The Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks
Cover Artist: Shutterstock
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316212373
Date: 09 October 2012 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In The Hydrogen Sonata, Ian M. Banks returns to the far-future post-scarcity civilization of the Culture, and he also returns to form. His last four or five novels, while entertaining, had somewhat meandering plots and lacked the complex moral ambiguities of his earlier novels. This latest installment avoids these flaws, and explores some fascinating new corners of the Culture Universe, showing us an equivalent technology society to the Culture that demonstrates how the Culture could have developed differently, and telling us more about what happens when a society "sublimes", uploading their minds into another ineffable state of being. Banks is back in fine form in this latest installment.
The plot centers on events surrounding the upcoming Sublimation of the Gzilt civilization. The Gzilt were almost founding members of the Culture, but decided against joining at the last minute. They have equivalent technology to the Culture, but some significant cultural differences, most notably the fact that they do not make use of the exceptionally advanced AI's known as Minds who run most of the Culture. They are preparing as a society to abandon the material realm in favor of the ineffable realms of the sublime. However, as they prepare to leave physical reality behind, other civilizations cluster around, some seeking to benefit from the scraps left behind, others seeking to settle up scores.
It quickly becomes clear that there is a secret that may effect the Gzilt Sublimation, and that someone in the Gzilt government is conspiring to keep it hidden. A group of Culture minds assemble to try to uncover the secret and decide if it should be revealed to the wider Gzilt public. The secret is held by the oldest living man in the Culture. Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt, has a crucial link to him, and so she is recruited by the Culture Minds who seek to uncover the secret, and hunted by the forces that wish it to remain buried.
The plot, as in most of Banks' work, is rife with diversions and subplots. Also like most of his work, it is absolutely absorbing. The writing is gripping, and the characters nuanced and relatable despite the vastly different circumstances in which they live. The novel also gives us a memorable villain, a Gzilt politician names Banstegyn. Some of Banks' villains can be a bit larger than life in their evils, but Banstegyn has an all too believable mix of ego and self-delusion that nonetheless serve to render him a truly contemptible character.
Under the slick surface of the novel, Banks tackles some deep issues. One of the main sub-currents throughout the novel is about longevity, including the desire to be remembered and to live on, and the vagaries of that remembrance. The title of the novel, for instance, comes from a piece of music that is infamous for being almost impossible to play, and is the sole thing for which its creator is remembered, but which, it is revealed, he wrote as a joke and would have been horrified to be remembered for. Banks also explores some ambiguous moral terrain, including the stringency of the moral requirement to tell the truth when it may cause harm to others.
Overall, The Hydrogen Sonata is Banks at his best. It is gripping and engaging, but also provides much food for thought. It is a welcome return to form for one of the most impressive SF authors, and will be a treat both for newcomers and old fans.