The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
The Hydrogen Sonata is the newest novel from Iain M. Banks, and his first return to ‘The Culture’ since 2010’s Surface Detail (which I loved). I always look forward to Bank’s ‘Culture’ novels, as I’m convinced that ‘The Culture’ is one of the most unique and entertaining sci-fi settings ever created. In many ways, the setting is one of almost limitless possibilities, acting as a unified setting for the box of literary toys which Banks brings out to play. However, as much as I love the series, not every novel is great (I remember really struggling with Excession) and sadly The Hydrogen Sonata is not one of his best.
This novel actually deals indirectly with the Culture, instead taking place in the civilisation of the ‘Gzlit’, a humanoid species who helped form the Culture ten thousand years before this novel takes place but decided to retain their independence at the last minute. Plenty of ‘Culture’ mainstays make an appearance, with a prominent role given to the multitude of amusingly eccentric ‘Minds’ which have always been one of the most entertaining aspects of the series. This novel explores one of the most interesting aspects of Banks’ universe, Subliming. We learnt all the way back in Consider Phlebas that certain civilisations reach a state of advancement that they ‘Sublime’ from the base reality into some greater one, somewhere between a parallel universe and heaven. The Hydrogen Sonata takes place in the month running down to the Subliming of the Gzlit people, and rather than giving us a lot of explanations as to exactly what Subliming is (although we do get some meaty clues to chew upon), Banks instead opts to explore the effect that such a humungous change would have upon a people.
The Hydrogen Sonata features a wide range of view points and characters, but the central narrative revolves around Vyr Cossont, a young woman who has had an extra pair of arms grafted onto her so that she can master an infamously difficult piece of music, the eponymous ‘Hydrogen Sonata.’ During her youth, she had journeyed in the Culture, and had met a man named Ngaroe QiRia, who claims to be almost ten thousand years old and to have been present at the original foundation of the Culture. A ship bearing a shocking revelation is destroyed by a Gzlit regiment to keep its message a secret, and suspecting that the truth of this message lies with QiRia, Cossont is recruited by another regiment to find her old friend and discover the truth about the ancient past of the parallel Gzlit civilisation and the Culture.
This central narrative is a lot of fun, and the most compelling of the novel. Sadly, many of the side plots serve only the confuse and slow down the pace of the novel. Although not hugely long by the standards of genre fiction, not a huge amount happens in this central arc due to constant flashes to other, somewhat less compelling, story arcs. This story contains far too much of something which really bugged me in Excession; Culture Minds talking to each other. The Minds are my absolute favourite part about the Culture series, but they are entertaining and interesting in comparison to the organics they interact with, and when a bunch of them spend most of their time talking with each other it is difficult to gather a real sense of personality from any of them. I firmly believe that Banks is at his best when focusing upon a relatively small group of characters in a tightly structured narrative, such as with Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, although one of my personal favourites, Surface Detail,was an exception to this. If Banks had focused more specifically upon Cossont, I believe that this could have been up there with his best.
If there is anything that I will remember from The Hydrogen Sonata it will be some of the wonderfully bizarre and hilarious images that he conjures. Banks’ talents as a comic writer are on full display, most notably in a description of an orgy featuring a man with over forty penises (penii?) which had me in stitches. Although I wouldn’t call any of Bank’s works ‘comedies’, he remains possibly the funniest writer in the genre today. The snappy and naturalistic dialogue that is one of Bank’s trademarks is very much present, but sadly the author’s flaws are on full display too. The action scenes remain as impenetrable and difficult to envision as ever, and we never get a particularly coherent vision as to what the Gzlit are actually like. There’s a potentially interesting aspect of Gzlit culture which is entirely unexplored; all Gzlit are enrolled into military service and hold rank, yet they are also a profoundly peaceful people. This intriguing disconnect begs for exploration which just isn’t there. Banks is such a wonderful writer, but he very often falls into these same traps with his sci-fi. Despite these criticisms Banks is still a joy to read, but perhaps he needs to hire a better editor or take slightly more time honing some of the action scenes.
While Banks’ characters are not always necessarily the most complex, they are always entertaining. A motley crew of characters are almost all interesting and well defined, such as the neurotic sentient blanket Pyan, the sleazy and manipulative politician Banstegeyn and the usual bunch of eccentric AIs which populate the ‘Culture’ universe. Cossont is something of a departure from the incredibly competent hardened fighters who often act as his protagonists such as Sharrow in Against a Dark Background and Zakalwe in Use of Weapons, exceptional only in her musical talent. There’s often a feeling with Banks’ protagonists that they’ve seen it all before, that the events of the novel in question is simply a culmination of dramatic and often violent events which have shaped their past. Cossont on the other hand is not scarred and traumatised by her past, is in fact relatively normal (four arms notwithstanding), which far from making her boring serves instead to raise the narrative stakes, as we are dealing with someone who doesn’t possess a honed fighting instinct, and would rather be at home practicing the Hydrogen Sonata.
If you’re as big a fan of the ‘Culture’ books as I am, this review is somewhat irrelevant, as you’ll be getting this book either way. The Hydrogen Sonata isn’t a bad book by any stretch, but I must confess to being somewhat disappointed. This in no way shakes my faith in the series however, and I still eagerly await the next novel. For anyone who hasn’t read a ‘Culture’ novel before, and they can be read in pretty much any order (although you should read Use of Weapons before Surface Detail), this isn’t necessarily a great place to start. If you do want to give the series a go, start out with The Player of Games, which is also one of the shorter novels in the series so if you hate it you won’t have sunk too much time into it.