The Hydrogen Sonata

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Your right. I saw it in a bookshop window today. Might give it a look if it is anything along the same lines as Transition, ie SciFi ish, while I await the paperback of hs.
 

oddhero

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I read an interview last year in which he was talking about only writing as IMB, as he could put out books more regularly. I think the implication was the sci-fi universe was still fertile ground, but there might have been a financial motivation, too.
 

Anthony G Williams

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My take on it, from my SFF blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy

The Hydrogen Sonata is the final SF novel by Iain M Banks, who died in 2013. It is therefore also the final novel set in the Culture, the utopian galactic civilisation which formed the basis of nine novels published over a span of twenty-five years, commencing with Consider Phlebas in 1987. Reviews of three of these have already appeared on this blog, and this is what I said in them about the Culture:

"…a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

The Hydrogen Sonata follows the story of Vyr Cossont, a young woman who belongs to the ancient Gzilt civilisation - which although not part of the Culture is almost as advanced. The population consists of what appears to be standard humanoids; although Cossont is different in that she has had two extra arms grafted on, to enable her to play a complex musical instrument made for one almost unplayable piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata.

The background to the story is that the Gzilt are shortly to Sublime - to leave the material universe en masse for an eternal existence in a kind of virtual afterlife. However, the Gzilt's plans are in danger of being disrupted by a threatened revelation that their Holy Book – which unlike all other such, contains predictions which have all come true, thereby giving the Gzilt the firm belief that they are superior to everyone else – was actually the result of meddling by a superior civilisation which sublimed long before this story began. This prompts a division in the Gzilt between those who are trying to discover the truth (aided by a bunch of interested spaceborne Culture Minds with the usual outlandish names and personalities) and those who are determined, at any cost, to stop the truth from emerging.

There are various side-plots including the contest between a couple of minor civilisations for the right to inherit everything that the Gzilt would be leaving behind, and the hunt to find the oldest known being who might even remember exactly what had happened concerning the Holy Book.

Like most of Banks's novels this is not easy to get into. It is difficult to understand what is happening at first (and for some time thereafter), but connections between several sub-plots slowly emerge like a drowned village from a draining reservoir. The number of Culture Minds is also confusing as it is initially hard to recall who's who – this is one book where it might be helpful to write down every name as it appears, together with a note about their place in the story. The author does include a list of characters right at the end of the book which might have reduced the need for this if only I had discovered it before I finished. As is usual in a Culture novel, the generally slow pace accelerates as it approaches the end, which features some spectacular combat scenes.

This is not the best of the Culture novels – for instance, it lacks the baroque inventiveness of Surface Detail or the fascinating shell-world of Matter – but it is very typical of the meandering but engaging Banks style, which enables readers to explore all sorts of odd details of his world. It is sad that the author died at such a young age, but in these novels he has left behind a magnificent contribution to modern SF.
 

Vince W

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Interesting review Anthony. I'd held onto The Hydrogen Sonata until just a couple of months ago. I agree, while not the best Culture book overall, it is still one of the best sci-fi novels of this decade.

I find it difficult to make absolute comparisons of the individual Culture books as they layer so well into the Culture universe as a whole. For me the only way to look at these books is as a great history of this fascinating universe. I regret greatly that we will never see any deeper into this world.
 

James

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Interesting review Anthony. I'd held onto The Hydrogen Sonata until just a couple of months ago. I agree, while not the best Culture book overall, it is still one of the best sci-fi novels of this decade.

I find it difficult to make absolute comparisons of the individual Culture books as they layer so well into the Culture universe as a whole. For me the only way to look at these books is as a great history of this fascinating universe. I regret greatly that we will never see any deeper into this world.
I wholeheartedly second your regret - although the plus side was that it helped me branch out and discover a bunch of new authors. While I'd do pretty much anything (ok, within reason) for more insights into Banks' mind concerning the Culture, I discovered there are also some other very good world/universe-builders out there.
 

