Secretary-General Identifies Source of Somalian Problem: Somalis.

May 27, 2010

NO-SUCH-THING-AS-ARMENIANS-CITY, SATURDAY: The Secretary-General of the United Nazis, General Wan-Ker Loon, announced today that after careful study of none of the facts he has identified that the crisis in Somalia will probably continue so long as there are still some Somalis left alive.
Speaking in Turkey from the steps of the Monument to the Elimination of Superfluous Kurds, the General proclaimed that the Conference on the Final Solution to the Somali Question had been extremely successful, a success he attributed to the utter absence of any Somalis from the Conference who were not on salary from the CIA.
“Let’s face it,” said His Loonship, “these dark-skinned people are forever jabbering in foreign tongues and make all sorts of ridiculous demands which no civilised person would stomach for a moment. It’s about time the master races said enough is enough — and what possible better master race is there than a Korean?”
Asked about the situation in Mogadiscio, General Loon admitted that as a result of certain unavoidable technical restructurings and strategic reconfigurations, the territory occupied by the African Union peacekeepers had shrunk to approximately the size of half a rugby-field. “But it is a very peaceful rugby-field, thanks to our policy of levelling the playing-fields, and indeed, levelling most of Mogadiscio.”
Asked where the internationally recognised unelected government of Somalia imposed by Ethiopian invasion was, UberLoon said coyly, “You should ask the captain of the nuclear aircraft carrier U.S.S. Haveaniceday which is currently deployed to the Arabian Gulf region in pursuit of pirates and anti-Semites on behalf of the International Criminal Court.”
That Generalisation explained that the problem was not simply a very large number of Somalis who regrettably showed their refusal to submit to a government lawfully chosen for them by Central Command by shooting at it. “Somalis also burn wood, thus emitting carbon dioxide which is notoriously a greenhouse gas. They catch fish, and the oceans are notoriously becoming depleted preventing me from getting all the sushi I want. What is more, not all of them pay taxes or duty on their imports. Since Somalia has no currency, they are all money-launderers. In short, they are nothing more than an international syndicate of organised criminals, and we in the United Nazis are not prepared to tolerate competition.”

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Water, Water, Everywhere But Here

May 27, 2010

They say that it will cost twenty billion rand to refurbish our national water treatment plants. They are lying in their teeth. It will cost a lot more than that.
South Africa is a dry country. As a result, we have built lots of dams to catch water to serve our cities, and canals and tunnels to shunt water from places where there is water to places where it isn’t. We have done pretty much what we could do in this regard. The best dams have been built and the best water transfer systems have been built. Now we must figure out what to do next.
South Africa is a mining country. As a result, we have dug a lot of holes in the ground which have filled up with water. Oxygenated water behaves differently from the de-oxygenated water which you normally find underground; thanks to the oxygen it loves to combine with other chemicals, most obviously metallic sulphides. Add oxygenated water to sulphur and before you know it you have the fixings for making sulphuric acid, which is not nice stuff to have in your water, as the Mozambicans have noticed when it falls from the sky because of our coal-fired power plants in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. The water which comes out of the mines is therefore acid. Acid water loves to combine with things, too. Meanwhile, the act of mining generates massive amounts of water, which is extremely dirty water mixed with powdered rock, and this quickly becomes chemically contaminated. And the act of processing the ore generates massive amounts of chemical wastes which invariably get into the water.
So South Africa is a dry country which has devoted immense energy, and spent vast amounts of money, on poisoning what water it has. This is called human nature and progress.
What we actually need to do about it is to start using less.
One of the simplest things to do is to start relying less on water from dams. All too often dams are built in relatively dry areas (like the Gariep) and therefore the water evaporates. This is worse, if anything, when the dams begin to silt up (as they always do); the shallower the water, the greater the evaporation.
Rather, why not rely on the water which falls on the city itself? The average town or city occupies a sizeable area of land. If the water falling on roofs were captured, it would provide everybody with drinking water at least, and probably with washing water as well. Water falling on roofs is reasonably drinkable, although in some areas, where the pollution levels are high, the first rains would probably have to be treated carefully because the water would be thick with deposited atmospheric poisons.
