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Saturday 6 December 2014

The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks

Reviewed by Richard Saar

This review has taken me a while to write, I read the book more than twelve months ago now. It’s certainly not the book that’s stopped me writing this review, rather it’s me. You see this was Iain M. Banks last novel before his untimely passing in 2013. Iain M Banks was quite simply my favorite sci-fi author, his Culture universe is the future utopia that I’d most like to end up in, the place I’d happily work the rest of my days to create here on Earth.

So it is with great sadness that I finally review The Hydrogen Sonata, his last Culture novel.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Culture; it’s a post-scarcity society where technology has evolved to such a degree that no member of the Culture wants for anything… ever. In fact Culture resident’s holidays consist of staying at home for a month each year, taking a break from their constant travel, partying and adventures. It’s vast, old, unbelievably powerful and advanced, and is made up of thousands of sentient races both organic and digital; in the Culture Artificial Intelligences of all kinds are equal rights citizens.

However, as awesome as the Culture is, it’s actually kind of anarchic; there are no leaders or a government of any real kind… perhaps the Minds, super intelligent AI’s that run the ships, orbitals and habitats come closest, but only when they can be bothered.

It’s in this universe that we focus on the Gzilt, a civilisation that thought about joining the Culture about 10,000 years prior to events in the Hydrogen Sonata, but didn’t as their whole civilisation is organised in a fairly strict military structure. Kind of the opposite of the Culture, where you basically do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

So the Culture and the Gzilt have remained friendly all this time, but now the Gzilt want to Sublime; that is ascend to a new plane of existence and leave behind the physical realm. In the Culture universe this is not uncommon as civilisations that reach their zenith in the physical realm, often as a whole, seek new levels of existence. The Culture, by the way steadfastly haven’t sublimed when they quite frankly could have long ago, they like the physical universe.

However, the Subliming of the Gzilt is not going at all smoothly, there’s remnants of the Zilhdren civilsation who’ve already sublimed, who as it turns out hold some really big secrets about the Gzilt, and have been meddling in their affairs for some time.

Then there are the Scavenger civilisations who are circling the Gzilt wanting to scoop in and claim what they leave behind, except that the Culture wants to make sure the technology is not captured by anyone that could seriously unbalance the Universe.

And lastly there’s the whole Sublime thing itself, it’s a one way trip and no-one who’s sublimed has ever bothered communicating with those left behind. So, there’s a scramble to get any kind of information about what actually happens to a civilisation when they Sublime, from those joining in and those watching.

This is Space Opera writ large.

There’s a breathtaking host of characters, human, alien, AI. There’s an abundance of quite frankly awesome Sci-Fi tech, there’s plot and sub-plot, and quite frankly sometimes it was hard to keep up. That was not a complaint.

The writing is so assured that you can’t help but be swept up in the grand scale and drama of the story, I can’t fault it in anyway.

However as always, for me at least, the stars of the story are the Minds. The massively powerful AI’s are either slightly mad, or completely off the scale and these god-like entities bring humour, hubris and a bit of willful deceit in a way that only Banks can do.

It’s just such a pity that it’s the last installment; I’ll console myself re-reading all the other culture novels and savouring them again.

I personally would like the believe that Iain M. banks was actually a Culture Special Circumstances agent just living here on Earth for a short time and that he’s now back on his home GCU or Orbital partying his time away ready for his next adventure.

Source: The best kind… gift!

IBR Rating: ★★★★★

Recommendation: I could not more highly recommend this book for sci-fi fans of all types, it’s an outstanding example of a universe spanning Space opera and you won’t read better.

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Item Reviewed: The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Richard Saar
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