Customer Review

77 of 91 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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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 28, 2012 4:23:28 PM PDT
Tony in SF says:
Excellent review! Thanks very much: I would have read it in any case, but I was concerned that this novel would continue delving as seriously deep and wide into "philosophical and metaphysical questions" as he's done (like you said) since after Excession. I'm all for that, but once in a while it's good to have something - please forgive me - a little "fluffier". ;)

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2012 9:05:42 AM PDT
It is an excellent review, but it does get one point incorrect.

The majority of the Glitz civilization has not already sublimed. Several times Mr. Banks makes mention that it is an all or nothing proposition for a civilization. All of these events occur with the final days of the Event (with days ticking down) and secrets threatening to either tear apart the underlying belief system of the civilization.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 10, 2012 11:39:15 AM PDT
Tony in SF says:
It's not "literally" all or nothing: there are clearly a few who choose to stay behind and are allowed to. But you are correct that the vast majority of them are not yet sublimed but are essentially "stored" and awaiting the end of the countdown (at least this is what I've gotten so far).

NOTE: Not a plot spoiler, here. This is all revealed very quickly in the novel.

Posted on Nov 17, 2012 3:45:00 AM PST
TomK1 says:
This book was recommended to me by Amazon, and the plot looks interesting. As this is part of a series (Culture), can this book be read without going through the previous 9 first, or does each book stand alone?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 8:03:18 AM PST
Tony in SF says:
Tom, having just finished The Hydrogen Sonata, I would say you'd be far better off reading an earlier novel, especially Use of Weapons (the best Culture novel, in my opinion) or Excession (the most fun Culture novel). There is a lot more background in those novels into what makes the Culture what it is - and all of the little details that make them fun - than in The Hydrogen Sonata.

I ultimately found The Hydrogen Sonata a bit empty and unsatisfying - especially at the end - but it does have it's moments. Good enough for completion... <shrug>

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 11:02:10 AM PST
TomK1 says:
Thanks. All the books seem to be readily available, so I'll take your advice. Much appreciated. If the series is good, I'll probably read all of them anyway.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 12, 2012 4:31:36 PM PST
SoCal Scot says:
I did too, it left me with an unsettling void at the conclusion. I feel Banks' last two books have been sub-par for a writer of his quality. I absolutely love the culture novels (especially The Player of Games and your favorite - The Use of Weapons). I don't believe all the loose ends were gathered sufficiently well for my liking. Still, for 80% of the book, it was enjoyable.

For those of you that haven't read his first novel - I believe it's a must read - The Wasp Factory.

Posted on Jul 10, 2014 11:49:36 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 10, 2014 11:57:35 AM PDT
Archelaus says:
Only recently learned that Mr. Banks himself Sublimed last year. Perhaps fitting then that this book will be our last visit to (or from?) the Culture. Adios, amigo, and, to borrow a phrase . . . so long, and thanks for all the fish!
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