Water falling on the street is less easily drinkable. However, the water pouring into the drains need not be fed straight into the nearest river or the sea. Instead, it can be captured; the street drainage system could flow straight into tanks which could be drained into settling ponds and ultimately treatment plants. Street water is not likely to be as bad as sewage. It can be reclaimed for drinking.
Even sewage water can be reclaimed. The water can be settled and passed through sand or clay to remove impurities. (Of course, first pass it through metal mesh to remove rubbish.) Then, use micro-organisms. Bacteria, algae and protozoans could make short work of most chemicals; they break down almost anything into simple gases. The constant flow of nutrients into the tanks would keep them happy. Water flowing out would not be pure — but it needn’t be toxic or even dangerous. You could certainly bath in it. In case of emergency, you could chlorinate or ozonate it and it would be drinkable, though it might not taste pleasant.
This is the kind of thing which is done in places like Windhoek. If it can be done in Windhoek it could certainly be done in Upington or Oudtshoorn or Mthatha or Potchefstroom. In fact, it could be done in all major cities, and perhaps in small towns as well. Of course some people would dislike the idea of recycling wastewater and sewage. One might have to establish a “grey-water” reticulation for water which would be meant for washing or irrigation — or for industrial use, which is an enormous gobbler of water — and only drink it in time of crisis. It needn’t be that expensive. Furthermore, ideally every home, and even every block of flats, could have its drinking water provided largely from the rain, and just topped up occasionally. One might have three taps; hot washing, cold washing, and drinking.
Industry wastes a tremendous amount of water. Some of it is washing water which ends up clogged with toxic material. However, a lot of this can be recycled. It isn’t, because water is cheap whereas recycling equipment is expensive. On the other hand, if every small town had its water-recycling ponds, if there were a big industry making water-recycling plants, employing vast numbers of people — in that case, it would be fair to demand that industry should install the recycling plants too. Many big plants use as much water as a sizeable city.
Industry also uses water for coolant. Evaporative cooling (“cooling towers”) is tremendously wasteful of water, but one can replace it by huge radiators with fans blowing air over them — though, of course, this wastes electricity. (This is the system used in the new huge coal-fired power plants.) This expense is also unnecessary; all such cooling can be made use of, with the assistance of heat-pumps and low-pressure, low-temperature turbines, through closed-circuit electricity-generating systems. The only reason this isn’t done is a) because water seems cheap (although it is so no longer) and b) because such systems seem expensive (but they wouldn’t be if every industrial activity used it).
It is not really practical to build a lot more big dams. We do not have enough rivers and we do not have suitable places where rivers can be dammed. So all we can do is catch more water — which can be done by discouraging water from flowing into rivers in the first place, by building small earth dams to trap modest runoff, which either goes into the ground or into the atmosphere, where it contributes to rainfall elsewhere in the country. This is known as water harvesting, and while it is not a very sexy or profitable activity since all it requires is a few hundred people with shovels, it has a lot of potential to discourage runoff into rivers where such runoff means the loss of water to the local environment. However, such water harvesting does not bring any immediate returns; improved access to groundwater and improved amounts of water vapour in the atmosphere do not clearly provide any advantages for local humans. (In the long run they will improve the local vegetation in dry areas; on the other hand, in most parts of South Africa we are foolish to be pumping out any groundwater at all, because there is much too little of it, and in those areas where it exists, it is often dangerously polluted.)
One thing we can do, however, is prevent evaporation from the big dams we do possess. We can cover them up. A big dam covering fifty square kilometres needs a lot of covering, but the covering does not have to be heavy and it can float. A kilogramme could cover two square metres; let us then say 500 tonnes to a square kilometre. That big dam could then be covered by no more material than would be needed by a big cargo vessel. Of course there will be more — there have to be access walkways, jetties, etc., and also, if we are to dredge the dam from time to time to avoid silting, it would be necessary to disassemble the covering at least every few years. However, in principle it could be done without spending too much money. (Obviously, in the past, “any money” was considered too much.)
Another thing we can do, although only along the coast, is desalinate. This raises images of complicated plumbing in Israeli ion-exchange plants. However, perhaps this can be done both more cheaply, more effectively, and more simply, with ocean thermal power plants.
An ocean thermal plant was originally an idea for a floating power plant using the differential between deep water and shallow water. However, what is probably more sensible is to put the power plant ashore, and use the differential between water from only moderate depth (say, 50 metres), where it is fairly cool all year round, and water from shallow, hot ponds.
