‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ by Iain M Banks
Orbit Books £20.00
Reviewed by Ross Walker
It is 24 days until the Gzilt enter the “Sublime”, an alternative parallel universe, to live as immaterial beings forever. However, with preparations well under way, a secret is about to be revealed that could shake their world to its core and destroy the opportunity to enter the “Sublime” forever. A small cabal within the Gzilt take the decision to track down and kill anyone who knows this secret. The AI “Mind”-run ships of “The Culture” get wind of this and decide to investigate and, if necessary, intervene to bring this secret out into the open. The race is on to track down the only man left who can fully reveal this dangerous knowledge, and who also happens to be the oldest person in the universe…
And so begins ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’, the 9th novel in Iain M Banks’ “Culture” series. I am a fan of Iain Banks’ mainstream literary work but never got round to reading his science fiction output. The opportunity to finally dive into the world of “The Culture” was one that was too good to miss, but I must admit I was rather nervous entering the series at Volume 9. How would his SF output compare to his literary stuff and would my ignorance of the previous books hold me back?
‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ is densely written and there is a lot to take in. However, this may be down to adjusting into the world Banks creates because as the story progressed so did the pace and the plot started to really kick in. The book is full of humour and a strong sense of fun underpins the superficial seriousness.
As with Banks’ other work the plot is complex, but superbly crafted. ‘Hydrogen’ deals with serious ideas but does so with a sense of mischief that keeps the pace zipping along and prevents it from ever taking itself too seriously. The dialogue is fresh and lively, particularly between the Minds, and the characters are mostly well-rounded. Banks has always been known for his powerful, dark imagination and in this book he certainly comes up with some incredible images (a man with 53 penises for example) and ideas.
Banks creates some powerful and memorable descriptions of mind twisting places, creatures, technology and philosophies about the nature of consciousness. However, there is a lot of this and, at times, the book got a bit bogged down in long passages explaining things. Towards the end Banks didn’t quite pull everything together with his usual tightness. For instance, the central female character seems very passive as it is the Minds of The Culture who really drive the story.
I kept waiting for Banks to make more of ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ of the title which refers to a piece of music that is almost impossible to play and impossible to listen to. However, it seemed only to be there to act as a counterpoint to the cold efficiency of the Minds, rather than to drive the story. Lastly, I was a little underwhelmed by the decision The Culture AIs make at the end of the book regarding the ‘big secret’. It seems strange to build this up and then decide to… well you’ll have to read the book to find out.
However, these are minor points in a long novel that is generally consistent in its standard. It is ultimately a fun, well written read – exactly what you would expect from Iain Banks. I think it stands up really well to his mainstream output and I didn’t feel particularly disadvantaged that I hadn’t read the other books in the series. For me ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ hit the right notes and I will certainly start investigating the other books in the series. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of ‘Matter’ around here somewhere…….