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The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

HydrogenSonataThe Hydrogen Sonata is the final Culture novel by Iain Banks, and it ends up being an oddly appropriate finale. This one is all about Sublimation, which is the process by which certain advanced civilizations remove themselves from physical reality into some kind of mysterious non-physical dimension, perhaps akin to hyperspace. This is described as a completely natural (not supernatural) process, but it has a lot of resonance with ideas of the afterlife or heaven or the Faerie otherworld. It is effectively a way to move beyond the mortality that Banks finally succumbed to this year.

There are ways in which the final three Culture novels (Matter and Surface Detail are the previous two) felt very similar structurally. They have multiple viewpoint characters, some that we follow all the way through the story and some that only occupy a small part. There's a villainous type who is Machiavellian and a sexual predator. Tension ramps up slowly until there's a sudden burst of violent action at the end. Throughout all this are witty essays about all manner of miracles and marvels in the far flung future. I found Surface Detail disappointing in the end because I felt Banks failed to satisfactorily resolve all the storylines he was following. Matt Hilliard seems to feel the problem with all the later Culture novels is that the humanoid characters are basically irrelevant, because the Culture Minds (the artificial intelligences that actually run things) are so much more powerful. But for me Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata are pretty much completely successful, even though it's true that especially in the case of The Hydrogen Sonata the humanoid actors are largely irrelevant. One might say that humanoid irrelevance is in fact driving the Gzilt civilization to Sublimation. Sublimation may be the final answer to the question hovering over all these novels: What do do when you've done it all and have everything? What is the point of life?

The other interesting thing that The Hydrogen Sonata does that's related to this question is take us back to the origins of the Culture. I can't remember that Banks has dealt much with the origin of the Culture in previous novels, although I think he's written about it in essays about the Culture. In any event, we discover that there's at least one humanoid who has been alive since the founding of the Culture, which was ten thousand years in the past of this novel. Nobody can quite believe it's true, because it's assumed that all humanoids choose to die after about four hundred years or so. Nobody can quite believe that any humanoid could find something to keep themselves occupied and entertained for ten thousand years. Banks' portrait of the man who has done so is quite fascinating in itself, even though he is basically a secondary character. There's also a tangent about a woman who exists as a dormant recording of herself that is only activated when she's needed for something -- in this case, to track down the ten-thousand-year-old, with whom she was friends a couple of hundred years previously. Here is another solution to the problem of what to do with yourself when you are effectively immortal: hibernate.

The title of the novel is a reference to another type of solution to what might be called The Problem of Boredom. "The Hydrogen Sonata" is a piece of music composed as a sort of joke or test or enigma. It is composed for an instrument that was designed especially for the composition and that's impossible to play without body modifications. It's nearly impossible to play even if you have the body modifications, and the resulting "music" is something that no audience really wants to listen to. The only reason to play it is to demonstrate that you can. It's something to do -- a challenge to surmount -- and it's something you do for yourself, as a form of discipline and focus and engagement. It advances no other cause, aesthetic or otherwise. That's the ultimate dark truth of the Culture series: There is no reason to live other than the reasons we give ourselves. Other than that it's all sound and fury signifying nothing.

In this novel, everybody has their reasons, but the reasons don't ultimately mean anything. Yet Banks still finds room for the sublime -- the wondrous, the awesome -- in this universe (or at least within reach of this universe). There is still that which surpasseth understanding, even for the fantastically intelligent Minds, one of whom we meet who has Sublimed and then returned to the physical universe, unable to describe what it's like on the other side or why it returned. In that sense of something beyond the edge of the world we know -- beyond reason and reasons -- Banks perhaps finally locates a mystery to keep wonder alive.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 8th, 2014 04:48 am (UTC)
Really intriguing review. But then I always think Culture reviews sound great when in fact I dont appear to actually enjoy reading them..
Jan. 8th, 2014 03:57 pm (UTC)
If it's space opera or military fiction you don't like, I doubt you'd like this any better than the others. Have you ever tried Inversions? It reads like more of a medieval fantasy or novel of court intrigue, with no explicit mention of the Culture and told from the point of view of people who have no idea that the Culture exists. John Berry and Claire have both said that it was the first Culture novel they read, which you would think would be the absolutely wrong way to enter that universe, but apparently it works just fine even if you don't know about the Culture yourself.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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