What you do is have two large cylinders, something like grain silos, but airtight. Put a huge airtight pipe between them. Pump the air out of the whole system. (You don’t need a total vacuum, but near-total is advisable). One of the cylinders is in the sun (shine mirrors on it if you like) and stays hot, the other cylinder is in the shade (both would be insulated at night) and stays cold.
What you then do is pump warm water from the ponds into very fine sprinklers in the warm cylinder. As tiny droplets of water plummet through the vacuum, the water evaporates. Not all evaporates, of course; droplets of slightly more salty water hit the bottom of the cylinder. The briny puddle at the bottom of the cylinder ultimately drains into a pond where it can either be re-used in the hot ponds, or pumped back into the sea.
So you have a cylinder full of warm water vapour. This naturally passes through the pipe into the cylinder full of vacuum. In the other cylinder, you have a mass of fine radiators inside which cold sea water trickles. The warm water vapour condenses there, so there is a constant rush of warm water vapour from the hot cylinder to the cold cylinder. At the bottom of the cold cylinder is a puddle of fresh water, which you can use for irrigation or drinking or what you will.
In the middle of the pipe between the two cylinders you put a big low-pressure turbine. The rush of the water vapour generates electricity. Enough to pump the water around the system and still leave a surplus which can be used by the local community. However, the big benefit of the system is undoubtedly the fresh water. The best thing about the system is that it requires no high technology at all; every bit of it can be manufactured by a simple blacksmith and put together by semi-skilled labour.
You could build thousands of these plants along the West Coast, from Saldanha all the way to the mouth of the Kunene. There’s no shortage of sun and plenty of need for water. Thousands of shallow concrete ponds might even pump enough water vapour into the air to make the use of irrigation water a little more effective by reducing the evaporation in the vicinity. Some plants could be built on the South Coast too, of course, in places where there’s too little water readily available. It’s hard to guess how much electricity would become available through this process, but even if it was less than a hundred kilowatts per plant, a thousand such plants would provide at least a useful megawattage. As a bonus you could end up with a dense brine which could easily be evaporated away into sea-salt.
We should be doing something like this, shouldn’t we? Anybody got any ideas why we aren’t, other than the fact that this kind of thing is cheap, easily done and therefore doesn’t make a guaranteed profit for any big businesses (except the despised and rejected construction and manufacturing industries) or any foreigners?


If We Only Had The Power.

May 4, 2010

Let’s suppose that we don’t like nuclear power. Fission power is non-renewable; even if you are breeding U-238 into Pu-239 you are only staving off the inevitable time when you run out. Uranium is essentially a fossil fuel, fossilised since a supernova explosion two billion years ago. What are our options with renewables?
The longest-used, and therefore easiest to use, renewables are hydropower and wind-power. Unfortunately, South Africa is a semi-desert country. Therefore, we don’t have many rivers. We are blessed with some fairly high mountains and plateaus, so where we do have rivers they fall fairly far before entering the sea, but very often these falls are steep. Steep falls usually mean that there is little room for reservoirs; you can build a weir to block the river, but it will be expensive to do so and the power will be erratic, depending on how much rain fell last week. (A reservoir smooths the flow out from month to month, or even year to year, depending on size.) There are other problems with dams, but the real problem from a power-generation perspective is that there aren’t enough of them, and also they don’t exist in places where people live and power is consumed.
Wind-power is a whole other story. There’s a lot of excitement about wind-power in the United States at the moment, which should make us a little suspicious (there have been periodic power fads in the Anglo-American world since World War II) but in principle it’s a simple and good idea: build a lot of windmills to catch the wind. There’s a lot of wind in South Africa. Global warming should produce even more wind, so it’s not going to go away.
There are two ways of dealing with wind, which may be summed up as bloody big windmills and nice little windmills. The bloody big windmills, with blades dozens (ultimately, perhaps hundreds) of metres long, are supposed to catch more wind, not only because they are bigger, but because they are lifted above the human activities which affect the wind (houses, trees etc). They also generate megawatts of power. They are ferociously expensive to construct and hideously costly to repair when they break, which they frequently do.
