Book Review: “The Hydrogen Sonata” by Iain M Banks — Reviewed by Andrew Robins
Reviewed by: Andrew Robins
I am a fan of Iain M Banks and the Culture “universe”, so it has been a rare treat for me to get the opportunity to read and review a second Culture novel this year. (The first was Surface Detail.)
The Hydrogen Sonata has some flaws as a story (in my opinion), but once I recognised these and accepted them, they did not really detract much from my enjoyment while reading.
The Culture is a very rich back drop for story telling. Banks makes full use of the diversity that a society beyond scarcity allows. Many of the events of the story are driven by a group of Culture vessels – who are simply that, a group of Culture vessels. They have chosen to involve themselves in the affairs of the Gzilt, as the Gzilt embark on the process of subliming, because it seems to them to be right to do so. And a little bit interesting. These are their sole imperatives.
The story starts with the Gzilt 23 days away from “disappearing uselessly up their own fundament” and departing normal reality for good. The author does a good job of providing, as a backdrop, the image of a society that has already mostly shut down, switched off, and disappeared in preparation for the big day.
There are a variety of different tensions that need to be resolved. A major theme of the book for me was the slow unravelling of the ability of individuals and institutions within the Gzilt society to deal with these tensions. And also of the constraints that they placed on themselves in dealing with them. As the big day got closer and closer the “rewards” people were chasing got smaller and smaller, and the actions they were prepared to take got more extreme.
And in the end, every individual faced the process of subliming on their own.
Looking at the books flaws – the main character, Vyr Cossont did not really work for me. I have got this far in the review without mentioning her, after all. My main issue would be her lack of agency. The only real reason she is important to the story is because she knew someone once. She is not, at any stage, in control of events or even particularly important to them (in my opinion). I am reasonably certain the author would differ with me on this point though.
My other issue is that the big dark and terrible secret that the Culture is pursuing – is neither that big and dark, nor that secret in the end. Difficult for me to say much more here without spoilers.
Still – as I said earlier in the review, once I recognised these issues and accepted them, I was still able to enjoy the book immensely. As you experience the last days of the Gzilt themselves, you also get to experience: Girdle city, obsessive sand sculptures, a moon orbiting below a planet’s surface, the everlasting party, and a truly awesome Culture ship name or two–just to list a few elements of a very long list of things that made this story good.
To conclude, I believe The Hydrogen Sonata is a very worthy addition to the Culture canon. If you are a fan of other Culture novels I am pretty certain you will like this one as well. The Hydrogen Sonata should also appeal to readers who like Peter F Hamilton and Neal Asher.
For more information on Iain M Banks and his writing, see his site, here.
About the Reviewer:
Andrew Robins is a long time reader – and sometime reviewer – of science fiction, fantasy and history. People pay him to test stuff, mainly radios, which most of the time is more fun than it has any right to be. Any and all views expressed in this review are entirely his own.
Recent reviews by Andrew include:
- “2312″ by Kim Stanley Robinson, here.
- “Redshirts” by John Scalzi, here.