The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
The Gzilt civilization is as old as the Culture, and their technology is roughly equivalent, too. Although the Gzilt were invited to join the Culture when it was created, they declined, in part because of the Book of Truth. The Gzilt are proud of their Book of Truth because, unlike so many other culturally significant texts, theirs actually predicted many technological achievements. So, the Gzilt figured they were special, declined to join the Culture, and now they’re preparing to Sublime.
Sublimation allows a civilization to exist in a higher, largely incomprehensible dimension. No one understands exactly what it is, but a civilization’s people and AIs do leave our space for a better one. Some old Culture ships have returned from the Sublime and mathematicians can prove that it exists. Still, it’s a big step.
And if that’s not clear enough: sublimation is a big-sci-fi-idea that allows Banks to explore what it means to die, though Banks explores the concept from the point of view of a civilization rather than an individual. The twist is cool, and some of parallels are pretty funny. For example, when a civilization sublimes, it’s not uncommon for “Scavenger” species to come knocking in order to claim the civilization’s stuff. Others come to settle old scores or reveal uncomfortable truths about the past. Count the Zihdren-Remnant one of the latter.
The Zihdren civilization sublimed ages ago. However, there do remain some AIs and other people — the Zihdren-Remnant. Now, there are some indications that Zihdren planted the Book of Truth and possibly turned the Gzilt into an experiment. Clearly, the Gzilt need to settle what this rumor means for their civilization and for the rapidly approaching Sublimation.
Banks relies on Vyr Cossant, a musician, to ground this quest for the truth. Vyr is largely a disappointment to her mother; she has a familiar, Pyan, to keep her company; and she has four arms, two of which were surgically added to her body so that she could play the Eleven String, an unusual instrument that would allow her to fulfill her life task of playing “The Hydrogen Sonata.” She soon allies herself with Mistake Not…, a “razor-arsed starship,” and an android, Egyle Parinherm. Together, they seek QiRia, the oldest person in the galaxy. QiRia helped to create the Culture. Hopefully, he has retained memories that will sort everything out. However, Cossant is not the only party looking for QiRia.
Let the chase begin.
At first glance, Iain M. Banks’s The Hydrogen Sonata is a meditation on mortality. Much of the technology that Banks introduces here relates to memories, especially the memories of people that have seen a thing or two (or millions of things over thousands of years). Memories can be stored in one’s body parts, for example. Characters can back up their “mind-state” and then upload it into androids that, for all intents and purposes, become a second version of them. It might be immortality, but it might also mean one’s become redundant. In addition to Sublimation, Banks also suggests that Culture ships can enfold the consciousness of individual minds of their crews into their own Minds. So what does it mean to pass on in this technologically advanced context?
Then again, “meditation” might seem too sober a word for The Hydrogen Sonata. “Meditation” does not seem to capture the knife missiles and explosions, the orgies, or the humor present here. Much as I wanted to read The Hydrogen Sonata as a “serious book” about dying, it felt much easier to read it as an action/ adventure space opera built around some interesting ideas about dying.
Still, Banks does allow his sci-fi premise to lead us to interesting perspectives on life and death. QiRia, for example, seems like he might serve as a fount of wisdom, and, at times, he does say pretty cosmic stuff. Here is QiRia’s mind-state commenting on love and sex:
Some seem to require such … confirmation. My impression has always been that commitment to the act, its symbolism, is more important than the act itself, which, in its commission — or at least in the reflection upon it — tends to emphasise the differences between those involved rather than their similarities. I have done that sort of thing with males of my own species type, despite not having sexual feelings specifically for them. Sometimes it feels only polite.
QiRia has cosmic views on a variety of subjects, but he is not as warm or PG-13 in his wisdom as, say, Gandalf and Master Yoda. He remains a bit cantankerous, somewhat irreverent, and he is dismissive of responsibilities he feels he has no time for.
I often wondered to what extent Banks had created QiRia as a stand in for his own observations about aging and mortality. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to ask him, since Banks would die from gall bladder cancer a year after The Hydrogen Sonata was published. I did find that there’s a haunting quality to the novel that comes from its authorial context.
The Hydrogen Sonata is also the final novel of the CULTURE series, and it seems fitting that characters like QiRia and plot devices like Sublimation allowed Banks to explore both the beginning of the Culture and the end of the CULTURE in one work. So I certainly recommend this novel to prospective readers. Yes, The Hydrogen Sonata is a long novel — in fact, I managed to finish two or three shorter books while reading it. But while the plot and characters did not enthrall me, I did find many of the ideas here fascinating. The Hydrogen Sonata can be read without having already read the previous CULTURE novels; however, given that The Hydrogen Sonata works so well as a final entry in the series, it almost seems a shame to skip all of the previous entries.
I agree with Ryan on all points. This is a big-idea novel — something that Banks does so well. The book is a little too long and I can’t say I fell in love with the characters, but I enjoyed the thoughts provoked by The Hydrogen Sonata, especially the thoughts about what it might mean for a culture if their book of faith was just a hoax. This story is smart and, sometimes, hilarious.
When this book was in the used bookstore where I work, I procrastinated and lost my chance. Now I’ll have to get it from the library or new. Lesson learned.
I’ve had the audio version loaded up on my phone for a few weeks, now. I may start it this week. Just finished Consider Phlebas.
Have you read Banks’ Look to Windward? I thought book was also very focused on death, though with a heavy dose of guilt.
I have not read it, but knowing this makes it more likely I’ll try it out.
Good review, Ryan. I just finished The Hydrogen Sonata and agree with you on all points…. and I don’t think I’ll ever get the image of the guy with 53 penises out of my mind.
Yeah, I remember getting to that part and thinking “is it possible that I’m taking this book too seriously?”