Nice little windmills are much smaller. They catch less wind, because they are down where human activities and even natural vegetation might affect them. They come in two varieties; horizontal-axle, where the whole windmill plus generator is set on top of a tower thirty or fifty metres tall, rotating according to the direction of the wind, and vertical-axle, where the windmill is closer to the ground and the generator is right at the ground, and where, because the windmill is the same from any direction, it doesn’t matter which direction the wind blows from. (Some of them look rather like inverted egg-whisks.) These windmills generate multiple kilowatts of power.
The Creator feels the need to endorse nice little windmills. Gigantism is all very well, as in our mighty new coal power station (if we’re going to shit in our own bed, let’s at least be proud that we’ve produced the biggest turds in the Southern Hemisphere). However, the advantage of the little ones is twofold; they can be manufactured and assembled with relatively low-skill labour and require little special technology, and they can be easily maintained if they break, since all you need is some scaffolding and a conventional long-arm crane. Bloody big windmills require imported components, high technology, highly skilled steeplejacks absorb the resources of the nation to mend if they go wrong.
Where one would need gigantism is in the manufacture of them. Let’s suppose a ten-kilowatt windmill. The Medupi power plant is supposed to generate 4.8 million kilowatts. In round figures we need a million of these little windmills to replace it. That’s a million generators, a million turbines, a million structures. A hundred people could doubtless erect one of these windmills in a week. For a million of them, those hundred people would take 20 000 years. Two million people could do the job in a year. It looks like the end of the unemployment crisis, because manufacturing a million windmills is going to take a fairly large factory. Several fairly large factories, in truth.
How much land would this take up? Spaced in a grid a hundred metres apart, a million windmills would take up ten thousand square kilometres, or about a third the size of Lesotho. It’s not enormous. Ten million windmills — enough for ten Medupis — would take up the area of the Free State. If you build bigger windmills capable of more than ten kilowatts, reduce the area. Notice that “take up” here doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything between the windmills; you can farm crops or graze animals or even have some low-lying housing provided that the locals don’t object to the noise of the windmills.
Now, that sounds wonderful if rather scary, but there’s a small problem: storing the power. The wind doesn’t blow all the time whereas you need electricity all the time. Same problem as the problem with hydropower. You have to build some additional plants to store the power; the most sensible being to build a water-tank at the bottom of a koppie and another at the top of the koppie with a pump and a water-turbine, a pumped-storage system. Since these windmills are going to be placed in hilly, largely uninhabited areas anyhow, this isn’t going to be a technical problem, but it does add to the cost and reduce the efficiency. All this dispersed electricity will have to be then plugged into the national power grid, which further adds to the cost (power pylons all over the place). Incidentally, you could put some of the windmills out at sea, where there are no human activities to obstruct the wind — although the corrosion problems are gigantic and the power-transmission problems immense. George Monbiot likes off-short windmills; good for him.
Well, great. If we spend a hundred billion rand a year over the next decade, we can probably get something like this going. We aren’t going to, of course (there are no plans for anything except importing a few big sexy-looking windmills for propaganda purposes). But is there anything else?
The others are solar thermal, solar electric, wave and ocean thermal.
With solar thermal you have a lot of great big mirrors. It’s an expanded version of the solar water-heater you have on your roof if you have the money. (If the government were smart it would build a vast factory to produce ten million free solar water-heaters for every building in the country, but if wishes were horses, the Creator would drive a coach and six.) The obvious problem here is that the sun moves around. Therefore the focus of the mirrors move. Therefore you either have to move the mirrors, or move the thing they are focussing on (usually a pipe containing some volatile liquid such as alcohol, water or sodium). This in its turn takes power to move it. However, these are design problems; there’s no reason why solar thermal shouldn’t be effective. Eventually you have a boiling liquid which you run through a turbine. Then you have to condense it (there are all manner of ways to capture the heat for usable purposes, rather than just blowing it up a steamy cooling-tower as we usually do) and re-use. Solar thermal can be of any size you fancy, but a hundred megawatts or so seems a plausible upper limit. Sunlight, conveniently, generates around a kilowatt per square metre, so a hundred megawatts would entail 100,000 square metres of mirrors, which doesn’t seem a huge area.
Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple. The wastage of energy is considerable; mirrors don’t reflect all the power, the liquid wouldn’t absorb all the energy, turbines are not totally efficient — most likely you’d need more like a million square metres. A square kilometre, probably scattered across two or three square kilometres of territory. For our national 100,000 megawatts, we need 1000 of these solar thermal stations. That takes up only 3,000 square kilometres, not much bigger than Johannesburg. We could do it, area-wise..
Whereas the wind doesn’t blow all the time, at night the sun doesn’t shine at all. By day, you sometimes have clouds. Therefore, once again, you need power storage systems. That would take up more space, and cost, too. And, of course, the above-cited figures are wildly overoptimistic. However, again it’s something which could be done, which does not require any advanced technology, and which would lead to the end of unemployment as hundreds of thousands of people cemented glass-aluminium mirrors to moving frames, welded pipes or worked in factories producing turbines and condensers.
Solar electric is the big easy. You stick the beautiful blue-black cells on a frame, and when the sun comes up electricity comes out. All problems solved! Just by wearing a hat covered with solar cells you can solar-power your environment! It’s perfect!
Well, not exactly. There are several problems with solar electric. Solar cells, like computer chips, are made of silicon. Silicon is extremely energy-intensive to make; you have to first remove the oxygen from silicon dioxide (aka sand), which is hard because silicon loves to bond with oxygen and then crystallise and extrude the silicon in a billet (which is violently energy-intensive; silicon melts at high temperature) and this has to be done in a vacuum or an inert atmosphere with super-clean graphite tools (because any dirt or impurity in the tools, or any reactive gas around and the hot silicon will bond with the stuff). If the silicon is impure, you have to start again, because only very special impurities in the silicon can be tolerated.
Then you saw the silicon into chips (throwing a lot of it away, but mercifully South Africa has plenty of diamonds for the sawing) and you stick the chips in a vacuum and bombard them with ionised elements which turn their surfaces into something capable of having electrons bounced out of the general electron sea in a metallic crystal, and thus generating electricity. (Incidentally, to get rid of the parts of the surface you don’t like, wash the crystal in sulphuric acid. Yuck!)
Then you have your cells, which you can fit onto a surface preferably facing the sun and wait for it to come up. As with solar thermal, ideally your surface should follow the sun. If it doesn’t, the power is erratic.
Unfortunately, over time — 20 years or so — the crystal structure of the surface of the cell changes with all that photon bombardment and all those bouncing electrons. Gradually the surface ceases to function as a solar cell. At that stage, you throw it away and buy another one. At the moment, this invariably happens before the electricity generated has paid for the cost of making the cell. Ouch. And, what with the pollution caused by creating the silicon crystal and then turning it into a solar cell, it’s not all that environmentally sound, either. The efficiency of such cells is low and you need enormous numbers of them, ideally in areas where the air is clean (polluted air means less power per cell, and urban pollution accelerates the degradation of the cell’s surface, so sticking such cells in cities, where they are needed, is a problem).
Actually things are not quite as bad as this. The Creator is dumping on solar electric purely because it is often seen as The Answer. Things are not so bad, partly because (as almost nobody has pointed out) silicon cells are recyclable. Take the cell back, grind off the degraded surface layer and you have a silicon chip which can return to the vacuum chamber to have its solar-cell capacity restored. This saves the energy required in extracting the silicon, which is most of the expense. Even if you could only do this three or four times, it means that a solar cell would last sixty or eighty years instead of twenty, making it a lot more viable.
At the moment huge amounts of silicon chips are being made. A billion a year, perhaps, for our computers and smart bombs and so on. Two billion square centimetres. But that’s 200 000 square metres, folks. At 1% efficiency, that’s 2 megawatts. A long way too little power to run all those computers. We are going to have to jack up our silicon production, just in this country, until it is thousands of times greater than the world’s current production of silicon chips. Uh-oh; can we do that? Perhaps, but it’s not something easily contemplated. Maybe this high-tech system, though it has a lot of long-term potential, is not ideal for South Africa’s needs.
Wave power seems potentially better. There are essentially two ways of getting wave power: by having something rigid in the water against which a float bobs up and down (much like the wave-power system developed in Britain in the 1970s called Salter’s Ducks), or an even older system of having a vertical pipe, open at the bottom, with a plunger in it which rises up and down as the waves rise and fall, and compresses air as it rises. With a one-way valve you get quite a lot of compressed air which can emerge through a turbine. In both of these cases you store wave energy up and then release it as rotational energy, turning a generator.
