The Hydrogen Sonata
By Iain M. Banks
First Published: 2012
Review © 2013 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera
The Hydrogen Sonata is a new science fiction novel from Iain M. Banks that takes place in his “Culture” universe. In this novel, the Gilz civilization has reached the final stage of maturity and is ready to “Sublime” leaving reality behind. Representative ships from the Culture are deployed to the area to observe and to keep order after the Gilz leave when scavengers are expected to swoop in to divide up the leftovers of a highly advanced civilization. With only a few weeks to go, sudden strange events occur that indicate the subliming process may not be as smooth as anticipated or as widely supported as everyone thought. The highly advanced “minds” of the culture ships are intrigued and decide to do some of their own behind the scenes investigations.
The Hydrogen Sonata is mostly a light hearted space opera in the form of a spy thriller where the participants are highly advanced AIs and members of the Gilz civilization. The story is kicked off when the remnants of the last civilization to “Sublime” in the local area attempt to send a last minute message to the Gilz only to see the message and the messenger destroyed completely. A Culture ship receives information that the destroyed message was related to the holy book of the Gilz, the Book of Truth. The people of the Gilz are justifiably proud of their Book of Truth because of all the holy books in the universe, it’s the only one to have stood the tests of time in regards to having all the predictions in the book come true. The Gilz are also one of the many civilizations that helped form the alliance that resulted in the formation of the Culture but at the last minute they declined to join the culture. Many believe that this decision was made primarily because of their strong beliefs in their pre-destination due to the Book of Truth.
Representatives of the Culture are always interested in finding out more about what it means for a civilization to Sublime. This, in combination with the intriguing message from one civilization that had already sublimed to another about to sublime proves too enticing for the more curious Culture Ships to resist.
The novel is told from many different points of view as the narrative jumps from the Culture ship AIs to Gilz citizens, to Culture citizens and even to the scavenger aliens. Some of the most powerful Gilz leaders seem to be willing to do anything to keep the message regarding their Book of Truth buried at any cost. A young Gilz woman named Cossont is the main protagonist and she is working hard to finish her life work before the Subliming. When she gets suddenly recalled to active military duty, she is almost relieved until she finds death and destruction all around her.
Once again, Banks has created a number of interesting characters. The Culture ship AIs have distinctive characters with most exhibiting plenty of wit and humor. Cossont is an every woman who has problems dealing with her mother. An android has a programming glitch that makes him think he is only in a simulation and not in real life which provides for some good laughs when the danger becomes very real for all those around him. The major bad guy is a powerful bureaucrat who is obsessed with maintaining his power and ensuring that his plans are carried out the way he wants.
The Hydrogen Sonata starts off a bit slow and confusing as the many characters are introduced and some of the backgrounds are outlined. There are also some slow spots as the story involves some long quests for information. However, as the Culture gets closer to uncovering what’s going on, the Gilz military gets more involved and doesn’t hesitate to use maximum force which leads to some fast and furious action scenes.
This novel is generally lighter in tone than most of Banks novels I’ve read. Other than plenty of colorful language, it’s appropriate for all ages. The Hydrogen Sonata provides lots of solid entertainment so I would recommend it for anyone who has enjoyed other novels in the Culture series.