The Hydrogen Sonata

(Editor's Note: This review was sent in by Tomytronic.)

The Hydrogen Sonata is the latest in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and comes 25 years after the publication of the first Culture book, Consider Phlebas. This anniversary is no coincidence, and The Hydrogen Sonata is a book well aware of its legacy and the debt it owes to the universe that was set in motion over two decades ago. It is a distillation of the best aspects of the Culture novels, encompassing the highest ideas and most brilliant writing of the series.

Detailing the last few weeks of a civilization that is on the verge of Subliming (Banks’ version of reaching Nirvana), The Hyrdrogen Sonata focuses on the Gzilt, a species with a mysterious connection to the Culture, as they find themselves facing a potential crisis of faith. Certain "revelations" are being discovered regarding the holy book that dictates their entire existence. This has, unsurprisingly, piqued the interest of the naturally curious Culture. The details of (and hunt for) these revelations form the main body of the book, but, much like the drive of the Chelgrians in Look to Windward, the actual narrative is less important than the ideas engaged by Banks. This particular work is focused around a central, profound question: does religion really matter at the end of the day?
The Culture are a post-scarcity species – that is to say, there is nothing they cannot produce and they consequently require only diversion and purpose in their lives. The benevolent, watchful gaze of the super-AI Minds keeps their civilisation in check and suppresses conflict. Banks describes the Culture as his own utopia, and it is easy to see why. Intriguingly,The Hydrogen Sonata offers us a glimpse into the possible hollowness of this "ideal" existence. This highly advanced species is forced to confront increasingly difficult questions. If Subliming is the ultimate goal, why haven’t the Culture done it? What are they waiting for? Is there something missing? What do they believe in? What is the point of believing? Is intellectual curiosity enough? These questions lead the Culture and the Gzilt on a path whose ending not even the hyper-spatial brilliance of the Minds can foresee.
Banks writes with the same clarity we’ve come to expect after three decades of work. A gifted characteriser with the talent to put his subtly complex ideas on the page, the reader is never left distracted or out of place. The narrative flows with an assuredness that keeps you grounded, no matter how heady the subject matter. The thrills of Consider Phlebas are matched by the quiet introspection of Look to Windward, and the grand opera of Matter is tempered by the deep affection for the characters of Surface Detail. In terms of Banks' repertoire, it's the best of all worlds - and there are many worlds in his universe worth exploring.
The Hydrogen Sonata pays great homage to the decades of previous Culture books. It builds on the big ideas put forward by books like Surface Detail and Excession while not succumbing to the weighty extemporising that bogged down books like Matter. You'll know where the plot is going, yet still enjoy the ride, because what’s beneath is where the true story lies. The questions are the key; the answers might be found in life itself.
Goonswarm Federation CEO, Space Tyrant. Likes yoga, Alaskan Malamutes, bacon, and delegation.