The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks

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).

HydrogenSonataThe 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.

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4 thoughts on “The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks

  1. I was also reading this toward the end of the year. Finished up the last 110 pages or so on my trans-Pacific flight. But like most of Banks’ books, I love them but find them hard to review. Having finished it, I have now also read Banks’ entire science fiction bibliography… just got about half of his non-SF fiction left and Raw Spirit. I’m a big fan, obviously!

  2. I’m a fan of Iain M. Banks and I enjoyed this book but it was somehow unsatisfying and mostly left me wanting more. More culture novels even though that’s not really possible. I wonder if I can write my own stories based on ‘the culture’.

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