Oct 8 2012 10:00am

Banks in His Element: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Has it really been 25 years since Consider Phlebas, the first novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, came out? My goodness. Does this make anyone else feel old at all? Not to worry though: a new novel in this stunning series is always cause for celebration, and in this case doubly so, given that this book is the tenth in the series according to Orbit (including the short story collection The State of the Art, which contains some Culture-related pieces) and marks a quarter century of Culture novels.

Fans have probably already ordered or pre-ordered The Hydrogen Sonata, and for them this review will just be preaching to the choir. Newcomers may be busy trying to decide if this is the time to jump in—and then get to navigate the various theories on What’s the Best Place to Start, given that the internal chronology of the series doesn’t match the publication order and the only aspect most of these novels overtly share is their setting: the benevolent post-scarcity interstellar empire known as the Culture, in which the human inhabitants live in utopian, semi-anarchic bliss managed by immensely powerful artificial intelligences known as Minds. (Number one on my personal list of fictional universes I’d like to live in, by the way.) 

So, The Hydrogen Sonata. (The name, incidentally, comes from a piece of music written for the bodily acoustic Antagonistic Undecagonstring, an instrument almost impossible to play unless you have more limbs than the average humanoid, not to mention that it actually hadn’t been invented yet at the time the piece was composed.) From the text we know that the new novel is set about a thousand years after the Idiran War and about four centuries after the events portrayed in Excession. In The Hydrogen Sonata, one of the Minds thinks Special Circumstances should have a sub-department that focuses specifically on the Sublime, and in Surface Detail this department (the Numina) exists. All of this would seem to place the new novel some time before Surface Detail but well after the other novels in the series. However, what’s probably more exciting, especially for readers who are fascinated with the internal timeline of this universe, is that The Hydrogen Sonata contains lots of info about events that happened before and during the founding of the Culture. (It also refers frequently to Excession, but more about that later.)

You see, there’s this race called the Gzilt who, way back, were involved in the discussions and negotiations between the various humanoid races that would later end up getting together and calling themselves the Culture. At the last moment the Gzilt decided not to join the new project/civilization/empire/whatever and went their own separate way. Now, several millennia later, they are on the verge of Subliming. The entire race is counting down the days until they move on this next, glorious, mysterious stage of existence... until some news surfaces that calls everything into question. The only person who may have information about what really happened back then is a Culture resident who is believed to be almost ten thousand years old.

The novel follows several storylines over the 24 days that lead up to the planned Gzilt Sublimation. (The chapters are actually numbered S -24, S -23 and so on.) A Gzilt musician called Vyr Cossont (four-armed, so she can play that instrument mentioned earlier) is recruited by her empire’s authorities to try and find the ancient Culture resident who may be able to shed light on what happened in the days when the Gzilt and the proto-Culture split on friendly terms. Meanwhile, a powerful Gzilt politician is scheming and maneuvering for position in the final days before the entire race Sublimes. Part of this maneuvering involves two other, less advanced races who are hovering around, hoping to scavenge technology and territory left behind when the Gzilt finally do Sublime. And, maybe most interestingly, a group of Minds are trying to monitor and, as is so often the case with the Culture, subtly influence all those events in and around Gzilt space. (Why? Well, in their own words, “we have a reputation for enlightened interference to protect here.”)

If you’re a fan of the novel Excession (it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it one in the series), you will probably enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata because there are many references to the events portrayed in that novel. The Interesting Times Gang is mentioned more than once, and this new group of Minds managing the Gzilt situation message back and forth in a way similar to the ITG. As usual with Culture novels, you don’t really need to remember all the details or even really be familiar with that previous book to “get” The Hydrogen Sonata, but I’m sure fans of Excession will get a kick out of these parts of the new novel.

(By the way, seeing this connection led me to the—probably entirely incorrect—theory that Banks has been systematically referring back to the earlier books of his series in order of publication. Look to Windward obviously refers to the very first book, Consider Phlebas. Skipping Matter for a second, Surface Detail linked to the third book, Use of Weapons, and now The Hydrogen Sonata connects with Excession. The only one I’m not sure of is Matter, which should have some connection with The Player of Games for my theory to work, but I don’t remember if there’s something like that in the books. Time for a reread, I guess.)

The Hydrogen Sonata focuses, more than any other Culture novel so far, on the mysterious next stage of life known as the Sublime and its relation to what one character calls the “chaos, uncertainty and existential short-termism of the Real.” In the past, Banks has said that he planned to “maintain the mystery, and don't try to think unthinkabilities...” on that subject, so maybe it’s not surprising that here, with his customary lack of gravitas, he often has his characters treat the Sublime like a lark, referring to it with a long series of comical terms like the “big kablooie of transcendent smashingness” and “buggering up one’s own [...] fundament.”

The novel is fairly fast-paced, with large parts reading like a particularly hectic Consider Phlebas-style wild goose chase, but as usual Banks frequently slams on the breaks for lengthy descriptions of the technological marvels to be found in his fictional universe. It’s kind of astonishing that, 10 books and 25 years later when we all know what GSV’s and orbitals are and what sort of insane marvels the more advanced races in the galaxy came up with in the far past, there are still moments of good old-fashioned sensawunda to be had here. There are one or two other current writers who can make me feel like I’m 12 years old and reading SF for the first time again, but for me Banks is by far the best in that respect.

