The Hydrogen Sonata is the tenth Culture book by Iain M.Banks, joining the ranks of eight other novels and one short story collection. This latest Culture novel was just released this year, which marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of the first Culture novel.
This is one of those series that often leaves new readers confused about where to start, but each book is supposed to stand alone very well. The entire list of Culture books in publication order can be found on the author’s website (it’s at the very bottom of the page). Many people do recommend beginning with a book other than the first published, Consider Phlebas, since it’s generally not considered to be as good as the other books, and The Player of Games is often recommended as a decent place to start. This is where I started, but I’d suggest checking out this helpful overview of the series on Kirkus, which includes a general description for each book with the recommendation to just pick one that sounds interesting and start reading.
The Gzilt people are counting down they days until they will Sublime, leaving the Real behind and transcending to a new state of existence. With only twenty-three days remaining until the big event, Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont continues to attempt to complete her life task in the time that remains. Vyr’s chosen achievement is playing an extremely difficult piece of music perfectly from start to finish. T. C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata for an Instrument Yet To Be Invented, otherwise known as “The Hydrogen Sonata,” requires four arms to play properly on the instrument that was eventually invented for it—and is renowned both for its near impossibility to play and its rather unpleasant sound.
During one of her practice sessions, Vyr is visited by Commissar-Colonel Etalde, who informs her that she is being recommissioned for an emergency so secret he doesn’t even know what it is. Once she arrives at their destination and is briefed, Vyr learns that a visiting ship had a confession to share before the Gzilt left the Real behind: the Gzilt have been lied to and much of what they believed is not true. This message mentioned that a man by the name of QiRia would be able to verify its claim to be true. QiRia is quite possibly the oldest man alive at over nine thousand years old, and he was present for both the formation of the Culture and the Gzilt’s sudden decision not to join the Culture. Vyr met and befriended QiRia when she was an exchange student and was even given a copy of his mind state, though it’s no longer in her possession. Now she, her familiar Pyan, and an android who thinks it’s in a simulation are sent on a dangerous mission to discover what QiRia knows about the past of the Gzilt people, while some Culture Minds are doing some investigating of their own.
Banks has a very engaging writing style, and he has developed a fascinating universe in the Culture books. The Hydrogen Sonata is lighter (er, not literally, since it’s a bigger book) and less thoughtful than either of the other Culture books I have read, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons. While I preferred these other two books to The Hydrogen Sonata, it is also very enjoyable and reminded me that I need to read more of the Culture books.
The first 100 – 150 pages of The Hydrogen Sonata were fantastic. The opening chapter describing the confrontation between the Gzilt ship and the alien ship bearing unfortunate news to the Gzilt was very intriguing, and I very much enjoy Banks’s writing style imbued with a sharp, intelligent sense of humor and images such as these:
The Gzilt ship dwarfed the alien one; it looked like a thousand dark broadswords gathered into a god’s fist and brandished at the skies. [pp. 2]
At times, there is a tendency toward overlong sentences; for instance, the sentence immediately after that is about 8 lines long and there were a few others I had to stop and read a couple of times due to their length. There were also quite a bit of infodumps, but this is a case where they did not bother me in the least. In fact, these were some of my favorite parts of the book since I found the details of the Gzilt civilization and their religious book, other civilizations, Subliming, and the Simming Problem fascinating. The Culture books have grand science fiction ideas, and I love how they show the vastness of space and possible societies. The ones in this particular book are not necessarily original science fiction ideas with the hodge-podge of AIs, downloadable people who can live on once the body has died, and ship avatars, but they’re still very compelling and fleshed out well, particularly when combined with the inner workings of the different people involved.
The Gzilt society and their problem was a great setup. I found myself really eager to see where it all went and a little disappointed with the middle section of the book, which often seemed rather unfocused to me. First of all, the book bounced around from character to character a lot. Vyr, various Culture Minds, a Gzilt government official, QiRia’s former lover Tefwe, and more receive some focus in the book. This allowed for some interesting insights, but there were a couple of viewpoints that seemed at least somewhat unnecessary (or at the very least like they could have been shorter). The second problem was that the search for QiRia dragged on for so long that I did find myself often just wishing SOMEBODY would just find him already so I could find out what was going on. Vyr’s frequent flashbacks to conversations with him were really interesting, and I just wanted to meet him and find out what he knew instead of spending so much time reading about people trying to figure out what he knew.
Toward the end was very action-packed and exciting, but the conclusion seemed a bit hastily explained and was a bit of a letdown since not much was learned that hadn’t already been speculated about. After so many pages were spent on the importance of QiRia’s information, I was expecting to discover much bigger and better things by the end than were in fact revealed.
That probably makes it sound like I didn’t like this book very much, but that’s very far from the truth. Books can be weird. Sometimes I read one that I can’t see many flaws with, but it doesn’t gel with me for some reason. Other times, I read books I think are flawed, yet I still really enjoy reading them. The Hydrogen Sonata falls into the latter category. Despite the meandering plot and lackluster resolution, the writing, the frequent amusing lines and dialogue, and the details of the universe kept me turning the pages. While I do think the other two Culture books I’ve read are better, I still finished this book feeling like it was time well spent.
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.
Other Reviews of The Hydrogen Sonata:
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