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The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks [book, review] - Elf M. Sternberg
The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks [book, review]
So, it took a week, but I finally finished Banks' new Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata. It was a better novel that Matter, Transitions, or Surface Detail, but Banks is turning into a one-trick pony here.

The Hydrogen Sonata (also known as T. C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalogue number MW 1211) is a fiendishly difficult piece of music to master, yet Lt. Cmdr. (reserve) Vyr Cossant is determined to master it. She's close, very close-- but in less than a month, her entire civilization is scheduled to be raptured, enfolded, sublimed-- uploaded whole into The Sublime, Banks' "universe next door" where the laws of physics are different-- where experience and possibility are infinite, where growth is intrinsic in existence, where decay is nearly impossible. In the Cultureverse mythology, individuals become discordant within the Sublime-- you must go as a large group, preferably a whole civilization, with a common understanding.

The Gzilt, the civ to which Vyr belongs, was an invitee to the Culture ten thousand years ago but they declined joining the Culture. They're now an equivalent technological level to the Culture, but unlike the Culture the Gzilt, as a civilization, is Done With This Place And Ready To Move On.

Nobody remembers quite why the Gzilt declined joining in the Culture's pan-humanism. Except, someone does. Someone who was there, ten millennia ago. Someone Vyr met once. It's the Last Great Mystery of the Gzilt-- why did they decide to go it alone as a civilization, choosing a planet-bound interstellar existence to the Culture's magnificent Ships and Ringworlds?

Finding Out The Reason Why becomes the centerpiece mystery of The Hydrogen Sonata.

As such, The Hydrogen Sonata manages, for the most part, to avoid many of the cliche's for which Banks is rapidly becoming known. There are many fewer lectures in this book: no rants about how Fear Of Hell Is Necessary To Keep The Masses In Line (Surface Detail), The Limited Liability Corporation Is An Inherently Corrupting Institution Whose Damage Is Magnified By Apocalyptic Religions Like Christianity (Transition), or Virtual Reality Is Not Merely A Distraction But A Vile Abandonment Of Everything That Makes Life Worth Living (Matter). At worst, we get a few throwaway conversations about how wanting to live "too long" is an act of cowardice that breeds further cowardice, about how The Universe needs death to keep the system fresh, and how the living are going to keep repeating their errors anyway until the end of time.

A lot of this book is told in email-- between those Cool Vast Intellects known as The Minds, the hypersentient ultradeep artificial intellects that inhabit The Cultures' starships and stations. The book is a bit like American Football-- fast-paced action punctuated by meetings. Unfortunately, The Minds' conversation looks more like a bickering group chat by semi-professionals than anything else.

There is Banks' usual clockwork plotting (complete with his classic few-pieces-missing). Innocents die, while the guilty, surprisingly, go free this time. That was disappointing. There's a bit of Deus Ex Mechanica, naturally, as Banks' more than once pulls Culture high-tech out of his posterior to justify moving his characters from frying pans into fires to solar flares. The Gzilt come across as more Terran than Cultureniks: more like us, more understandable to us. This lets the reader identify better with Vyr and her opposite, the completely banal, completely understandable, completely pathetic villain, the politician Banstegeyn.

What disappointed me most about The Hydrogen Sonata was the de-mythologization of The Sublime. Banks must have read Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder, because The Sublime comes across as "the other universe" in that book: a place where the core automata rules allow for indefinite, deliberate, willful expansion of Self and Civilization. By explaining it, Banks has killed much of the mystery.

The quest for The Reason Why is pure plot token: go here, acquire this bit of knowledge, which tells you to go there-- lather, rinse, repeat. Still, if you like Banks, there are scenes of his usual brilliance in here: he's still the master of description, of coming up with an Idea and then painting a gorgeous (or repulsive, depending on his mood) word painting of the setting, the people in it, and the circumstances that brought them there, so the plot token works pretty well anyway.

A better book, but far and away lacking the sense of wonder that comes from first encountering Banks. Maybe he decided all the hinting in The Player of Games wasn't worth the effort and not enough people noticed.

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