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73 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Banks back on form in the Culture
The Culture series can always be counted on for showing Iain Banks' writing at its best and the Hydrogen Sonata proves to be no exception to the rule. If we haven't really had the full-on science-fiction ideas combined with explosive action experience since Excession, the series thereafter has shown a certain maturity, slowing down the pace to consider philosophical and...
Published 18 months ago by Keris Nine

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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Knife missiles."
I spent the Summer re-reading all the Culture novels, so they're fresh in my mind for comparison. There is usually something that resonates long afterward; a character, a concept, a turn of plot, but why does The Hydrogen Sonata leave me empty?

There doesn't seem to be a problem with narrative drive or pacing. The book zips along and there is plenty of action...
Published 18 months ago by Matthew Davidson


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73 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Banks back on form in the Culture, September 26, 2012
This review is from: The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) (Hardcover)
The Culture series can always be counted on for showing Iain Banks' writing at its best and the Hydrogen Sonata proves to be no exception to the rule. If we haven't really had the full-on science-fiction ideas combined with explosive action experience since Excession, the series thereafter has shown a certain maturity, slowing down the pace to consider philosophical and metaphysical questions brought up in that book relating to the Other Side, on questions of Life, Death, Oblivion and the nature of what lies beyond the material world. Those questions are to the fore again in The Hydrogen Sonata, thoughtfully considered and brilliantly interweaved into the whole culture of the Culture, but happily Banks' writing and the plot surrounding the story is once again at a dazzling level of wit and brilliance that we haven't seen from this author for a long time indeed.

You might not expect that from the initial premise, where yet another civilisation, the Gzilt, have reached that stage in their evolution where, tired of existing with the mundane realm of matter and energy, they've made the collective decision to Sublime, crossing over to that indefinable place (between the seventh and eleventh dimensions we discover here) where all advanced cultures and civilisations eventually accede and effectively retire. Some are surprised that the Gzilt have decided to make the big jump at this stage in their development, but with only 23 days left until the Instigation, many have already crossed over, leaving only a small remainder of their people to take care of the final ceremonies and housekeeping formalities, fending off Scavenger races and generally dealing with any last minute business that might crop up. Inevitably, one ship turns up with a big surprise for the Gzilt, and suddenly chaos erupts. The ship Minds of the Culture, and undoubtedly Special Circumstances, are of course very interested in the rumours that abound around the incident and send ships in to observe the final frenetic days of the Gzilt.

Well, "observe" is of course a vague and rather passive term for the inquisitive intervention of the Culture, and of course it involves them gathering intelligence, searching for certain artifacts, transporting and in some cases reanimating stored individuals who might be able to satisfy their curiosity. If I'm totally honest, there's nothing new in this - there's a lot of running around and a lot of confusion where you aren't quite sure what's going on sometimes, the usual conspiracies, bad guys and big secrets which may or may not prove to be anything more than a red herring (I hate it when he does that), and some usual gung-ho intervention - sorry, observation - from the Culture ships and SC operatives (presumably, but who knows?), with an innocent - usually female - figure caught up in it all. It doesn't matter in the slightest when Banks has a concept as good as that of the Culture to play around with (if you haven't read a Culture book before, it won't matter either, because the author sums up the ideas concisely very early on, before getting straight on to business with little formality) and when his writing is as polished and witty as it is here, principally in all forms of interaction between the characters and, as you would expect, between the ship Minds.

After the rather serious and grim tone of more recent Culture books - fine though most of them have been - and great as it is to see Banks' writing at his funniest, it's the intelligence of the ideas underpinning the work and the deeper questions that they raise that make this science-fiction writing of the highest order. Since Look to Windward, the author has spent a great deal of time exploring these concepts relating to the non-material world beyond the Culture universe and offered tantalising glimpses of another reality, and he takes that another step further here in The Hydrogen Sonata, leaving just enough in reserve for further expansion. I'm not sure how long he can continue to draw this theme out, and indeed the latest book is somewhat repetitive of a formula established in all his recent SF books, but the richness and intelligence of the Culture concept still seems to inspire the author's best writing and The Hydrogen Sonata is the most entertaining work we've had from Mr Banks in a long time.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Knife missiles.", October 21, 2012
I spent the Summer re-reading all the Culture novels, so they're fresh in my mind for comparison. There is usually something that resonates long afterward; a character, a concept, a turn of plot, but why does The Hydrogen Sonata leave me empty?