Of course, as with wind power, you need a lot of this stuff. The British are fond of wave power because they are an island on a continental shelf, and Denmark, a peninsula on a continental shelf, has similar potential. But South Africa is not an island and our shelf is a lot less shallow than the North Sea and the Irish Sea and the English Channel and the Baltic. In other words, there are fewer shallow places where the wave-power systems can be easily anchored.
Another problem is that anything out to sea is a) highly vulnerable to corrosion from salt water, b) highly vulnerable to being broken by bad weather, and c) rather difficult to repair when corroded or broken. The British have had some bad experiences with their North Sea oil rigs, but those rigs were few in number compared with the scale of a thousand-megawatt wave-power system off the South African coast. It would be basically a city taken out to sea, with all that that implies. Again, you need to store the power; wave energy is more reliable than solar or wind because the waves are there all the time — but they aren’t always the same height.
Ocean thermal has some possibilities, but the Creator wants to discuss that elsewhere.
Fundamentally, the Creator thinks that we need a mix of wind power and solar thermal power for starters — on a very large scale — and, as a subsidiary, start manufacturing a very large amount of solar electric chips and make that grow and grow. Over time, perhaps, solar electric might be the best. Over time, perhaps, wave power might also be worthwhile.
The main thing is that if we start now, we can manage it. It will in the end be little more costly than the plan to provide antiretrovirals to all our AIDS sufferers, and it will be much more practical because whereas buying expensive drugs means giving money to a very small clique, building massive numbers of small power plants linked to a mammoth electrical grid will employ huge numbers of people over a long time. We should get going. This afternoon, if possible.


Banks Disappoints Interestingly.

May 4, 2010

Iain Banks has not written a seriously good novel since Complicity. His convoluted and often disturbing straight novels, after then, became simply essays in pretension (like The Business and Whit) or downright boring (like The Steep Approach To Garbadale). Of his science fiction novels, Feersum Endjinn was probably the last really praiseworthy one; his Culture writing staled quickly into five-finger exercises. In The Algebraist he attempted something comparatively new (although it incorporated plenty of elements borrowed from earlier Culture books) but it wasn’t wholly successful, and significantly he returned to the numb security of the Culture in Matter.
Now we have a similar single-word title, Transition. How does it shape up? Disappointingly, undeniably. The Creator set the book aside with a shrug. However, recently the Creator came across a review in Private Eye which surprised because it was so accurate (a contrast between Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and Transition which made some intelligent observations about both books — Private Eye isn’t always intelligent, but it usually challenges the official stereotypes). It might be worth asking what’s wrong with the book, and also, perhaps, whether the wrongness which the Creator groks is in any way interesting, or is (as Private Eye suggests) due to Banks’ moral and psychological defects.
Transition is based upon a simple premise: that it is possible to “transition” between the universes called for in the many-worlds hypothesis of quantum theory. In this theory there is a near-infinity of universes, all different, to accommodate the near-infinity of ways in which the random workings of particle physics evolve. However, in this case it is a human psyche which transitions between the universes, from one inhabited Earth to another. Thus the human brain is able to break down inter-universe barriers, and indeed it can even do this for another human psyche if it is physically close to that other psyche (preferably sexually coupling with the body containing the psyche) but it cannot move bodies between universes; you go into someone else’s body in the fresh universe, while leaving behind you a body which, if your own, is essentially lobotomised, and if not your own, is recovered by a bewildered psyche which suddenly discovers that its body has been acting outside its control.
Now, this is implausible. If the human body can do these things, why should it only be able to transmit the energy patterns of consciousness — why not the whole bang-shoot? Why not the body and the outfit and the horse you rode in on? In addition, Banks says, this is only possible if one takes a tiny pill of a chemical called septus. In other words, the action (which is a physical one) is chemically stimulated by a drug. This is implausibility doubly damned. The book is fantasy. Septus is a drug fantasy, rather like some of Michael Moorcock’s early work (but much less gifted and interesting, as a fantasy, than the drug fantasies of Philip K Dick, with whom Banks is ill-advised to compete).
