The Hydrogen Sonata is Iain M. Banks ninth, and final, Culture novel (another novel, Inversions (1998), has possible unstated ties to the Culture, and Banks also published some short stories in State of the Art that were set in the Culture universe).
The Hydrogen Sonata is set within the Gzilt civilization, which is about to Sublime; to step out of our classic, 4-dimensional life and join with the combined sentience of the higher dimensions. There are hundreds of pages of Banks’ imaginative prose and I’m glad I read it; the novel strikes me as a little flat compared to some of his earlier works (particularly Player of Games and Use of Weapons), but any fan of the Culture series should enjoy it.
The demystification and dismantlement of religion is common in the Culture books; in The Hydrogen Sonata, a Gzilt religious tome was planted by an older civilization as a sociological experiment. The truth is about to come out, but a megalomaniacal Gzilt politician censors the message via murder, mayhem and mass destruction, in an effort to ensure his fame and the successful sublimation of his civilization. The Culture (in the embodiment of several ship-Minds), with its interest in all things (in particular, Subliming), becomes ‘involved.’
The novel’s title refers to a nearly unplayable sonata, T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata for An Instrument Yet To Be Invented (the elevenstring, an acoustic instrument played from inside, preferably by a person with four arms), commonly called The Hydrogen Sonata. The sonata has little to do with the plot, other than connecting the protagonist, Vyr Cossont, with an important character, Ngaroe QiRia (Tursensa Ngaroe Hgan QiRia dam Yutton, to be precise). It is details such as the elevenstring instrument, discussions regarding the composer of the sonata, specifics about the composition, and Vyr’s attempts to play the piece, that make Banks’ novels interesting to read (within the novel, one critic described the music as sublime, whereas another suggested that it should only be played in a vacuum so it will never be heard).
There are many sections from the POV of Minds, and more than a few references to the Interesting Times Gang (the ITG), from Excession, which is the only Culture novel I haven’t read (this will soon be rectified…).
There is none of the vengeance that — IMHO — scarred some of Banks’ other novels (e.g.: Look to Windward, an excellent novel with a brutal, vindictive ending). The Hydrogen Sonata ends with gentle susurrations; additionally, the antagonist — Septame Banstegeyn — is less of a B-movie villain than those in some other Culture novels (he is, however, a nasty character).
The novel is infused with a gentle message of acceptance: “It would be far preferable if things were better, but they’re not, so let’s make the best of it.” [p.211]
There will be no more Culture books, and it was fitting that the final novel was about Subliming.
Iain Banks passed from this realm in 2013. He will be missed.