Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

The Hydrogen Sonata The Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks

Supplied for review by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed By: John Toon

The 'Hydrogen Sonata' is an atonal musical composition legendary for its difficulty, considered worthy but of no actual merit except as a technical exercise. It's also suggested not too far into the novel that the composer, in truth no great lover of atonal music, created it as a joke. The Book of Truth is the Gzilt holy text, unusual in that it contains much information of genuine scientific value, as a result of which the Gzilt have taken very seriously its claims that they among all the species in the galaxy have a special destiny. It's this special destiny that led them to stay apart from the Culture, which they helped to found several thousand years earlier, and which now leads them to consider Subliming - passing from the physical universe into the higher dimensions beyond. The potential revelation that the Book of Truth was created by their patron civilisation, the Zihdren, as a joke threatens to undermine the whole undertaking. A murderous cover-up ensues.

There was a time when Iain Banks could tell a story in half as many pages as he takes nowadays. There was a time when he could open a book with a punchy one-liner, rather than with a sprawling run-on sentence that meanders on for several lines. But leaving aside general gripes about the activity (or lack of activity) of Mr Banks' editor these days, this is a good book. In fact, I think it's his best since he took that sabbatical around 2000/2001. Most of his novels since then have either had good stories or been well written, but not both - The Hydrogen Sonata achieves the double feat. The plotting is focussed and the prose, barring a few ruminative passages that could have been trimmed, justifies the page count. Importantly, it's also a lot of fun - the Culture novels, as far as I'm concerned, are all about the fun, and this book is jam-packed with whimsical concepts that ought to set the reader's sense of wonder a-tingling. It's a bit like reading a more layered follow-up to Excession.

As with Excession, Culture Ship Minds play a large part in the proceedings. The hero of the story ends up being not Vyr Cossont, the humanoid protagonist, but the Erratic-class ship Mistake Not, an intrepid secret agent among spaceships. Vyr tags along with the Mistake Not's avatar, but it rarely feels as if her presence is necessary or significant. There's a faint hint of 'Boys' Own' in the air.

The one big objection that I think might be raised against the book is that the stakes are so small, or rather that so much effort is expended and so much destruction caused for the sake of so little. The last-minute power-grabbing of politicians and the wanton carnage caused by senior military personnel won't matter to anyone once the Gzilt have Sublimed and been changed beyond recognition. The only danger is that if the Zihdren's secret is revealed, the Subliming might be delayed pending further investigation, but then the big reveal was planned to happen so late in the day as to duck this whole problem anyway, and the impact of the cover-up itself seems more likely to jeopardise the Subliming. It looks as if all the fighting and running around is completely pointless, but I think perhaps this is Banks' message. The theme of futility extends to Vyr's choice of concert piece, referenced in the title itself, which suggests a point is being made here. The Culture Minds themselves comment on the fact that they're going to excessive lengths to confirm a trifling and already widely held suspicion. Still, they're powerful, long-lived and prone to boredom, and need the diversion, so in a sense they have an excuse; the crooked leaders of the Gzilt have no excuse for their actions.

A fine offering from Banks, and a welcome one after the last few. Now if he could just settle his differences with that editor...

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