Yes, but such fantasies are not in themselves bad, are they? Clifford Simak’s Ring Around The Sun was rather similar (except there the transitions between Earths, only possible to mutants, took the whole body with them). In that book there was an organisation of mutants trying to save the Earth, and in Transition there is an organisation — the Concern — trying to save every Earth. (There are oddities — some of the Earths are uninhabited, in which case it would be impossible to transition into them — no bodies to transition into — but Banks blithely ignores such catastrophic logical problems because on occasion he wants an uninhabited Earth as a stage backdrop.)
The Concern claims to be trying to save the Earths from Bad People Who Might Do Bad Things If Not Stopped. Thus they send out people to assassinate the baddies, while saving the goodies from harm. A potential fascist dictator is murdered; a great novelist is rescued from rape and disfigurement in youth. Well, fair enough. This is familiar from time-travel narratives, and was well satirised by Stephen Fry in Making History (his hero triumphantly prevents Adolf Hitler from being born and emerges into a universe where the Nazis, motivated by imperialism and Aryan pride rather than anti-Semitism, have established a brutal global fascist dictatorship). It is not explained how the Concern knows the future; nor is it explained why they should desire to do these things for no obvious reward. Evidently they are the goodies, and that’s that.
Such meddling, also reminiscent of Dr. Who’s Time Lords, inevitably invites comparison with the CIA, who also interfere by killing the people they consider to be baddies and rescuing those whom they consider goodies. (It also reminds one of the Culture’s Special Circumstances, who do exactly the same sort of thing and whose behaviour sometimes goes spectacularly awry, as in Look To Windward where their bungling starts a genocidal civil war. If Banks is renouncing his earlier fantasies, he would have done so more impressively had he done so within the earlier context).
But he isn’t renouncing his earlier fantasies. His point is, rather, that the desirable activities of the C[oncern]IA have been taken over by wai unkewl d00dz like Madame d’Ortolan. She is on the secretive Council of the Concern (why it is secretive, why the whole system appears to be run along the lines of seventeenth-century Venetian politics, appears incomprehensible). Madame d’Ortolan is bribing, intimidating or murdering members of the Council in order to achieve her goal, which is to prevent humanity in every universe from ever contacting aliens.
She is doing this because she is a racist; it seems a little odd that she should be obsessed with discriminating against a race which appears not to exist. (Why the right wing in the United States wastes its time protesting against Obama’s skin colour when they could be organising marches and indignation sessions against the hypothetical aliens of Planet Pandora is peculiar.) She is concerned with protecting the purity of humanity’s blood, as if, once exposed to the Tentacled Swamp Things Of Procyon XIV, we shall immediately either spring on them with engorged phalluses or drop our undies and flop back with legs splayed. (Banks has evidently been looking at too much Japanese tentacle hentai. Also, he neglects to acknowledge the impossibility of reproduction under such circumstances. Or perhaps he is saying that Madame d’Ortolan is very dumb indeed.)
Banks is, thus, combining hostility to racism with an answer to the “where are they?” question first posed by Enrico Fermi; the nasty racists are preventing us from contacting the aliens (although it is hard to see how the racists, who are not technologically advanced, could prevent the aliens from contacting us if they wished). He is being very politically correct. Unfortunately he is not being plausible or interesting; he is merely using this as a trope to contest (without actually doing anything concrete) the ever-growing racism and religious prejudice prevalent in the world today.
He even makes a little joke about this. With so many worlds to choose from, he has no difficulty imagining a world in which Islam is the dominant religion and the authorities are regrettably obliged to stand up to the appalling menace of the Christian Terrorists. Banks has some entertainment discussing the fanaticism of this cannibalistic death cult religion of sanctified murder, extensively cribbing from the anti-Muslim propaganda of London intellectuals.
Unfortunately, this leads Banks down a well-worn rut in his overly-predictable system; violence and torture. It was quite entertaining in The Wasp Factory. By Song of Stone it had become merely distasteful. Now, graphic descriptions of horrible things being done to people, even by torturers who are deeply concerned people who agonize over their moral qualms to their girlfriends (as Douglas Adams, who had a deeper insight into the issue than Banks, put it), has become boring and repugnant. It is not even transgressive, since it is the stuff of late-night TV and internet porn. Yes, we know that this stuff happens all over the world, but writing about it with prurient attention does not stop it from happening or even change the public mind about it.