And that’s why a new Culture novel is always one of the most anticipated releases of the year for me. In the case of The Hydrogen Sonata, I wouldn’t call it one of the very best novels in the series—especially coming on the heels of Surface Detail, which blew me away—but it more than delivers everything I always hope to find in a Culture novel. It’s a solid middle-of-the-pack Culture story, which as far as I’m concerned still puts it head and shoulders above 99% of the rest of the genre. I mean, there’s a GSV called Just The Washing Instruction Chip In Life's Rich Tapestry in this book. When it all comes down to it, what else do you really need?

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn't distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
I still need to read a Culture novel. I've read two Banks novels, one disliked (Inversions) and one middling (Transitions).
Mike Scott
2. drplokta
@PrinceJvstin: If you've read Inversions then you've read a Culture novel, although you can only tell that when you've read at least one other one, as its connections with the Culture are quite tenuous.
Robert H. Bedford
3. RobB
I've read three of the Culture novels: Consider Phlebas which I liked a lot, Player of Games which was kind of meh for me, and Surface Detail which I didn't even finish, so I'm not sure where I'd sit with this one.
4. PhilJ
Banks' Culture novels outright ruined me on books for a good month or two. I discovered them at the 7th book and read them all back to back. Then after that ever book I read for a while just wasn't as good.

Anyway, I am VERY excited about this next one and I wholeheartedly concur that the Culture Universe is my #1 scifi universe that I would live in. When I tell friends about the Culture Universe I describe it as the Star Trek universe except without the Prime Directive and about 1000 years more advanced. LOVE IT!
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
@Stefan:25 years??--yes, that is yet another thing making me feel older.
I'm looking forward to this. The Culture universe is a wild and marvelous place.
6. chris heinz
I love the Culture novels. They give me hope for the future. A socialist and anarchist utopia is such a nice change from all the distopias.
7. Peta
25 years... Ouch! Absolutely love the Culture novels and a new one is always an insta-buy for me. Really looking forward to this one although, folowing this review, I am slightly tempted to read Excession again first. Decisions, decision! :)
Kristoff Bergenholm
8. Magentawolf
Look to Windward was the first Culture novel that I read, and it... confused me for a while. Since then, I've read them all, and Excession probably is my favorite, with Windward right behind it.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
Living in a progressive post-scarcity interventionist utopia does sound pretty sweet.
10. Petar Belic
Excession is actually my favourite Culture novel.

An interesting exercise I did recently, is re-read it vis-à-vis with A Fire Upon the Deep. There's a few interesting contrasts and comparisons to note, since in one sense, a few of the themes are similar.

I look forward to The Hydrogen Sonata with an emotion similar to glee!
11. Petar Belic
@ PrinceJvstin

Inversions is possibly my least favourite Banks novel. In fact, it almost turned me off Banks altogether. What saved me was Feersum Endjinn. I haven't read his non-SF material. But Inversions is NOT indicative of the rest of the Culture universe novels.
Bob Blough
12. Bob
Wow, such wildly divergent thoughts about this series! And I'll add one more. First off my favorite SF novel by Banks is still the non-culture novel - Feersum Endjinn. But I have just finished Consider Phlebus and Player of Games for the first time. Loved Player of Games but considered Consider Phlebus as a "would have been great if I'd read it when it first came out" kind of book. I am now reading State of the Art for the first time and plan to reread Use of Weapons (which was the first Culture novel I loved) and Excession (which I also loved at the time). Within the last two years I read Look to Windward and Inversions which I both immensely enjoyed. Not so enamored of Matter or Surface Detail - both too sprawling and unfocused for me. So after I reread Excession I'll be ready for Hydrogen Sonata. I do love this series as I tend not to re-read all that often (unless they are shorter gems). Banks is a terrific read, but where to start? I think after just reading it Player of Games is good - shorter than the average Culture novel yet just as twisty, wild and beautiful.
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
See, my favorite is probably Player of Games-- or at least, I think it is most representative of the series-- while my least favorite is Excession. I quite like Inversions-- yes, it is different than most Culture might even say it is like one of the Culture novels inverted-- & Surface Detail had me chuckling.
Steven Halter
14. stevenhalter
I'm quite fond of Against a Dark Background. The gang of mercenary solipsists amuses me greatly.
Clay Scott Brown
15. claybrown
Wow. You make it sound so good that I'm going to read the whole series. Not since George RR Martin (on the 3rd book now) have I had to go back 'this far'!
Has it really been 25 years since Consider Phlebas, the first novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, came out? My goodness. Does this make anyone else feel old at all?
Well no I was over 20 something back in 88 and I wasn't reading these Culture SF Novels, so I don't feel old at all.

16. Umbardacil
Funny. I loved Inversions, whereas I couldn't even finish Feersum Endjinn. Gotta pick up Surface Detail before The Hydrogen Sonata hits the shelves.
17. Mark_H
I loved all the Culture books except Matter, which somehow didn't even really feel like a properly-realised Culture book at all. Hydrogen Sonata is Very OK, but the whole Culture thing is beginning to feel a bit too safe; even relatively advanced alien cultures have little or no chance against a thousand-year-old Culture warship, let alone a GSV, so there's too much 'and-with-a-single-bound-he-was-free'. The closest the Culture has ever been to real threat was Excession, and that's going back aways.
18. Dexter Zakalwe
The only Culture novel I won't ever be re-reading is The Algebraist, all other Banks' Culture books can be read multiple times.
The best of this series is hard to call but I would suggest it is between Use of weapons and Surface Detail.
Can't wait to get stuck into this one as the whole idea of subliming has always grabbed my attention and was hoping for a novel dedicated to it.

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