Iain M Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata, and musings
I read this a long time ago now. It’s been sitting on my shelf at first glaring at me to review it, then looking at me sullenly, and more recently not even bothering to meet me eyes. The reason it’s taken me so long to write anything? I guess partly there was a lot I wanted to say – much of which I have now forgotten, to my chagrin, but it does kinda make a review easier to write. Partly, so many other people have written about it that what could I possibly offer? Not much, really. So why am I doing so now? Well, it was a review book so I would feel bad (… badder…) if I didn’t; and even if others have said these things more eloquently than I, at any rate I get some of my thoughts onto paper (… the screen…).
And now, well, Iain M Banks has died. I think Jonathan Strahan’s reflections say a lot; my own interactions are more recent, and don’t include any Iain Banks stuff (yet). So it feels both more pressing to record my thoughts, and less important. Anyway…
Many of the Culture novels talk about species which have Sublimed; moved on to another plane of existence, which isn’t heaven since it doesn’t exactly or necessarily involve death, but does mean that individuals or species no longer interact with the mundane, physical world. The suggestion is that Subliming is the apex of civilisation, what everyone should be aiming for personally and as a civilisation. As I write this I realise there’s a material/spiritual dichotomy going on here – not that Subliming is spiritual necessarily, but still that tension is present: that getting rid of the physical being is highly desirable. Interesting. This idea has never been the focus of a Culture novel… until now.
The Gzilt, as a collective, are going to Sublime. They’re doing the civilisation-level equivalent of writing their last will and testament, mostly attempting to leave their affairs in order, while some are having the end-of-the-world parties you expect if an asteroid is rapidly approaching. But of course, this is Banks. So things do not go smoothly; there is conflict over who will benefit from their departure (I’m reminded of a poem I read at school, “Where there’s a will there’s a sobbing relation”), and also over the very decision to Sublime. Not everything part of the narrative appears to impact of the Gzilt directly, at first – there are multiple narrative threads going on – but of course they all get tied up eventually. Mostly, quite nicely, and sometimes in wonderfully sneaky ways.
I know some people have complained that this is bloated; that it could have done with some editing. It’s 517 pages, in the trade paperback; probably it could have been shorter, but hello let me introduce you to Patrick Rothfuss or George RR Martin – Banks had nothing on them. Which is not to say that he should be left alone, just that it could be worse! And I will admit that actually? I don’t mind the bloat when it comes from the hand of someone like Banks. (I will out myself here to say that yes, I enjoyed the ridiculous length of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I loved The Wise Man’s Fear. Sue me.) I never once got bored with what Banks was spinning. As the narratives went weird places and the threads appeared to be going in disparate directions, I went along for the ride because I had great faith – which proved worthy – that Banks would reel it all in and everything would have a point. Of course he probably didn’t need all the side alleys. But… so what? Part of me wants to say “if you don’t want to read a long book, don’t read it.” That’s not an entirely useful point of view, I know. And there are some books where even I can see that long meandering sidetracks do indeed detract from the story. For me, this isn’t one of them.
Overall? Fans of the Culture should get on with reading it if they haven’t already. Fans of serious mind-bending SF who haven’t read any Culture could start here, but I would probably recommend Use of Weapons or one of the other earlier ones first. It’s probably also not a great jumping on point for someone who’s never read SF before, although for someone with enough willingness it would be a wild ride…
You can get The Hydrogen Sonata from Fishpond.