31 October 2013


The Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks

It would be gratifying to report that the last Culture novel is a triumph, but maybe that would be an ending too much like fiction. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata is probably the least successful instalment of the series. It is verbose, repetitive and often clumsily written. Banks always had a tendency to over-write, especially in his science fiction, but this was normally held in check, possibly by judicious editing, and was partly justified (or at least excused) by the fine imaginative and stylistic effects he produced. Here the effects just aren’t there.

The story, too, is thin. The Gzilt, a humanoid race of equivalent technological advancement to the Culture, are about to Sublime (transcend four-dimensional reality and effectively disappear from physical space) when a message is received that places the whole project in doubt. Some of the great and good among the Gzilt move to suppress the news. This involves some serious skullduggery, which attracts the attention of the Culture.

A group of Culture Minds (ships) sets out to discover what was in the message, circumstantially (and somewhat involuntarily) assisted by a young, female Gzilt musician who has a lead to the only person who might know its contents, an incredibly ancent Culture citizen named QiRia. The reader may ask why the Culture decides to get involved in the first place, and having done so, why it chooses to place its own assets — and numerous innocent Gzilt — in grave danger in order to learn the contents of the message. Banks realises the question will be asked, but his answer — simply that it is the right thing to do — is not very convincing.

The Gzilt musician, who plans to Sublime along with nearly every other Gzilt, has set herself a final ‘life-task’, that of playing an ugly but technically impressive piece of music, the Hydrogen Sonata, on a famously unplayable instrument. To be able to play the instrument, she has been surgically augmented with another pair of arms. If there is some symbolic connexion between this and the actual plot, I am afraid I did not spot it. The whole conceit seems rather contrived and pathetic, but serves to furnish a title for the  novel.

A long, tedious sequence set in a sand-garden in the middle of a desert and some rather wordy erotic passages further extend, and detract from, what would probably have been a much better book at half the extant length.

One thing I did find interesting is that Subliming, which Banks had presented hitherto as the culmination of civilisational attainment, is shown here as a strictly temporal process with no ethical or ‘spiritual’ dimension to it at all. This makes a kind of sense, but unfortunately results in Subliming becoming nothing but a kind of scientific or technological attainment, unsatisfactorily described and sketchily presented. There is nothing about the Gzilt that suggests to us why they should even be capable of Subliming — and when the big moment does finally come, we learn absolutely nothing about the process; we don’t even get much of a visual description.
Requesciat in pace, Iain Menzies Banks. You gave us much pleasure, and much to chew on, with the Culture, your most glorious creation. Now that you have attained your own personal Sublimation, we – Remnanters or Scavengers in the terminology of The Hydrogen Sonata – must make what we can of your legacy. It is a great and glorious hoard, but this is the poorest of its treasures.