Can You Slow Down to the Life Speed of a Rock?
As I am writing these lines, humanity as of yet does not know, whether the giant gaseous planets in our solar system have a solid, rocky core deep inside or not. Planetary formation models seem to indicate, that they could have them. And while living in the atmosphere of the planet has not been talked about regarding Jupiter, the clear role model for the planet Nasqueron of the novel, it has been talked about regarding Venus.
For the ancients, gods were planets and planets were gods and Venus the goddess was a svelte enchantress. Venus the planet, however, is toxic and deadly. None of the spacecraft we have managed to land there have lasted very long. We will try again soon, but for a human to ever step on Venusian surface seems highly unlikely. On the other hand, higher up in the atmosphere of Venus, the weather is fine, temperatures are moderate and the environment is survivable for human visitors. Some people have gone as far as suggesting that a permanent human base in Venusian atmosphere might be possible some day.
That’s Nasqueron – a gas giant (modelled on Jupiter) with an atmosphere that’s liveable (modelled on Venus). The author even does a hat tip to Jupiter in the book, mentioning that the dwellers, inhabitants of Nasqueron, have visited or maintain a remote outpost in Jovian atmosphere in our system. So, while definitely fiction in every way, the basic premise is scientifically plausible. Life could exist in certain atmospheric layers of planets, the solid surfaces of which, if they even have them, are uninhabitable. This idea was the first reason I picked this book from the Hugo Award nominations list (it did not win) and the book did not disappoint. I enjoyed playing the mental what-if games with the author around that premise. Describing how the dwellers live in the gaseous layers of Nasqueron is, nevertheless, a topic that the author keeps coming back to again and again.
The other reason for picking the book was the description of some species in the Universe as quick and others as slow. Many times have I stood, looking at a tree or a rock, thinking how it might perceive me and realising that it probably doesn’t Not any more than I perceive individual atoms. The gap in the speeds of our existence is simply too great. It’s this idea, that Banks is playing around with in the Algebraist. He gives his species the ability to sync up, for the quick (like humans) to become slow seers and for the slow (like dwellers) to speed up. In our daily existence, there is no hope for a human, with a lifespan of 80-some years and the ability to stand still next to a rock for a tiny fraction of that, to ever become perceptible to a rock millions of years old. We’re simply buzzing around too fast for it to notice. Here today, gone tomorrow. But if we could slow down and sync up … I find this idea fascinating.
The rest of the book is more or less science fiction standard. Space ships, wormholes and laser battles. Main storyline is not super special. Maybe I expected more alien algebra. Maybe I’ve read multiverse-explaining Three Body Problem too recently. Anyway, it wasn’t the story that drew me into this book. It was those two ideas above.