The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2012)

(Science Fiction, Space Opera, Espionage, Thriller, Identity)

HydrogenSonata_UK9Grade: Δˡ — (Delta Prime) A good read, but only if you like the genre (or subgenre).

In brief:

The Hydrogen Sonata is not Iain M. Banks‘ best book, but is a good read for any fan of his Culture series.  I suspect, however, that it won’t appeal to people who are not at least somewhat familiar with the Culture and will likely have no appeal to individuals who don’t like Science Fiction.


The Culture Universe, a post-need world of super ultratech where pan-galactic travel exists, AI have evolved to such a degree that they are far more intelligent and evolved that humans, and multiple humanoid and non humanoid species coexists.

In Depth:

The Hydrogen Sonata is not Iain M. Banks’ best book.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, it was a good read that gives you something more to think about than the story alone, but despite the fact it was better than most other books out there, it didn’t rise to the dizzy heights of some of his earlier works.  What is more, while most of Banks’ previous Culture novels can be read in any order, I suspect this book will only appeal to those who are already fans of the Culture series.

The plot, in essence, focuses on the Gzilt, a humanoid species of reptilian origin[1] who were deeply involved in the set up of the Culture, but for reasons that come out in this book, never joined the multi-species humanoid/Mind anarchic commune that serves as the axis of many of Banks’ best novels. The book opens twenty-four days before the Gzilt are intending to Sublime. For those of you who aren’t fully versed with Banks’ Culture Universe, subliming is a process by which a whole civilization transcends their existence through technological means. In this novel we discover that the process involves transferring one’s entire society to a transdimensional state involving a large number of the higher dimensions.[2]

To enter the Sublime is, reportedly, to enter a state of such blissful contentment and euphoric intellectual engagement that there is no way to describe its nature to those who have not Sublimed.  What is more, while they occasionally send back messages, societies never return from that supposed nirvana like pan-dimensional state. As a result, one only has rumors to go on as to what it’s like.[3]

IBanks_GQ_09Nov12_RayCharlesRedman_b_642x390As already mentioned, the story opens twenty-four days before the big event, when a Gzilt ship unexpectedly destroys the ship of a friendly society,[4] and soon a deep conspiracy that threatens to endanger the entire Subliming process begins to unfold.  At the center of this conspiracy is a young Gzilt musician named Cossont, who has no idea about the events into which she is quickly pulled.  Indeed, all she wants to do is perform her life-quest: to properly play once through a musical piece called T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, better known as the Hydrogen Sonata – though she has come to resent this decision.  Instead, Cossont finds herself drawn into deadly plots and desperate actions as she, and a series of ships from the Culture, try to discover exactly what the hell is going on.

Writing this description, the set up sound quite interesting, and in many ways it is. Yet, as a whole, the book was not quite what it could have been.  Some parts were brilliant, others good, but… well, let’s start with what didn’t work for me.

Hard as it is for me to say, one of the biggest problems I had with this book was with the Ships. The Culture’s Ships have long been the most outstanding part of the Culture Universe; hyper-intelligent, quasi capricious and far more capable than any human (or humanoid), the Minds that run the Culture are usually the highpoint of any book in this series.  Unfortunately, in recent novels, particularly in this and his last volume (Surface Details), the ships have not only stolen the show, they have eclipsed the story-arch.

Iain-M-Banks-near-his-hom-007In Surface Details one ship effectively kicks ass all over the book and demonstrates that really, the Culture has no rivals.  In Hydrogen Sonata it is not just the ship, but the ship’s avatar (a humanoid style body loaded with some of the mind-state of the ship and capable of being run either as a puppet or autonomously) that shows off its superhuman abilities.  Oh, there are some touch and go moments, but despite the fact that the Culture is supposed to be up against a more-or-less equivalent technology society for the first time since Consider Phlebas, I never really had much doubt that the ships involved in this scenario were going to pull it off.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some major setbacks and at least one significant defeat (of a level I haven’t seen the Culture face in a long time), but all the same, I always knew that when the shit hit the fan, the ships would have some super-ability card that they would throw on the table.  It was, in effect, like watching one of the Roger Moore James Bond adventures… there was always a smirk on his face because we all know Bond owns the script writers.  A bit like watching/reading a Superman story – even if there’s kryptonite involved, you know he’ll pull it off.

Yet, what bothered me more, and in fact has been bothering me quite a bit in Banks’ recent novels, is that the alien cultures just don’t seem alien.  In this case it is the Gzilt.  Yes, we know that Banks uses a panspermian background to explain why there are so many human-like aliens in the universe, but even given this, there should be a greater divide in species behaviors and motivations.  While I have been able to shove this to the back of my anthropological mind for some time, The Hydrogen Sonata had several scenes that brought this to the forefront.

In particular, there is one scene in which Cossont, our Point-of-View Gzilt who serves as our window into the world and the only really sympathetic humanoid in the book, is having a conversation with a man from the Culture about trans-species attraction: specifically between the two of them. In this scene we are reminded that the Gzilt are descended from a reptilian stock that evolved into a humanoid species and that therefore she does not have breasts. Now, while this does make for an interesting exchange, it also broke the suspension of my disbelief.