There doesn't seem to be a problem with narrative drive or pacing. The book zips along and there is plenty of action. It could be the characters. While the primary Mind Mistake Not... is the most fleshed out character, the humanoid protagonist is thinly drawn. There certainly isn't a scene stealer like Demeisen or Skaffen-Amtiskaw in this book. What was the point of the familiar other than a lost opportunity? No other Gzilt had a familiar. Then there is the question of motivation. The entire Gzilt society is behaving (appropriately) like a High School senior class in May, but what is the motivation for everyone else?

The book feels quickly written and disconnected. At this point, if Banks writes a culture novel, it will translate to a certain amount of money. I'd hate to think this was his motivation, but it doesn't feel like it was a story he 'had' to get out of his system.

The Hydrogen Sonata has all the elements of a Culture novel that I'm deeply interested in such as an important musical reference, plenty of chatter among Minds, and a setting that allows for the examination of deep philosophical questions. Does it matter? This question comes up multiple times. Arguably, it is the point of the book. It is also how I feel after finishing it.
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40 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Channeling Douglas Adams, but mostly serious, September 30, 2012
By 
Baslim the Beggar "Baslim" (Ventura County, California) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) (Hardcover)
I do love the "Culture" novels. They represent interesting ways of looking at interactions of alien civilizations. And, of course, they feature the Minds... those AIs who make up the real power of the Culture. I have had many a good snicker or outright laugh at Banks names for the Minds (check Wikipedia for a list). The keen intellects have a taste for whimsy, but a very, very serious side as enforcers for the Culture, especially those associated with Special Circumstances. I am pleased that Banks spends more time now with the Minds. His earlier stories are quite good, but he really has been taking off in the last few books.

My title refers to the fact that when I read some of the text, I hear the narrator from "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," especially when Banks capitalizes words in sentences. For example I might write that the story revolves around A Really Big Secret, but when Banks writes something like that, you grin. (Well, I do.) Probably also has to do with Brit phrases creeping in now and then. All good with me. There is definitely a lot of humor in the book. Remember, Luke, Leia & Han in the garbage compartment? Banks goes one better (or should I say worse?) here, and it is perfectly plausible.

The truth about composer's intent for the piece of music called "The Hydrogen Sonata" has such irony as to be both sad and terribly funny. Banks has a lot of nice touches in the book. But the book is, as my title indicates, mostly serious. The humor is secondary or tertiary.

The book is a minor travelogue. Some very interesting places are visited. Imagine a race like McDevitt's Monument Builders, but building on a planetary scale. We visit an Orbital (a Ringworld type object), where in a remote desert section, an AI is building an analog to a waterworks... A place where some race drilled holes through mountains to turn them into giant organ pipes played by the wind... A repository of a race's artifacts, including... no, you'll have to read that part...

But there is this background of a race opting out of "The Real" to the "Sublime." This is, in some ways like the transcendence in "Fire in the Deep," but different. It is literally making a jump, as a race, to another dimension, where, to use the expression from another book, the individual minds (biological or AI) are "vastened." Banks has mentioned the Sublimed before, but we get a little closer look this time around, just as in "Surface Detail" we got a look at "life" in a Virtual Reality.

It's mostly a one-way trip. Supposedly everything is better... but is it? Communications with the Sublimed tend to be scarce. It's a definite "leap of faith" and our story takes place in the last 24 days before a race of humanoids (Gzilt) who helped found the "The Culture" (but who never joined it) takes the plunge to Sublime. By the way, Banks' choice of the the word Sublime is sublime!

That's when a ship from the inheritors of a race who had left some of their technology to the Gzilt, shows up. And their message is that the main text that help guide the Gzilt in building their civilization was a fraud. Murder happens, and a cover-up is attempted... But those snoopy Culture Minds get wind, and want to know the truth... and off we go!

