Posts Tagged ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’

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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As with my last reviewed book, Robert Rankin’s The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, this is one that I only got hold of and read shortly before the release of the author’s next book. Banks and Rankin are two of my favourite authors and I usually get their novels as soon as they come out; this past year, I’ve been a bit preoccupied with travel. In fact, The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks comes out tomorrow.

Unlike the novels released with the M middle initial in the author’s name, and unlike Iain not-M Banks’s last book, Transition, this is not science fiction, but rather a crime/romantic drama set in a Scottish coastal town, the eponymous Stonemouth (often referred to as the Toun by the characters).

Five years ago, Stewart Gilmour fled his home town in fear of his life – or at least in fear of a vigorous beating – after betraying his fiancée, Ellie Murston, the eldest daughter of the scarier of the two local mob leaders – and now he’s back for the funeral of his erstwhile wife-to-be’s grandfather. The specific details of what happened five years previously are doled out in a non-linear series of extended flashbacks, along with flashbacks of other incidents, most notably the death of Stewart’s schoolmate, Malcolm (‘wee Malky’).

The novel is written with all the ease and confidence that you expect from Banks. His attention to details are one of his strongest traits in his non-sf guise. Scenes are described evocatively (though some passages edge into the over-written); and there’s a certain cinematic realism to the way his characters behave – if British TV drama were as good as American, it would be like an Iain Banks novel.

Several and long flashbacks are a Banks trademark – and a technique that I’m not that keen on. Some of them here are very good – like the moment when we learn how people found out about Stewart’s fling – but flashbacks rarely drive the narrative forward – they’re like listening to a more or less tedious anecdote. The ones regarding Malky, while adding to the tone of the piece, don’t appear to contribute anything to the actual story.

For the most part, the book is beautifully written, but there are moments where the narrator, Stewart, suddenly kind of realises he’s in a novel and does something proactive and plot related – but, unlike everything else we see through his mind’s eye, he doesn’t elaborate or explain what he’s doing. You generally have a good idea of what he’s about, but I forgot a few details of names and suchlike and found it occasionally confusing.

Like many of Iain Banks’s other books, it is very concerned with families and their various hang-ups and skeletons in the closet. The difference here is that Stewart’s own family is of no particular interest – it’s his ex-betrothed’s clan that’s the problem. However, because the narrator is not of them, is, in fact desperate keep all but one of them at barge pole’s length, you don’t end up learning as much about them as you’d like. As a result, Stonemouth is either more subtle or more slight than earlier works such as The Crow Road or Whit. Also, I felt throughout this book that it just retrod the ground broken by those previous volumes.

I enjoyed reading Stonemouth – Banks’s facility with words, characters and setting gets better and better; but, plot-wise, it was a bit weak and had none of the stunning originality and bravura plot twists that made him one of my very favourite writers. Still, The Hydrogen Sonata will be in shops by the morning – it’s a Culture novel, and they’re always the best.

Stonemouth was on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime a while ago and was read by David Tennant. You can listen to it on YouTube.

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