler.

End is action packed. Visitors have come armed with ingenious weapons. They kill many locals, destroy a lot of cities - so they can control Turquoise. Spy tries killing Juggler, is prevented by Naqi, they become friends. Naqi thinks informing the hive will be interesting; hive can may be think up a solution.

Communication happens. Then hive acts in a surprising way - choosing to get rid of all humans, good or bad. End is where human cities & visitors' shuttles are being destroyed by hive, spy has poisoned the ocean but ocean has made an antidote. Spy is then killed by Naqi, who then elects to be absorbed by the ocean.

Fact sheet.
Turquoise Days, short story (novella length!), review
First published: 2002
Rating: B

This story is included in the following collections.

  1. "The Year's Best Science Fiction, Vol 20". Anthology edited by Gardner Dozois.


Mike D. said...

Actually, the author's inclusion of Thai 'tradition' in the Turquoise story isn't an oversight. It might be superfluous but proper nouns Tak, Thonburi, Narathiwat and Sukhothai mentioned in the story are names of Thai cities.

And the Pattern Juggler themselves are not a 'hive intelligence,' as you put it. It is more of a museum curator or a living memory device.

Tinkoo said...

- I didn't know these facts about Thailand. Thanks.
- It's been years since I read it, & I still keep carrying the impression of hive intelligence. I won't dispute your suggestion, though, without rereading the story - which I may some day do.