The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks
|The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks|
|Genre: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: The sentient Culture ships feature more heavily than in many of this series of space operas, with the usual wit and sarcasm. Highly entertaining although not the best in the series by some distance.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 517||Date: September 2012|
|External links: Author's website|
It's 25 years since Iain M Banks introduced us to the utopian Culture series of sci fi adventure books and The Hydrogen Sonata is the 13th in the series. One thing Banks does particularly well is to make his books completely accessible as stand alones, explaining the concept afresh each time without going over old ground for long time fans, of which there are many. In many ways, this is a good introduction for those who have yet to discover the joys of this excellent series because it's far more linear than some. He sometimes leaves even hardened Culture addicts struggling to work out what's going on with alternative realities before bringing them together, but there's little of that here.
At his best, Banks brings exciting plots, dry and sarcastic humour and thoughtful observations of a socio-political nature about how civilizations manage themselves and about faith in particular as well as looking at the benefits and losses of progress. All of those ingredients are here, with the main theme, following on from his last book in the series Surface Detail which was concerned with what we might term hell, turning to something he's addressed before - the 'sublimation' of a civilization, the Gzilt, whereby they leave the real world in exchange for immateriality. Heaven if you like.
Naturally this is a momentous event as a whole civilization ends its existence leading to partying before hand and scavenging for the technical advances afterwards. When a secret revelation threatens this process, self-interest and war aren't far behind.
And yet for all that, it left me less enthusiastic than I was expecting and it's not, for me, the best of the series. In fairness people will debate strongly which book they like the best and the first one they read will often sit fairly high up on the list and it depends a bit on which aspect of the books appeals to you most. What's strange is that one of the things I love most about the books is the humour of the sentient ships and there's a lot of that here. In fact, the Culture ships feature rather more strongly than the often do in the books. While they do offer all the usual dry sarcasm we have come to expect from them, and many come with some terrific names (although even here they are less imaginative than usual), something just didn't seem right with the overall balance.
Perhaps it's relative lack of 'human' (bio is a better word) characters to contrast with and perhaps it's just that the story isn't quite as exciting as usual. In fact, it's all a little predictable how things are going to work out. It's a very enjoyable book, as ever with Iain M Banks, but it just didn't have that 'I cannot put this book down' quality that he often evokes.
There's still much to enjoy though. The title itself relates to one of the few bios who is trying to complete a piece of music perfectly before she undergoes the sublimation. Popularly known as The Hydrogen Sonata, its full name is TC Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented. If that's your type of humour, you will very much enjoy the Culture series.
It's far from an unlucky 13th for the reader. It's rather like the different between a Kit Kat Chunky and the traditional one. All the ingredients are the same and it tastes good, but somehow the ratio of components just isn't quite right somehow. Despite the theme, it isn't quite 'sublime', although few do space opera better than Banks.
Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Orbit for sending us this book.
A less intellectual but no less entertaining sci fi novel that fans of this type of humour will appreciate is Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt.
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