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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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