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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Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks

against_a_dark_backgroundAgainst a Dark Background (1993) was Iain M. Banks’ fourth science fiction novel published, and the first that was not set in his ‘Culture’ universe (The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, and Transition are also non-Culture science fiction novels). Against a Dark Background is essentially a quest novel: the plot follows the protagonist, Sharrow, and her comrades as they search for the Universal Principles (an ancient book), which will then help locate the last Lazy Gun (a weapon that distorts reality), which will result in Sharrow avoiding an assassination/execution by soldiers of the Huhsz, a crazed religious organization.

The book often feels like a RPG with its meandering plot and haphazard cohesion. There are several short flashback sections — momentous events from Sharrow’s past — that add texture and back-fill, but the transitions between sections is sometimes jarring: perhaps this was intentional, but I found it confusing at times. The novel’s title has an interesting meaning, and Banks does a nice job of world-building, although much of it seems superfluous. I didn’t form an attachment with any of the characters, which is a good thing, because most of them don’t make it to the end of the book; in fact, I think I enjoyed an android’s personality the most, and it didn’t appear until well into the story. There are some wonderful sections in the novel; but, as a whole, I found it a bit disjointed and unnecessarily long, and the ending is somewhat predictable.

Some readers found the ending abrupt: it didn’t particularly bother me, but for anybody interested, Iain M. Banks wrote a short epilogue that is available on-line, which is not included within the confines of the novel (and there is no hint in the edition I read that an epilogue exists).

Against a Dark Background was re-worked from an early novel (written in 1975), and I think the immaturity can be glimpsed through the cracks in the re-write. To be fair, however, I should note that this sub-genre is not my favorite (i.e.: a quest novel). Others might enjoy Against a Dark Background, especially if you enjoyed Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which is similar in construction (I enjoyed some sections in Consider Phlebas, but it is one of my least-favorite of the ‘Culture’ novels). I checked on-line and found several glowing fan-reviews for Against a Dark Background, some even declaring it as their favorite Bank’s novel. There is some inspired writing but, in my opinion, much of the material was sub-par for the author.

If you’ve never read Iain M. Banks, I’d suggest trying Player of Games (a short ‘Culture’ novel, one of his lighter books, possibly my favorite); and, if you enjoy that novel, then try Use of Weapons (also possibly my favorite Culture novel, though longer, and much darker in tone than Player of Games); and if you like that, I’d be glad to recommend more….

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Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M. Banks

feersum-endjinn-cover-artFeersum Endjinn is a non-Culture Science fiction novel by Iain M. Banks (for those who don’t know, Mr. Banks has been diagnosed with a terminal illness: more information. A sad update:  Iain Banks passed from this realm on June 9, 2013).

The action takes place on Earth, far into the future. Reincarnation is a common occurrence, facilitated by the uploading of mindstates into a massive computer network known as the data corpus or the cryptosphere (often shortened to crypt). An individual is allowed a certain number of real-life ‘reincarnations’ and then their mindstate is uploaded into the data corpus for another series of virtual reality lives before being absorbed into the data-stream. There are also artificial intelligences within the cryptosphere.  

Long before the beginning of the novel, a large portion of humanity left the planet to seed the stars (The Diaspora). The remaining humans have lost the ability to understand advanced technologies; unfortunately, the solar system is drifting into an interstellar dust cloud (referred to as the Encroachment), which will weaken the amount of the sun’s energy reaching the Earth, resulting in an end to all life on the planet. There may be a device (possibly within a neglected space elevator) that will save the planet, but the knowledge of how to use it, or what it is, has been lost.  

The story unfolds in four threads that eventually converge. Each chapter reveals the progress of four principal characters: an enigmatic woman, possibly an emissary from the crypt (an asura), who’s powers are gradually unveiled; Hortis Gadfium, a high-ranking scientist who is a member of a group trying to uncover a secret that may save the world; Alandre Sessine, a General who is about to discover a conspiracy of the heads of state, is assassinated several times (in real and virtual lives), and is searching for answers in the cryptosphere; and last, but not least, Bascule, a young teller, a job that depends on submersion within the crypt (I should also point out that Bascule is dyslexic: his sections are spelled phonetically, like the book’s title. Some might find these sections difficult/annoying, but I thoroughly enjoyed them).  

Mr. Banks does an excellent job of imagining a virtual reality world and the immensity of a space elevator: his canvas in this novel is extensive. It’s hard science fiction, but doesn’t always feel like it. The characters are likeable and interesting (particularly Bascule), but they were not plumbed to any great depth: the novel is plot and concept driven. Banks does a wonderful job of creating a believable world and dancing the reader through it. If you’re not a science fiction fan, you might think it is interesting, but unspectacular; but, for a hard science fiction geek, it’s amazing.