Review: The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M Banks

  • Title: The Hydrogen Sonata
  • Author: Iain M Banks
  • Genre: Science-Fiction
  • Why: I love the Culture novels.
  • Rating: 4 Stars

Description: They are, truly, provably, End Days for the Gzilt civilization.
An ancient people, they helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier & were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new & almost infinitely more rich & complex existence.

Amidst preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, & she is now wanted–dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android & a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command–find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over 9000 years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago. Cossont must discover the truth before she’s exiled from her people & her civilization forever–or just plain killed.

Review: A bittersweet read for me, since this is the last Culture novel ever (made even worse by the interview with Iain M Banks in the back, where he says he has plenty of ideas left for future Culture novels).

I have always loved the Culture, both for its unique position in science-fiction of having AIs (Minds) who don’t want to kill off humanity, even though they’re pretty much running the place, and because of the Culture’s overall character. The Culture is all about having fun and doing what you want, which even amongst all the other post-scarcity civilisations at equivalent technology level is fairly unique. The Culture has no leaders, no government, they just have Special Circumstances, who take it upon themselves to interfere in other civilisations’ affairs even where it could be considered dodgy to do so, and a bunch of Minds who sometimes group together to investigate something when they feel it is necessary or worth it. Or they could just be bored and looking for a distraction.

So too in this book. The Gzilt, an equiv-tech species to the Culture, are about to Sublime. This is a fairly standard evolutionary step in galactic progression, and it means that as a whole the species leaves the ‘normal’ world behind and sublimes into a different dimension, too complex and strange to understand by anyone who stays behind. No one knows much of what happens after Subliming, since very few individuals ever return, and even those who do are notoriously cagey about divulging everything, usually with a reason like ‘you wouldn’t understand anyway’, but essentially they’re subliming into some sort of godhood.

For the Gzilt this is, understandably, a very big step, and they are anxious for it all to go right. The problem is that some twenty days before the Big Event a ship shows up from the remnant of another civilisation which Sublimed a long time ago, but who at the time supplied the Gzilt with their Book of Truth, which their entire religion has been founded on. The ship reveals something about the book which could put the entire Subliming into jeopardy, and several key people in the Gzilt government will literally do anything to prevent this revelation from becoming common knowledge.

The plot is interesting, and the resolution of it is typically Banks – vaguely unsatisfactory. My biggest gripe with his books have always been the endings. Still, the best fun is had in getting there, and in that he never disappoints. Most of the players in this book are the various Minds, the main one of these being the ship Mistake Not…, and they all have that blend of sarcasm and glee at outwitting someone that characterises most Culture Minds.

In all a riveting read, and a solid (if unintended) ending to the Culture novels.

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