Did I forget to mention that a very old humanoid, alive when the Culture was founded, is a key to the truth? Banks tries to address the question of how and more particularly why, someone would want to live that long (over 9000 years at the time of this book). There is some philosophical meat in the book, including the usual questions arising from making duplicates of one's self, and can one distinguish a simulation from reality.

There is plenty of action and many more interesting ideas than I have yet mentioned. Readers of Banks earlier Culture books know how different the Minds can be from each other. It appears that not only can the Minds become eccentrics, but that they can "go native" with non-Culture civilizations.

So many ideas! Banks reminds me why I fell in love with science fiction so long ago.
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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Boring and slow. Did not care at all about the story or characters., November 4, 2012
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This review is from: The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) (Hardcover)
I have followed Mr. Banks faithfully since his first book and have never before found him quite so lacking in ideas and character development. Feels like he was on a tight deadline so a lot of the things he was developing in the book get truncated at very awkward, disconcerting or simply silly ways. This book, unlike his others, is almost not at all about humans (or non-AI aliens). It is all about the Minds (his notation for the uber-developed AI's that embody the ships of the Culture) and other AI-like entities. The problem with making it about the AIs is that it feels a lot like a cheat. They are all-seeing, all-powerful and when all else fails they cannot die since they just transmit their Mind elsewhere. Mr. Banks' naming convention around the Minds was an interesting construct for communicating how the Minds are so awesome they don't have to take themselves seriously. Unfortunately in this book he takes it way way farther than what is reasonable and you end up skipping pages and pages of 'email' headers with a long list of nonsensical or tongue-in-cheek names whose Minds then only appear for one or two sentences.

The core (and really only) story line: a super advanced civilization has voted to be Sublimed, passing into the mysterious beyond where high-tech folks go when they are bored of the 'real'. No spoiler here that just days before this event that has been planned for 2 generations is to take place, it is suddenly put in jeopardy because it turns out their main religion was possibly a farce. Big ho-hum. The Minds involved ask themselves "why are we even getting involved?" (I echo the question, though my answer would have been different: 'don't'). Even the Gzilt in the know (the race about to be sublimed), also wonder if it is worth it to make any fuss about this since a large percent of the population already thought their religion was bogus anyway. In any case, this 'threat' to the sublimation leads to a cascade of bloody senseless killings that are accepted and non-intervened or revenged by the Culture since The Minds are only focused on finding the Truth, all morality and justice be damned. I kept waiting for one of the author's truly excellent human or humanoid characters that are able to bridge the guileless Minds and human spirit, creating compelling story lines. If not, then at least some plot twist so I could start caring. Maybe some end-of-the-universe risk. Nah. How could I care about a few trillion beings either staying in the Real and living the awesome carefree, scarcity-free life of an advanced civilization or going into some eternal spiritual paradise. 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. Hard to be stressed either way. And btw, they could have it both ways and some go and some stay.

The one developed human character is basically taken along for a ride, and unlike other successful unwitting heroes, she never really rises above just being at best a silent passenger and at worst an anchor around the awesome avatars and Minds dealing with the situation. The author creates 2 characters that I thought had great potential and then bafflingly ignores, abandons of kills off without any further development. One is a really neat bodyguard android that has a flaw in his systems and thinks it is living in a simulation. I thought that was a promising premise. he does one heroic deed, then spends the rest of time asleep and finally get woken up to be killed off immediately. The second was one of the Minds, Caconym, one of the few which are actually more than just a silly name and a bunch of bold letters on the page, that gets a little bit of interesting character development at first and then completely disappears.

There is a third character worth noting that would no doubt be in a tie with Jar Jar Binks as one of the silliest creations in sci-fi dom. It is a 'familiar' named Pyan. We never really understand if it is a pet, a tolerant reincarnated second cousin, a machine or what. It is a small carpet-like thing whose sole addition to the story is to have 2-3 word non-sequiturs. Why is it there at all? why should we care?