Why?  Well, whereas I could imagine a great deal of similarity between elements of human and any non-human cultures, I can’t get over the fact that there should be a significant element of cultural disparity as well.  When Banks’ points out the lack of breasts on Cossont, he does it in a manner that plays to the sexual mindset of each character, and yet such a basic physiological difference has far more significant ramifications than sex.  If humans have key elements of their psyche influenced by breast feeding, imagine how different the core psyche of a species in which breast feeding does not occur would be?

the-hydrogen-sonataIn this case, clearly Gzilt infants do not drink milk.  Ignoring for a moment whether or not that would affect the domestication of animals and thus their attitudes towards trans-species relations, what does that imply about how infants ARE fed? Using reptiles as a model, do the adults regurgitate food for their children?  What would the logical social implications of this be?  How would that affect, say, greetings between friends?  What about social cohesion groups?  Would it be more like flocks of birds? What about elements of social dominance? How would that effect group dynamics and social hierarchies?  Would they be more rigid or less so? Etc. etc. etc.

Instead of being introduced to a truly alien species with cultural differences that evolve out of the difference in basic physiology, we get a culture that is effectively just like ours.  Indeed, the only difference we seem to get between the reptilian Gzilt and the more mammalian dominated Culture[5] is that the Gzilt have grey skin and no breasts.  A bit disappointing from a man with a vivid an imagination as Banks.

And yet, despite these, and a few other faults with the book, The Hydrogen Sonata remains a really enjoyable read.  Banks throws in a huge variety of cool-ass-shit, including the “elevenstring” instrument (which has more than eleven strings) upon which the eponymous musical piece is played, and some amazing ‘big-dumb-objects’ that show just how grand a scale the author’s mind works at.

Yet more than this are the thematic layers which the book focuses on.  After all, this is a book about transcending the world we live in, regardless of the morality of the individuals involved.  When examined in light of his previous novel, Surface Details, this book takes on far more significance and is, in fact, far more enjoyable.[6]  In that book we examine the concepts of a technologically created hell, and the morality of the concept of hell in the first place.  In this book, we examine a technologically achieved nirvanic heaven, and thus the ability to reach such a state without the need for moral behavior.

Much of the book seems to focus on amoral (not necessarily immoral – though there’s some of that too) behavior inspired by the upcoming Sublime. Some individuals become obsessed with personal glory, while others engage is heinously hedonistic behavior.  Others, such as our central POV character Cossont, engage in the completion of a life quest, despite the apparently begrudging way she goes about trying to fulfill it.  To that end, we look not just upon the concept of a society on the verge of an apocalypse (albeit a benign one), we glimpse individuals’ responses to their immanent demise.[7]

There is also an interesting element of the inevitability of it all that is shown in this book.  Unlike most of his Culture series, this book does NOT include Contact or Special Circumstances.  In fact, it could have been called “Amateur Hour” just as readily as The Hydrogen Sonata.  The very non-involved nature of the book, in fact, speaks volumes, but to say more would be spoilerific.

So, in conclusion, the book was really very good on a number of levels, and I feel that any fan of the Culture series will enjoy it, though not as much as some of his other books.  Yet, I feel that one really needs to have read most, if not all of his pre-Look to Windward volumes to really get the most out of this book, and that both this and Surface Details might be best enjoyed if read in tandem (though any order will do).

Furthermore, I long for Banks to really put the Culture up against a real threat.  In this book, they do face an equivalent technological society, but you don’t really get the sense that anyone is going to war over the events in the tale. That is, in a sense, part of the point of the book.

HydrogenSonata_ 615Thus, it’s been since Excession that we’ve seen a real threat to the Culture, and it is about time that we see that sort of escalation again… or… better yet, I’d love to see another non-Culture book out of Banks.  Though I love the Culture series, and The Use of Weapons is one of my all time favorite books ever, I also loved Feersum Endjinn and The Algebraist.  Perhaps a break from the Culture is needed.


Didn’t listen to it, but I understand it is truly grand and overcomes some of Banks’ slightly too long and too convoluted sentences.

[1] Though effectively they are now grey skinned humans without mammary glands. I’ll get into this later.

[2] This process requires nearly the entire society to participate, though ships with minds, or mind-like abilities, can apparently do it alone.

[3] At this point, you may pick up on why I think this book won’t appeal to readers who are not already fairly well versed with Banks’ Culture novels.  Just to discuss the set up requires a fairly large prologue.

[4] Indeed, more than just friendly, it is a society that had heavily influenced the Gzilt through its development.

[5] It is noted both in this book, and elsewhere in the series, that the Culture is a mélange of different species, most if not all of which are human-like in nature.

[6] Indeed, the reverse is also true and Surface Details is also more enjoyable after having read this book.

[7] Indeed, I hope that Mr. Banks is not telling us something about his health in this.  I am going to pretend that instead, his views are based upon someone who has achieved such fame that he can write anything with the word Culture on it and guarantee millions of volumes will be sold… and that the begrudged elevenstring is a symbol for the Culture in his own life…

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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2 Responses to The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks (Orbit, 2012)

  1. William says:

    Been meaning to check out some of Iain Banks’s “Culture” series. Any idea where I should start?

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Personally, I would start with “Player of Games”, simply because its the shortest of the books and gives the best intro to the Culture itself. That will give you a good idea if you like the universe. After that, you can read them in any order up to Look to Windward. I would read the others before Look To Windward, and then read them in the order they were published.

      My personal favorite is Use of Weapons, but the others are very good. The Algebraist is NOT Culture, but is a very good read.

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