Rodders

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I didn't pick this up when it came out originally, so I thought that I would get a hardback copy for my library. Unfortunately it arrived somewhat damaged. Very annoying. I have asked for a replacement.

The Hydrogen Sonata.jpg
 

Vince W

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That is disappointing. I should go back and get the Culture in hardback but I am quite pleased with my large softcover editions.
 

Vince W

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You make me want to work towards collecting signed first edition hardbacks.
 

Vince W

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It would. Only my pockets aren't deep enough for that. Time to start investing in lottery tickets.
 

Star-child

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I've picked up quite a few Banks hardcovers quite reasonably from Abebooks.com.
 

Rodders

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Thanks Starchild. I’ll try and pick up an I damaged copy there.
 

StilLearning

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I read this shortly after it came out, and after reading these reviews (thanks you one and all) I think I'll go have a second read of it. I am one of the fairly few who came away from Consider Phlebas' ending still feeling like maybe the Idirians were the more sympathetic side despite (because perhaps) of their many flaws as a society, so I kind of struggle with the Culture and its Minds sometimes, and I remember coming away from Hydrogen Sonata with a sense of frustration that the Culture basically just proves how wonderful it is compared to everyone else, yet again (I did overall enjoy it, as the Culture reliably does so in spectacular fashion).
 

Av Demeisen

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Current Orbit UK paperbacks are such poor quality that I started collecting pre-Surface Detail, my point of entry in 2010, Iain M. Banks in second hand hardcover almost immediately. The only Culture novel I don't have in (fine or near fine) first printing UK hardcover is Consider Phlebas (which I don't rate highly anyway). After Banks' death prices for signed copies often became unreasonably steep. I am happy with the signed copies I do have (Excession, Look to Windward, Matter), but wouldn't mind adding a few more.
 
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Venusian Broon

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..with a sense of frustration that the Culture basically just proves how wonderful it is compared to everyone else, yet again
I think the problem is that we're really only seeing a tiny part of the Culture in Bank's Culture novels, namely the minds that like dabbling in galactic politics, and they are (and know they are) powerful entities. We rarely see the average citizen of the Culture in an average situation, biological or otherwise. (We sort of do get glimpses, but it's 'ordinary' people put into extraordinary circumstances.)

However Banks was clear that the Culture is not the most powerful force in the universe and that loads of other levels above them - see Excession for example.
 

StilLearning

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I think the problem is that we're really only seeing a tiny part of the Culture in Bank's Culture novels, namely the minds that like dabbling in galactic politics, and they are (and know they are) powerful entities. We rarely see the average citizen of the Culture in an average situation, biological or otherwise. (We sort of do get glimpses, but it's 'ordinary' people put into extraordinary circumstances.)

However Banks was clear that the Culture is not the most powerful force in the universe and that loads of other levels above them - see Excession for example.
True, and Excession is one of my favourites partly because of that, but I still came away from Hydrogen Sonata feeling like I'd read a very finely wrought piece of Culture propaganda (Hello Grey Area)!
 

Av Demeisen

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That is disappointing. I should go back and get the Culture in hardback but I am quite pleased with my large softcover editions.
Vince, you're British, right? The current standard Orbit UK paperbacks are small size, except the trades that were sold instead of hardcovers for export (though hardcovers are available in the Netherlands as well). The US Orbit paperbacks are larger size. Do you mean you have a collection of US paperbacks?

I initially bought the US paperback of Against a Dark Background and was horrified to find they had converted the book to American spelling. It went straight into the trash. Might seem strange as I am not a native speaker, but I can't abide that nonsense.
 

Venusian Broon

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True, and Excession is one of my favourites partly because of that, but I still came away from Hydrogen Sonata feeling like I'd read a very finely wrought piece of Culture propaganda (Hello Grey Area)!
True! I get that vibe. There is an element of, however sticky a situation the protagonists get themselves into, the minds or Culture tech will always finick a way through with their powers (sonic screwdrivers or equivalent) to win.
 
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