Tag Archives: iain m banks

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.

Galactic Suburbia 70!

In which Feminism 101 meets Aussie politics for a battle of the bands! You can get us from iTunes or Galactic Suburbia.

Julia Gillard and the Sexists of Doom
The Speech (and bonus Penny Wong Interview)
Commentary in the New Yorker
@vodkandlime talks about the response to the Gillard speech
Ben Peek on the failings of the mainstream media

British Fantasy Awards
: special squeeage for Angela Slatter, first Australian to win one.

Jonathan Strahan and Nightshade Book launch Eclipse Online

Strange Horizons Fundraising Drive is on

Crikey looks at author earnings and advances.

What Culture Have we Consumed?

Alex: Deathless, Catherynne M Valente; Arc 1.3; Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M Banks; Looper; abandoned: Armored (ed John Joseph Adams)
Tansy: The Outcast Chronicles, Rowena Cory Daniells; Unspoken, Sarah Rees Brennan; Wild Mary: A Life of Mary Wesley by Patrick Marnham, Under My Hat edited by Jonathan Strahan. Also GAME OF THRONES
Alisa: The Future is Japanese (ed Nick Mamatas); Looper; Death’s Daughter, Amber Benson; Casual Vacancy J K Rowling; Studying Men and Masculinities, David Buchbinder

Next Episode: feedback probably

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

The State of the Art: verdict = poor

I was quite disappointed by this collection, unfortunately. It lacked any… panache.

“Road of Skulls” is hardly a story, barely a vignette – seems like a riff on Waiting for Godot without the existential angst. The last couple of paragraphs are clever, bit they made it feel more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story.

“A Gift from the Culture” is about someone having left the Culture to live on a normal planet, and then getting blackmailed to do something only a Culture person could do. It had a lot of potential – how a relationship might work with such a disparity of backgrounds, how someone from the Culture might respond to being blackmailed… but in the end it did not live up to any expectations.

There’s another vignette in “Odd Attachment,” where a first contact scenario is played out from the point of view of the vegetative alien, who would rather being thinking about his lady love, actually. Amusing enough, but not exactly mind-blowing.

The story that had the most impact on me was probably “Descendant,” entirely focussed on one man, his thoughts and his interactions with his spacesuit as he trudges around a barren little world trying to find the one settlement on it, after being blown out of the sky. Melancholy in a readable way.

I found “Cleaning Up” a bit frustrating, because while it had a fun premise – alien gifts start appearing on the earth, how does the West deal with it when the Soviet is still a threat, etc – the characters were so unpleasant as to be almost unreadable.

The absolute lowlight for me was “Piece.” Less a story and more an anti-religion diatribe. The author is recounting two experiences of having been the oh-so-intelligent and smug atheist intellectual confronted by two religious nuts, over the span of 15 years; one an old man, a Christian who dislikes science, the second an otherwise intelligent Muslim man (this is the perspective the reader is presented with) who objects to The Satanic Verses. The conclusion may be trying to suggest that it’s not quite as obvious as the protagonist is suggesting, but it does nothing to redeem the story.

The second last story is the novella “The State of the Art,” another piece about the Culture. Here, the Culture comes into contact with – wait for it – Earth, in 1977. The focus of the story is on Sma and her experience of Earth, as well as her interactions with some of her fellow Contact personnel and the ship Arbitary. While it was interesting enough to consider how the Culture might view Earth, especially perhaps at that time – Apartheid going strong, genocide in Cambodia, war in Ethiopia, etc – in the end it once again felt more like an excise for a rant about everything that is wrong with the world, wrapped up in a story that only just better than average. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am – I expected way more from Banks. Maybe I was setting the bar too high; maybe the short form just doesn’t work for him.

The last story is “Scratch,” and I didn’t really read it for the same reason that I haven’t read the last twenty or so pages of Joyce’s Ulysses (well, also I just didn’t get up to it): stream of consciousness does absolutely nothing for me, and when it’s several people’s worth of consciousness, even less.

So there you go. Disappointed.

Surface Detail

I got Surface Detail from my brother for Christmas; that is, I bought it, and he gets less $$ than he was going to for his Christmas/birthday present (it’s a long story). I wrapped it up and wrote the nicest note from him to me and everything, which apparently was a bit weird, according to the rest of the family (he wasn’t there)….

Anyway, I was very excited to finally have it in my hands. A new Culture novel! The world should rejoice! And this is one of the biggest ones yet, I think, at 627 pages. I’m way too much of a fangirl to give this a particularly critical review, but…

I have a really bad memory but I think this is one of the bigger casts that Banks has followed in detail, which contributes to its size. There are certainly some privileged characters, but most of those introduced do get some detail and resolution. They’re a good mix, too; mostly pan-human, but a few not, and to my utter delight a seriously warped AI whose avatar goes by name of Demeisen and whose attitude towards war, while reprehensible, was one of such unfeigned delight that I couldn’t help but adore him. In a reproving manner of course. I think the AIs, and the ships they’re encased in, are by and large my favourite part of any Culture novel. Not that Banks appears to feel any restrictions with his human characters, but with the AIs there are really no limits to the craziness he can put out there, and does. I think my other favourite character is the one who, if any deserve the name, is the main protagonist: Lededje Y’breq. She dies in the first chapter. Then, of course, she comes back.

Dying is, in fact, the focus of this entire book. I think someone who later becomes a main character is dead or dying in each of the first four chapters, and it kinda keeps happening. That’s because Banks decided to address one of the oldest issues in this book: whether there is a heaven or a hell. And the answer is, definitively, Yes There Is: because we made them. As virtual environments. Now the question becomes, should there be hells (heavens seem to be fine)? When it’s people just like us making them and deciding you go there? … which, in a place like the galaxy Banks gives us, naturally leads to war. That’s right people, war is hell and hell means war. Or something.