If you have never read a book by this author, do NOT start with this one, or you will probably never pick up another one and his earlier works are well-worth the read. Surface Detail (Culture) is a great story that deals with deep and interesting issues like virtual slavery and torture. It is well-written and the Minds play a good role but are not the flawless excessively and annoyingly sarcastic Gods they play in this book.

I look forward to Mr. Banks going back to writing books that will make me savor every page and sadden me when I reach the end rather than this one that made me skip pages and wonder when it would finally end.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A spectacular entry. Banks hasn't lost it., October 2, 2012
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This review is from: The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) (Hardcover)
"Is it true your body was covered in over a hundred penises?"
"No. I think the most I ever had was about sixty, but that was slightly too many. I settled on fifty-three as the maximum. Even then it was very difficult maintaining an erection in all of them at the same time, even with four hearts."

Iain M. Banks's latest Culture novel is representative of almost everything that has made the series so great. There's enlightened interference, hedonism, spectacular setpieces, diversely characterized Minds, space battle, black humor, and outlandish foolishness (see the above quote). The book, like Surface Detail and Matter, is packed with detail from Banks's imagination, yet avoids the pacing and bloat issues that those two books suffered from.

The Culture, for those who don't know, is a post-scarcity civilization which features in many of Banks's sci-fi novels. One of its most notable features are its Minds, wildly powerful AIs with colorful names such as Smile, Tolerantly and Pressure Drop.

Similar to Excession, it's the Minds who take center stage. The Gzilt, an advanced humanoid civilization which almost joined the Culture way back when, are about to sublime. To sublime is to enter a sort of transcendent existence in another dimension, where the scope of your understanding and enjoyment can expand to levels unthinkable in the `Real." 23 days before the Gzilt's big day, an alien ship arrives bearing a somewhat controversial secret. The ship is destroyed, and ever curious Culture Minds opt to tackle the crisis. Vyr Cossont, a somewhat irreverent and obsessive artist on a `life-task' to master the nearly unplayable `Hydrogen Sonata,' finds herself on a mission to meet up with QiRia, the Oldest Man in the Culture, who may be able to shed some light on the aforementioned secret.

In Excession, an elite group of Culture Minds collaborated to deal with a potentially galaxy threatening event. Here, the Minds are amusingly aware that their mission could end up completely pointless, yet they interfere anyway. The word `matter' is somewhat of a buzzword in this novel (ironically, it's probably used more than in Matter). Does the Culture's interference matter? Does the Truth matter? Does it matter whether or not we're in a simulation? Do civilizations matter? Does anything matter? Different characters, from a previously sublimed Mind to QiRia himself, offer interesting perspectives. The result is that Banks provides some thought provoking commentary on the nature of meaning in an ancient galaxy populated by thousands of civilizations only minor blips in the scale of history.

But it's not all philosophy. This is a very fun book, from the setpieces to the humor. The Minds are as funny and witty as ever. I don't want to describe any of the more remarkable settings, as to do so would lessen the impact of reading about them for the first time. Banks's imagination is in full force here, and once again he delivers on a satisfying climax which takes place against a wonderfully weird background.

The characters are satisfying, even if none are as great as Zakalwe in Use of Weapons. It's the Minds, notably Caconym and Mistake Not..., as well as QiRia, who stand out as great creations. Cossont is an interesting figure with a compelling backstory, but her role as a protagonist becomes less important when the Culture Minds really start to drive the action. Banstegeyn, an antagonist, doesn't achieve the heights of villainry that Veppers of Surface Detail does, but in some ways he's a more compelling, if less cool, character, more prone to guilt and self-doubt. There's also an android whose continued delusion that they're in a simulation provides some funny moments.

The plot wraps up nicely, reflecting many of the book's themes. The Hydrogen Sonata really delivered on what I want in a Culture novel: a compelling story, richly written Minds, sense of wonder settings, big idea themes, and some laugh out loud moments.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly disappointing, October 23, 2012
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If it were any other author, this would have been fantastic, but Banks has set the bar so high in the past that you really have to evaluate the Culture books relative to one another. This one let me down a bit.

