Saturday, 5 March 2016

Review: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

It’s taken some time to get around to this book. Knowing it is the last from my favourite author, knowing that once I’ve read this there’ll be no new tomes to look forward to, to get excited about, no further exploration of the Culture and the universe that it inhabits. Fortunately he has left us with many fine and several (IMHO) great books, in both the ‘M’ (scifi) and ‘M-less’ personae. The short interview the appends this paperback edition is particularly poignant, as he refers to the many ideas he has for future tales.

As are the majority of Banks’ SF novels, this is set in the vast, ancient, post-scarcity society of The Culture - or, rather, almost entirely outside of The Culture, where it interacts with the civilisations which it encounters and with which it interacts (this is a necessity; as Banks himself has pointed out, an entirely peaceful utopia makes for very dull storytelling, and he was a self-professed fan of big explosions). In this case, the main focus is the Gzilt, a humanoid society as venerable as the Culture and, in fact, one that was instrumental in forming the latter and was very nearly one of the founding members civilisations.

Ten thousand years on, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime - to move, en masse, to a higher dimension of consciousness and physicality, as have many elder civilisations before. This is something that Banks has referenced occasionally, usually in respect of long-gone peoples who have left behind vast, mysterious artefacts, but here he address the idea, the politics and the logistics of this event head-on.

Of course, there has to be a complication, here in the form of a potential secret involving the strange fact that the Gzilt seem to be the only civilisation in the history of the universe in possession of a holy book that actually seems to be factually accurate, held in the brain of a possibly mythical Culture individual who has been around since the formation ten millennia before. This leads to a long and involved galaxy-arm-spanning hunt-and-chase involving several Culture Ships (each possessed of a Mind, the AIs that are the backbone of the Culture and of whom it has been said are so much more powerful than biologicals that biologicals can’t even imagine how powerful they are), facets of the soon-to-Sublime Gzilt and two lesser ‘scavenger’ civilisation intent on using the discarded knowledge and tech to boost their own progress.

We have all the usual parts you would expect from an Iain M. Banks novel - the superb writing, the wit and humour, the insane action pieces (often using technologies such as anti-matter missiles, field manipulators and hyperspace), the superb characterisation (including several strong, rounded female characters, of course) and the humanistic examination of different cultures, outlooks and political viewpoints. There are many interesting and intriguing parts - other than the ten thousand year old human, the Culture is almost entirely represented here by the Ship Minds (itself an fascinating idea of how a vast, powerful and entirely non-hierarchical utopia gets things done), the continuation of politics despite the hard deadline for when the society will cease to be, including deciding on a ‘preferred’ scavenger species to allow to take all your best stuff.

I would have loved the Hydrogen Sonata to be Banksie bowing out with one of his great novels - but, with the run of the last four or five being so very good, this was perhaps a big ask. It is very good, but falls short of great, I think because it doesn’t hold together as a piece in quite the way that his finest novels (I think particularly of Look to Windward and Surface Detail) do.

I am not quite finished with Mr Banks yet. I still have The Quarry. While I don’t think there has been a really good non-M book in some time (a sharp decline after Whit, with only The Business really coming up to muster), perhaps this will be a fitting farewell. And, in any case, he has left us with more wonder and humanity and compassion and excitement from his thirty year career than we have any right to expect.

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