It is, of course, an awesome book. The scale is enormous; there have been a few Culture novels mostly restricted to one planet, but this is not one of them – it zooms all over the galaxy, faster than the speed of light. The plot, as mentioned, follows several different people or groups, some of whom end up tangling together and some of whom stay separate; the plot has an appropriate number of twists and surprises that I really didn’t see coming, such that I stayed utterly glued to the page the whole way through. And the language – well, it’s just swoon-worthy in parts. The speech from that dreadful avatar about why it likes war? Majestic. The descriptions of places? Concise yet evocative; I almost couldn’t read the descriptions of Hell.

Read it! You know you want to!

Galactic Suburbia 23!

This is my 1000th post! And it’s a Galactic Suburbia one!

In which we greet a brand new year with discussion about digital media, awards, books, feminism, feedback, more books, anti-heroes, gender roles and take a look at what to look forward to in 2011. We can be downloaded or streamed from Galactic Suburbia, or from iTunes.


Follow up on the Jewish fantasy discussion by Rachel Swirsky.

Locus to go digital with issue #600.

Launch of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, new critical zine with focus on women’s work.

The i09 Power List: 20 people who rocked SF & Fantasy in 2010.

Carl Brandon Awards: Hiromi Goto and Justine Larbalestier.

Hugo nominations open – last year’s members of Aussiecon 4, don’t forget you’re eligible to nominate!

Feedback: Kaia, Kathryn & Thoraiya

What Culture Have we Consumed? [AND what culture are you most looking forward to consuming in 2011?]
Alisa: Fringe Season 3, Dexter Season 4, Being Erica (ep 1), Nurse Jackie, How I Met Your Mother, reading Managing Death (Trent Jamieson)
Looking forward to: LSS 2011
Alex: Zombies vs Unicorns, ed. Larbalestier and Black; Factotum, book 3 of Monster Blood Tattoo, by DM Cornish; Dervish House, by Ian McDonald; The Killing Thing, by Kate Wilhelm; Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks.
Looking forward to: Blue Remembered Earth (probably), by Alastair Reynolds; books 2&3 of The Creature Court, Tansy Rayner Roberts; the 2011 Women in SF Book Club; Bold as Love sequence (Gwyneth Jones); Twelve Planets (from Twelfth Planet Press).
Tansy: Wiped, Richard Molesworth;  The Doctor Who Christmas Special!  The Gene Thieves & the Norma; Ascendant, Diana Peterfreund; Big Finish Podcast
Looking forward to: Doctor Who and Fringe (SHOCK, I know), Sherlock, Torchwood, The Demon’s Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan, Burn Bright by M. de Pierres.

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!


So I mooned a bit over Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter while at Swancon, to the amusement and probably boredom of a number of people. I think they’re both utterly, utterly splendid – I love everything I’ve read of theirs – and they’ve made me love space opera. It’s occurred to me I need to add another name to that list.[1]

Iain M Banks is a master.

This is not a revelation for me; more a rediscovery. I read Consider Phlebas when I thought that they were sequential… then discovered they weren’t, so just bought the first one than came to hand next time – Use of Weapons. Which has been sitting there, looking at me reproachfully, for… a while. With the release of Matter, I finally decided to go and read it.


This is one person where I am actually tempted to go into a shop and buy every single thing he’s written (scifi, at least… might have to test the mainstream first). I might go secondhand first, but still – I want to read it all! Now! might go on hiatus….

[1] Actually, two: Dan Simmons is also heroic. And I think that, if I deign to watch Hyperion the movie, I will have to go alone, since I may end up either piffing things at the screen or getting violent. Or both, escalating.

The Player of Games

I found Iain M Banks when we were in the UK – reminds me that I should get around to talking at least about the books I read over there, if not about the whole trip. It feels like it was such a long time ago, now, though – 10 weeks in fact. Anyway: I just finished his The Player of Games the second of the Culture novels. I think I’ve decided they can be safely read out of order, which is nice – now I can just go nuts at the second hand book shop, and buy whatever they happen to have.

It’s a great book. Banks is a great storyteller – you know, after you’ve read one, that there is a fair bit more going on than is obvious at the first and that this will be revealed in clever ways, and pretty much logically too: that is, there won’t be ta-dah! moments just to get the hero out of a sticky spot. I have to say, though, that I found the conclusion to this one just a bit anti-climactic. I don’t know what else I was expecting (well, yes actually I do, and it has a lot to do with Janny Wurts and the Empire books), but it wasn’t what happened.

Getting to that conclusion, though, was fun. The main character isn’t much of a hero – just an every-day Culture dude, who happens to be about the best games-player in the entirety of the Culture. He gets contracted, basically, to go and play the highest-stakes game he’s ever come across, and the book is about him learning it and playing it. Which sounds daft, except that the stakes are who gets to Emperor of Azad.

One of the more interesting, if surprisingly understated, aspects is the difference between Azad and the Culture, in politics and morals and pretty much every other aspect of life. There are a few conversation where these things are explored, and – I think deliberately – it’s weird for a reader to try and figure out exactly where they want to position themselves. With the Culture, that tolerates incest and pretty much anything else its citizens can come up with, or the Empire, that goes around subjugating everyone they meet (sounds familiar)? And really, as things are presented here, there are no half-measures. One side or the other.

Interesting. Fun. And, unlike Consider Phlebas (the one I read in the UK), only one page of ickiness that I had to skip over.