1) It's a little formulaic. There's an unexplained event, a few lowly bios get involved, the Minds do clever things, other civilizations pop in to impede proceedings, and the story is more about the character's reactions to the event than the event itself. If that doesn't seem formulaic, go and read Excession, then resume...
2) In Surface Detail, we get a secular exploration of Hell. The Hydrogen Sonata could therefore have been a pretty obvious secular meditation on Heaven (or some analog thereof), and yet the Sublime remains unexplored. He might argue that this is deliberate, or indeed essential, but I found it unsatisfying and lazy. After peppering earlier books with references to the Sublime, this was his chance to widen (or whatever the orthogonal equivalent to 'wide' is) the Culture universe, and he didn't. As a writer, what a tour de force it would have been to render the ineffable Enfolded realm effable. I can't help but feel that this was a challenge he didn't rise to.
3) The best bits in the Culture books are always the bits that involve the Minds. Who wouldn't enjoy riding on the shoulder of an entity of power, intelligence, and subtlety so profoundly beyond our own? Whether it's the conversations between Minds or fight scenes involving ships or avatars, the sheer exuberant creativity of the writing is viscerally pleasurable. If it's the kind of metaphysical navel-gazing that Minds like to indulge in, that's beautifully thought through as well. In The Hydrogen Sonata, it was just that little bit.... soft.
4) Actually, in writing this review, I've finally plucked out what it is that bothers me about this book. It's too soft. Banks is at his best when his writing has an edge. The Culture books in particular, describing such a cosseting and utopian society as they do, need that edge even more. Use of Weapons, Excession, and Surface Detail all had a recognition of the gritty reality that substrates the fluffy pillow that the props up the average Culture citizen. Here's an example, in Excession, one of the Culture's warships was named the Frank Exchange of Views. What a brilliantly euphemistic/ominous name! The ship names in The Hydrogen Sonata are too bland (with the possible exception of the Empiricist - I quite like that one). So, yeah, this book needed more Gravitas.

Anyway, if you're a fan of the Culture, you'll buy it. It's not bad, in fact it's still much better than your average sci-fi novel, but it's not as great as it could have been. If you're unfamiliar with the Culture, start somewhere else.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vintage Banks; a Rose scattered with poignant thorns throughout, October 5, 2012
By 
MarcD-UK (A Farm in the middle-of-nowhere, UK) - See all my reviews
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I'm so happy, with this novel IB has returned to max-strength Sci-Fi, delivering a vintage that I've thirsted for desperately.

Since Consider Phlebas I've been a Fan. No, actually, since Wasp Factory I've been a Fan (but that's cheating ;). But, it was the Player of Games that convinced me that I'd buy every SF novel IB would generate. I've done that, though the journey has been a tough one over the last few novels.

Like many I'm a fan of culture and several of the last books, while being of the of Culture Universe & holding to the Meme's of his own writing style, they each left me feeling that we were collectively heading into a a kind of Escher-like state of ever-decreasing Galaxy views down to 'only' personalities.

This is important; what Banks has always achieved with his SF is the ability to seamlessly weave great & good Galactic Opera with the tiniest of human stories "for the want of the nail, the shoe was lost" Banks has always been at his best when he succeeds at illustrating that the nails (Cossont, QiRia) could affect the lives of an entire Civilisation (Gzilt) ... or not.

I don't do detail of the story in reviews, many others do that. I like to tell you how it felt to go through the journey. This novel resonated with Banks best works (for me). It left me smiling & satisfied (well, and thoughtful & ruminant). Like the very best of vintage wines the complexity of this novel will leave you with a sense of profound satisfaction.

A Banks fan - you will be happy. New to Banks - welcome, you are abut to experience what the very best of SF can offer
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three stars - it was OK, October 17, 2012
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This review is from: The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) (Hardcover)
First up, here's another Kindle edition that cost more than the hardcover! I really can't wait for ebooks to fully take over the world and prices to align with delivery costs...

But that gripe aside, 'The Hydrogen Sonata' is another Culture novel and for me, as with 'Surface Detail (Culture)', it seems that Banks is running out of meaningful things to say in this milieu.

Of course, Banks can write and his output is prodigious!