The point about torture and murder (and Banks’ hero is a murderer, and Banks invents horrid systems of hideous death here as he did in Complicity, but in Complicity the crimes weren’t committed by the hero and they were treated without glee, but rather with icy dispassion) is that they are expressions of power. You show your power over others by making them suffer. Such power is best exercised by an elite like the Concern. Therefore Banks invents mental powers for the members of the Concern — not only being able to transition, but to predict the future to a limited extent, to be able to read minds to some extent, indeed most of the “psionic powers” so dear to John Campbell’s science fiction sixty years ago, and to Scientologists today, are rolled out. With these powers, backed up by special forces in black outfits with big guns, the Concern rules all universes, or at least wants to. Their ultimate weapon is developed by torturing slightly talented people until they confess to having more talents than they have been displaying. (How this would work is impossible to speculate; Banks appears to believe that pain and madness genuinely create psionic powers, as in Charles Harness’ The Paradox Men or in Alfred Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!, both decidedly superior works to Banks’.)
Ultimately, Madame d’Ortolan arouses opposition, in the form of Mrs. Mulverhill, who fucks her elegant way through the leadership of the Concern in order to win them over against Madame d’Ortolan (who cannot compete, despite her new Page Three breasts). Madame d’Ortolan responds with Da Bomb — namely, a psychic force named Lady Bisquitine, who is completely insane and therefore extremely psychically powerful. Unfortunately, when Bisquitine blows, she takes the whole Concern with her. The way is thus opened for the aliens to come and visit us.
Is that all? Well, not quite. Firstly, the previous paragraph reveals something striking about Banks — namely, his appalling sexism disguised as sexual equality. His strong characters are all female, with large breasts, long legs and constantly-moist, sucking vulvas. They fuck absolutely anybody and anything without reserve in pursuit of their objectives, which are usually power. Their eagerness to fuck makes them pornographic pasteboard, without any specific qualities. (Mrs. Mulverhill’s bedtime discussions with the murderous central character, interpellated with tedious pseudo-erotic activities, are the dullest part of the book and reveal her astounding lack of insight, a lack shared with everybody else in the book.) They are basically being used to manipulate the males reading the book (it is difficult to imagine a woman reading the book with any great pleasure — a fact which was certainly not true of Banks’ early work, such as Consider Phlebas). This manipulation is in any case so crass that, whatever one’s gender, one comes away from the book feeling that Banks has insulted one’s intelligence.
Secondly, another element of the book is the economic collapse of 2008. One of the main characters is a beneficiary of the bubble economy. He is no more than a stooge, too dim to realise what an unpleasant person he is, yet injected with enough inappropriate flashes of insight to be able to simulate interesting characteristics from time to time. His conversations with an implausible stockbroker who doesn’t believe in the free market provide the kind of manipulative direction to the reader which Mrs. Mulverhill’s pillow-talk offers about the Concern. (Once upon a time Banks wouldn’t have thought such explication necessary.)
Thus the background of the book is what appears to be the collapse of finance capitalism (although, as it turned out, it was regrettably nothing of the kind). The significance of this, too, is that everything has supposedly changed and nothing will be the same again. Thus, presumably, the disintegration of the Concern at the end of the book symbolises the disintegration of the Washington Consensus; from now on we shall all be free, able to realise the potential stifled since 1991 or since 2001 (take your pick, offers Banks) and all that jazz.. It is fraudulent, because it is unrealised even within the book. No aliens appear, apart from Banks’ ever-willing empowered women, who have all the genuinely human qualities of Lara Croft in a frilly frock.
No, this is not a successful book. It appears to be a book in which Banks has no idea what he is doing, as if he can simply coast along on some tropes borrowed from earlier and better science fiction, and with the brutality and excess borrowed from earlier and better books by Banks himself, trusting that the readers will tolerate this derivative and repetitive behaviour because it is all in the good cause of the struggle against racism, against prejudice against Muslims and blacks, and against finance capitalism. It does not work. Perhaps Banks does not want it to work.
But it is an interesting failure because of this; one must ask whether it is a failure because Banks has burned himself out, or whether it is a failure because conditions are too real, too painful, too harsh to make this kind of self-deluding political fantasy plausible any more. If this is the case (the Creator suspects it is not, but there is hope that the Kingdom of the Lie may yet fall) then it is almost worth buying the book just to make sure.