The Hydrogen Sonata. Review.

Iain Banks Photo: Tim Duncan

Iain Banks
Photo: Tim Duncan

OK, a book review. Why not.

In my teens I devoured sci-fi; good, bad and indifferent.  I consumed wholesale everything by Isaac Asimov, Harry Harrison, Robert Heinlein, Stanislav Lem, E.C.Tubb (who?) and god only knows how many more, but as I grew older I also grew less tolerant of bad writing and too much sci-fi was simply unchallenging, the characterisation mono-dimensional, the prose turgid.

But for Iain Banks I had all the time in the world.

His death last year at the age of 59 profoundly saddened me.  It cheated me out of the pleasure of seeing a new culture novel on the shelves and thinking ‘joy, another week or two in his company.’

I wasn’t particularly assiduous about keeping my eyes open for new Banks novels. They’d sneak up on me. I’d simply be in a bookshop, look up, and Lo!

And so it was with The Hydrogen Sonata.  Finding it was all the more poignant because I only realised that here was a new Culture novel late last year, months after his death in June.  It was like a Christmas present from the hereafter.

The only other series that I’ve come across that compares with the scope and scale of Banks’s Culture novels is Asimov’s Foundation series and as I read that in my teens I hesitate to elaborate.

The overwhelming presence in the novels is The Culture itself.  It’s a liberal’s dream of the future – a post scarcity civilisation that crosses species boundaries, permissive and tolerant often, it appears, to a fault.  The Culture is in effect the main character, its primary avatars the great (and amusingly named) ships minds, vast and powerful artificial intelligences with quirky personalities of their own. Most are steeped in the values of The Culture, though a few are ‘eccentric’ and deviate from the path.

HydrogenSonataMany of the novels detail encounters between The Culture and non-Culture civilisations, often vicious and petty in comparison with the former’s almost God-like and benevolent power.  But Banks’s greatest challenge is to make the individual biological life forms that he follows stand out against this backdrop. They almost always come close to being overshadowed and out-acted by the setting and the AIs.

This is a particular problem in The Hydrogen Sonata.

The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is an almost unplayable, and equally unlistenable, piece of music that the main biological protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont, has decided to master before she and her entire species, the humanoid Gzilt, sublime – in other words shed their physical forms and join the great pan-sentient consciousness in another dimension. Cossont is perverse to a fault. She has had another pair of arms added so she can play her instrument, an ‘elevenstring’, which seems to follow her around the cosmos like some sort of musical albatross.

And Cossont does travel. Following an unfortunate incident where the Gzilt inexplicably destroy a visiting ship from another species come to wave them goodbye as they sublime, a number of Culture ship minds decide to find out why and to do that they need Cossont’s help.

The main antagonist is the rather more intriguing Banstegeyn, the Machiavellian prime mover in Gzilt politics is determined that they shouldn’t.

The trouble here, as with many of Banks’s Culture novels, is that the biological characters don’t develop a great deal, nor do they reflect much back at us that tells us anything about ourselves.  It’s hard to get attached to them.

Where Banks excels is in his handling of ideas. This is pure space opera where we track the arc of civilisations from inception to, in this case, sublimination. He has great fun with the Ship Minds – they seem to give him licence to play with near omniscience and omnipotence with a degree of eccentricity and dark humour. The names of his ships tell you a lot, not just about them but about the way Banks handles them.  My favourites from across the series include: No More Mr Nice Guy [Consider Phlebas], Just Read The Instructions [The Player of Games], Size Isn’t Everything [Use of Weapons], Only Slightly Bent, Helpless In The Face Of Your Beauty and Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality [all The State of the Art], Zero Gravitas, I Blame My Mother and I Blame Your Mother [all Excession], Charming But Irrational, You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here and Ravished By The Sheer Implausibility Of That Last Statement, [all Look to Windward] and Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints [Surface Detail].

The Hydrogen Sonata has a few more; Refreshingly Unconcerned With the Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity, Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life’s Rich Tapestry and Passing By And Thought I’d Drop In. However my favourite is the Mistake Not…, always referred to thus in short form until the very end of the book when it explains to a hostile warship that its full name is the Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath.

Personally I reckon space opera works best when we can follow a couple of biological specks dwarfed by the sheer scope and majesty of the backdrop and yet care about them, because we are ourselves biological specks against the endless backdrop of the universe and are of little or no consequence, so much carbon soon to be forgotten. But despite that we care for and love one another and that vast wilderness of existence telescopes into irrelevance as we gaze into the eyes of those we adore (our own in the case of Zaphod Beeblebrox in the Total Perspective Vortex).

Characterisation aside Banks is the master. There’s a real poignancy that his last book is about shedding one’s physical form and one’s spirit moving on. It’s almost like a farewell. So farewell Iain Banks. We had fun. You were one of the good guys. I’d have liked to have told you how much I love your writing and how much I miss you. Hopefully, wherever you are, you have access to the internet.

 

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