I’ve been slowly making my way through Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” series of novels. If you haven’t heard about them, they are a fairly new series of SF books dealing with a sprawling galactic society where almost all problems (e.g. war, poverty, mortality) have been solved. The members of the Culture spend their time hanging out, having fun, and occasionally meddling in the affairs of lesser societies that have not been granted membership into the Culture, and often are not even aware that life exists on other planets. This meddling is where most of the interesting stories occur.
The stories are well written, having a grand operatic feel to them, but what I find most interesting are the themes that lie on the periphery of the main stories. In particular I am fascinated by the relationship between the human members of the Culture and the machine members. The Culture is so advanced that is has managed to create artificial intelligences that possess almost infinite computational abilities. Many of them, especially the smaller “person-like” AIs are limited in intelligence, presumably so that the humans can relate. There are also many super intelligent AIs that run very large space ships on which millions of people live. The AIs are so powerful that they can monitor everything that is happening on the space ship and intervene if, for example, one of the millions of inhabitants is about to fall down and hit his head. They can also perform complicated reasoning beyond anything that humans can comprehend.
What I find interesting about the concept of the AIs is that, with them around, humans are far from being the dominant intelligence in the society. Humans are so inferior that they can never even really understand the nature of their relationship with the AIs. The AIs SEEM to be nice and supportive, and allow the humans freedom, but how can the humans really KNOW that they are free. A parallel might be a relationship between a dog and owner. A dog can never figure out the relationship between it and the human owner.
Of course the super AI theme has been explored before, for example in The Matrix and Terminator movies. But they are comparatively simple situations, because the relationship between the humans and the machines is purely adversarial. The balance between human and machine in this case is very clear. But the “friendly” relationship between humans and machines in the Culture novels is less clear, and is perhaps quite sinister, simply because the humans don’t and can’t know what is going on.
I recommend Banks’ books for some good but not mind blowing reading. He also writes normal (non SF) fiction. The one example I read was “The Steep Approach to Garbadale” which had a good story, but was marred by overly insistent political diatribes.