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The Hydrogen Sonata (not to be confused with The Seth Rogen Sonata) is a Culture novel – a tale of Banks’s trademark galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation. This one focuses on the end days of the Gzilt (a civilisation that passed up the opportunity to be a founder member of the Culture ten thousand years ago) as they prepare to ‘Sublime’. Subliming is a process that involves an entire race (usually) deciding that they’ve had enough of reality and transporting themselves to mind-boggling, paradisiacal higher dimensions.

The thing about the Gzilt is that they have a holy book that – unique in galactic history – has turned out to be correct in its prophecies. The story kicks off when a ship arrives in Gzilt space with a message from the Zihdren Remnant (the remains of a long-Sublimed civilisation called the Zihdren) that may shed light on said holy tome’s provenance. This ship is destroyed by a Gzilt faction. As inveterate galactic busybodies, the Culture – an ad hoc committee of interested ships, at any rate – decides to investigate.

Much of the cast consists of the vastly capable artificial intelligences that control Culture ships – Minds. One Gzilt woman, Vyr Cossont – artificially four-armed because of her desire to master an almost unplayable piece of music on an almost unplayable instrument called the Antagonistic Undecagonstring – is recruited to recover the stored memory of a man (a ten-thousand-year-old Culture citizen) who may know the truth. A Culture woman is similarly (well, quite dissimilarly, actually) recruited to find the man himself. A Gzilt politician schemes with increasing desperation. A Gzilt general battles with the Culture and wishes he were a machine.

If you’ve read any Iain M Banks, you know what you’re getting with these characters. The book’s heroine is particularly reminiscent of the main character from Banks’s previous Culture novel – a non-Culture woman rescued and guided by a Culture ship. She doesn’t have much of a personality herself and is mostly a foil for what’s going on around her. Her limited human capabilities are rendered pretty much pointless by the hi-tech puissance of her ship mentor. The ships are the usual quick-talking, perceptive, cocky bunch. The politician is a fairly two-dimensional, unscrupulous smooth-talker.

The most interesting characters were some of the non-viewpoint characters. Like the Gzilt artist Ximenyr who conducts body modification. When he’s first encountered, he has dozens of penises grafted all over his body (and multiple hearts to pump enough blood to get them erect) and he conducts regular self-centred orgies. Or the android Eglyle Parinherm who is brought online to protect Cossont but who believes (because the technicians haven’t had time to reprogram him) that he’s in a simulation; he informs Cossont at one point that her reactions are unrealistic and advises the simulation designers (who he assumes to be listening) to have a rethink. Both are sadly underused. Sadly overused is Cossont’s sentient but stupid flying scarf, Pyan, which interjects nuggets of less than funny comic relief.

The previous Culture novel, Surface Detail was an examination of the idea of Hell – an idea that could be made real by uploading prisoners’ consciousness to gruesome, eternal simulations – while this book supposedly looks at Subliming. Except that it doesn’t – you don’t really get any insight into what it’s like except that it’s indescribable. When, at the end of the book, the Gzilt finally take the plunge, they do so (the humans, anyway) using basically the same method that Dorothy used to get home from Oz. This is certainly a joke on Banks’s part, but not a very satisfying one. (Humans declare their intent to Sublime and are transitioned to the higer dimensions by beings already there; AIs can do it for themselves.)

All of which may make it sound as if I didn’t enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata – I did, actually. It’s highly readable, if a little confusing in places – the various Minds and what they’ve been up to blurred together a lot. But it’s also pretty much more of the same, albeit from a great writer.

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A little while ago I submitted the following question to Stephen R Donaldson via his website:

What made you decide to give each book of the Gap series two titles (or a title and a subtitle)? It’s quite unusual for novels to be subtitled like that – was there anything you drew inspiration from for that? And what was the attitude of your editor/publisher to it?

Thanks.

The Gap series is gripping space opera of five books:

  • The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story
  • The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge
  • The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises
  • The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order
  • The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die

Stephen Donaldson just answered:

I did almost the same thing with the “Mordant’s Need” books. My intent was to let my readers know that there was more than one book to the story (without going through endless repetitions of Book One, Book Two, etc.). And in the case of the GAP books, I also wanted to suggest the progress of the themes from book to book. The technique is actually fairly common: for example, my edition of “Lord of the Rings” uses it. My editors/publishers had no objection–although my UK publishers have felt compelled to attach numbers to the paperbacks.

Source: Stephen R Donaldson Official Website.

Actually, I don’t quite get his answer. This is from the Wikipedia entry on The Lord of the Rings:

For publication, the book was divided into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (Books I, The Ring Sets Out, and II, The Ring Goes South,) The Two Towers (Books III, The Treason of Isengard, and IV, The Ring Goes East,), and The Return of the King (Books V, The War of the Ring, and VI, The End of the Third Age, plus six appendices).

Each subdivision (volume, book, chapter) of TLotR has a separate title, but my point was that each whole volume in the Gap sequence has two titles (I don’t count ‘Book I’ to be a meaningful title).

Oh, well. I have another couple of questions for Stephen Donaldson waiting to be answered. We’ll see what comes of them.

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