So I've no qualms with how he tells a story and he is deft with emotional content and descriptive prose. But I think back to earlier, tighter Culture novels such as 'Excession' and 'The Hydrogen Sonata' seems overwrought in the words per plot arc metric.

In particular, the underlying question of whether religious truth would cast enough doubt for a whole society of billions upon billions to change their collective minds about Subliming seemed a shaky edifice to support all the activity as various characters - Minds, Human and Alien - jostle for their little slice of control.

Plus, the motivations for the somewhat bad guy were a hazy for me. Indeed, quite a few of the motivations were hazy, but instead of setting up tension in the novel, it was just annoying because I could not get with the program and cheer the characters on.

And some of the calculations seemed a bit off. A 200km long ship housing more people than a planet? Or the continual references to how unknowable the Sublime is and how if you Sublime even hours late you'll be out of sync with the rest of your culture because things change so radically. Given that a single universal clock is not possible, I did not understand how a whole species wouldn't be out of sync on that basis. And one Mind comes back (kind of) to live an enigmatic life within the substrate of another Mind. Why exactly? I really missed the point of that little subtext. Then there was a terrible continuity gap about 50% in which was the result of missing text. It used to be that occasionally you'd read a book and some pages had not been bound...this was the Kindle equivalent and I'd guess a couple of paragraphs to a page were left out!

Still, there's a lot of funky technology and I esp. liked a concluding comment about the Culture's breadth of fire-power by one of the ship's Minds - it was something I was thinking and to have that thread played out so neatly and unexpectedly was fun.

But overall it seems the fire behind Banks vision for the Culture is down to embers and the verve of previous Culture novels is missing in 'The Hydrogen Sonata'.

Still, if you've read previous Culture novels it's worth buying because you'll mostly know what you are getting. And if you've not, there are no 'spoiler alerts' of earlier novels such that you have to read them in sequence, so it's actually a good place to start. But honestly, it's not that compelling that you can't wait until you see it on the shelves of one of those discount book shops (sorry Amazon.com but really Banks' publisher, this is down to you) and you can pick it up in paperback for $5 or so.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Culture without suspense, November 27, 2012
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Amazon Customer (Canberra, ACT, Australia) - See all my reviews
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I've always enjoyed the Culture series of books and instantly bought this when I saw it was available. The opening started out obscurely intriguing, which was promising. But it quickly became very clear that the supposed dreadful information that could prevent the subliming of the Gzilt was not actually going to prevent anything. Thereafter it became a game of explore odd worlds whilst searching for clues. Any suspense was lost. Just another book to add to the shelf that you'll not bother to pull out again. After the excitement of 'Surface Detail' and the rollicking adventure of 'Matter', this is a great disappointment. Certainly there are interesting things to see and experience that'll add to your knowledge of the Culture, but without anything at stake for the parties involved this story just lacked heart.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lost the plot...., January 11, 2013
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I have been, until now, a huge fan of Iain Banks's Culture novels, to such an extent that I would surf cyberspace every other month for his newest 'episode'.

The Hydrogen Sonata was a severe disappointment, so much so that I have not been able to finish it.

I loved Excession, Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, The Algebraist, Look to Windward, Surface Detail, and Player of Games so much that I re-read them, which is rare for me. But my first inkling that my reading tastes had undergone a quantum change, or that maybe the Culture novels were not that special, was during 'Matter'. At about midway through the book, my reaction was a burgeoning feeling of "so what"!

My reaction to the book under review was worse! Every so often, I would look up from the book to make sure that I had not somehow slipped into an alternate universe where Iain Banks's Culture novels had never existed and the book in my hand was an obscure joke.

I hate to say this because I respect the author as an author, but The Hydrogen Sonata is self-indulgent rubbish, where Banks shows off his writing skills at the expense of the story. Did I say story? What story? What dizzying action? Who are the Gzilt? Who are the Inheritors? Who cares?

Sad to say, The Hydrogen Sonata,(like Peter Hamilton's Void trilogy)left me cold.
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The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture)
The Hydrogen Sonata (Culture) by Iain M. Banks (Hardcover - October 9, 2012)
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