There is a—excuse me, but I really can’t think of a better word—cult surrounding Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and the arrival of a new entry in the series is serious cause for swooning and celebration in many places. I’m going to be up front: The Hydrogen Sonata was my first experience with The Culture. It left me wondering why, exactly, I’d never gotten around to reading the rest of the books. That doesn’t happen often.
To get straight to the point: this is my idea of what good science fiction is. It’s full of advanced life forms, artificial intelligences, cool gadgets, and some awesome shoot ‘em ups space style, plus a clear vision of what the rest of existence could possibly look like—while this book will seem futuristic to us in 2012, it doesn’t seem to be set so much in the future as elsewhere in time and space. But as such, it addresses large ethical concerns within the framework of the story, bigger philosophical questions than we’re used to thinking about. And the characters may live in a place far removed from ours, but they still maintain some semblance of humanity—or at least, the humanoid ones do. If you’re a fan of old school, hardcore sci-fi, this book will be every gift-getting holiday you can imagine—it’s got all the toys.
I could try to explain The Culture here, but it’s such a complex idea that I’d never get to the book. So I recommend viewing this overview to get a better idea of how The Culture works.
The Hydrogen Sonata is the story of a young woman, Vyr Cossont, who is activated back into the service for a specific purpose: to locate a 9,000 year old man who once served as a mentor of sorts to her. The Gzilt are one of the oldest civilizations in existence, and helped shape the Culture, but opted out of joining at the last minute. They are now ready to “Sublime”—to transfer their existence to another, and presumably higher, plane of existence. In the last few weeks leading up to their transferal to The Sublime, all sorts of hinky stuff is going down: political power plays both within Gzilt politics and between lesser civilizations hoping to scavenge both the Gzilt territory and its leftover technology, hedonistic parties, and the mysterious destruction of the Gzilt Regimental High Command. Vyr, who has dedicated these last months prior to subliming to learning an impossible piece of music called “The Hydrogen Sonata”, is the sole survivor, and prime suspect, in this final attack. She continues on her mission with the help of the Culture Minds to locate the one man who was around when the Gzilt opted out of the Culture–and who may have crucial evidence about what happened back when The Culture was formed that will impact the Gzilt and their decision to move on to the Sublime.
If that all sounds complicated, well, it is. But it is still fascinating to follow, and even readers who have no prior experience with this series will have no trouble following the action. I certainly didn’t, although to be fair, it’s essential that you be willing to commit yourself to the book, because it doesn’t unravel in any sort of way that will make sense for the first 50 pages or so. But stick with it– Banks is very generous with his details, and the descriptions are lavish and nuanced. Plus there is a great deal of wit. The world-building will help you settle in to the setting just fine, and since Banks apparently does not write this series sequentially, familiarity with the previous books, although likely useful, really isn’t necessary. Just be warned that this is not the kind of popcorn book you can blow through for a fun afternoon read. My mind was bent in seven different directions, sometimes until it hurt (in a good way, mind you) over some of the larger philosophical points (just one example: if you have a choice between staying in a familiar place, essentially alone, but comfortable with the knowledge of that place, or moving on into an unknown existence where you literally have no idea what awaits you, but with the knowledge that you’ll be going with virtually your entire race of people, which do you choose? I mean, ouch. Seriously.), but I felt enriched when I got to the end.
That’s not to say I didn’t have some issues. For one thing, the book feels a bit bloated in places—there are scenes that, while interesting, end up only obscuring the plot, which can be very difficult to untangle from the various detours and points of view. A little judicious trimming would have enhanced the reading experience. More serious, for me, was the character of Vyr, who feels like a strong, kick-ass heroine when you’re reading along. But when I got to the end, I was much more conflicted about her portrayal. There’s plenty to admire in her character: she continues on with her mission, and only partially out of self-preservation, even though she has no idea, really, just why she’s being asked to find the guy. And her devotion to her bizarre musical instrument, and her determination to master a piece of music whose most notable trait is that an instrument had to be invented just so it could be performed (a massive metaphor for the main point of the book, which I will leave for you to discover for yourself), reveals a great deal of strength and personal determination, not to mention loyalty.
But it bothered me no end that Vyr had to be frequently “rescued” from various situations by various men or male stand-ins, such as a Mind avatar (who was, of course, not only male, but good-looking. Who wants an ugly prince charming, after all? Mphh). Although the reader is continually reminded that Vyr is military reserve, that Vyr is a capable combatant, yadayada, Vyr never seems to be rescuing the guys, you know? At best, she competes equally with the men, which yay!. So why have her need to be rescued at all? Just a thought…
I also feel I need to mention that I felt a wee bit cheated at the end. Not by the resolution of the plot, per se, but by the Minds, who seemed to be driving the action and benevolently meddling in the Gzilt civilization just because they didn’t have much else to do. It’s not that they don’t belong overseeing these final days for the Gzilt; part of the reason the Minds exist is to oversee transactions such as these, freeing the humanoids to focus on the more pleasurable aspects of life. However, in the end, although they get the answers they want thanks to Vyr, it makes no actual difference to how things end for the Gzilt—it’s like the Minds aren’t even sure why they’re involved with these people except it’s what they do and they were a little bored that day. It felt a little nihilistic, and that would be fine except it seemed to render the entire plot and galaxy tour Vyr goes on moot.
Still, there are lots of clever, clever stops on that tour, and plenty of interesting ideas to think about while you’re riding along. Being unfamiliar with the rest of the books in the series, I can’t predict how fans will react to this new one. But most people who enjoy good solid sci-fi will likely find it, at the very least, an interesting, and often amusing, read.
A copy of this book was generously provided to me by the publisher during my tenure at RT Book Reviews, and I initially reviewed it for that publication.