The prospect of a new Culture novel by Iain M. Banks will always produce tingles of anticipatory pleasure. There’s a reason for that. Peerless writing competes with exquisite humour as well as an imagination that quite frankly risks expanding one’s brain to such an extent there is a chance of it exploding within one’s head. A risk well worth taking. I am still a novice in Culture-terms but I aspire to be experienced enough to know when Banks achieves greatness, as he did with Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. I had hopes, then, for The Hydrogen Sonata.
It begins so well. Two ships, or Minds, conduct a polite argument above the planetary fragment of Ablate, a territory belonging to the Gzilt civilisation. The Gzilt are progressing through the final days of their countdown towards becoming Sublime. Like countless advanced civilisations before them, they are ready to abandon reality and take that final step into a dimension from which few have returned and little is known – except that it has eighteen different types of weather. The argument between the two ships results in the destruction of one, shortly followed by an attack on the high command of Gzlit. The reason confounds everyone but it appears that it may concern their Book of Truth. Faith itself is under attack, the path to the Sublime.
Meanwhile, our heroine Cossant practices ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ or ‘T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented’. It’s not known whether it’s possible to play it at all with only one pair of hands but Cossant works at her goal to perfect her performance before she crosses into the Sublime. But, as she becomes caught up in the attacks on Gzilt, the last state of emotion that springs to mind is ‘Sublime’.
One of the great pleasures of Banks’ Culture novels is his presentation of the ships and their Minds, often fantastically made real through avatars that walk and talk and react alongside more conventional humanoids. In The Hydrogen Sonata they play a major part and I would argue that they are its success. Their dialogue is often hilarious, their names just as much so, and their manifestations are both eccentric and strangely loveable. Alongside this we have set pieces or scenes that are gobsmacking – the party that lasts for years on an airship hosted by a man with fifty plus penises, each seeking attention on almost every limb. The fact that he is served by someone with a bowl of soup for a face also caught my attention. There are descriptions of empty worlds, imagined castles, poignant scenes of love, and banter, lots of banter, between humans, androids, avatars and ships.
The depth and vision of The Hydrogen Sonata is extraordinary and there are chapters which are utterly compelling and very memorable. However, for me, this was ironically the difficulty with the novel. The parts are greater than the whole; episodes and scenes are more fascinating than the story; fleeting encounters are more intriguing than the main characters. I found myself with the sense that Banks enjoyed writing the scenes that I loved a lot more than he did the plotting chapters. The plot itself is relatively insubstantial and, I thought, tedious. Bits along the way, though, are the very contrary of that. The urge to skip sections was far too powerful for my liking when I’m reading a novel that should ideally work evenly to keep my attention.
I would argue that this should not be your first experience of the Culture universe – that acclaim belongs to Consider Phlebas – but there are passages and elements here that will delight fans of Banks’ superb prose. Surely no-one can do better ships and those created here would be very hard to beat. So, if you’re a Culture fan, I would recommend that you read this for the the moments that will enthrall and entertain you. The rest you will forget.