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Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Orbit, 2012) is the ninth Culture novel. For the record, although there’s an internal chronology, it’s actually largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of individual books. You can more or less read them in any order and still understand what’s going on (and enjoy them, of course).


Most of the species in the Culture are humanoid but, even when they are insects, there’s a fairly pervasive laid-back quality about them all. Yes, some are militaristic and competitive, particularly when they are still relatively young, but in this galaxy where no-one ever experiences poverty or is denied the opportunity to work (if that’s desired), the active pursuit of individual satisfaction is the main dynamic. This means, for most practical purposes, the business of running the galaxy has been handed over to the Minds, the AIs who look after the shop while the native species play at being adults. They are a combination of quartermasters and police officers with powers comparable to the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome. As with those gods, the machines are capable of great deeds but equally capable of amazing disasters. They epitomise the old paradox that an AI may have access to a vast amount of knowledge but that does not, of itself, make the machines wise. They are just better informed when they fuck up.


This leads to a more general question. If a society claims to be liberal, how far will it go to defend the liberties of its citizens? The answer, of course, is that the AIs have a kind of militant agenda but they long ago decided they should apply a set of moral principles as a limit on their interventions. In a modern context, they are somewhat similar to the United Nations which is only allowed to act when there’s a consensus. But like the individual species, the Minds game the various political and practical systems, and often decide to intervene in real-world affairs simply because they are bored by just floating around not being involved. After all, sitting with all this fire-power at their virtual fingertips and never having the chance to pull the trigger is deeply frustrating. Even if only to satisfy themselves the guns are still working, they have to fire them every now and then.


In almost every society at some point during its development, religion becomes important. It reflects a need in those societies. Usually, it’s a way of fostering a greater sense of security. Fear can be reduced and happiness encouraged if the people form and maintain illusions about the benefits to come in the next life. As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. . . It is the opium of the people.” i.e. it’s a form of escapist fantasy that can relieve people who are in distress and/or take away their pain. Except, of course, if you take opium as a medication, it does not cure the injury causing the pain, and religion does not actually remove poverty in societies that often care little what happens to the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, societies that are heartless exploit religion as a distraction. Without it, there might be revolutions with the powerful deposed.


The Sublime is a different dimension to which individuals or, if desired, entire civilisations, can relocate. They end up in a state which we cannot understand, more or less out of contact with those who remain in current reality. One of the Minds who has been there and come back says very little about the experience, but describes being back in reality as an extreme form of asceticism. The Gzilt civilisation has a Book of Truth that, uniquely in the history of the galaxy’s religions, has been found an accurate prediction of events through time. As this civilisation prepares to enter the Sublime, a ship bearing information about the Book is destroyed. This suggests the possibility of a conspiracy and the AIs interest themselves in an investigation. In a parallel move on Gzilt, Vyr Cossont is called out of her retirement from military service where she’s trying to master the titular Hydrogen Sonata, and tasked to go off in search of an ancient survivor who may be able to shed light on how the Book of Truth came into existence.

Iain M Banks looking out at the world


Thematically, the book is about how we decide what represents personal fulfillment. The Hydrogen Sonata is a metaphor for the Sublime. Vyr is trying so hard to play an essentially unplayable piece of music, she’s even had an extra pair of arms added to give herself the best chance of being able to play it, note perfect. We can see this is only personal fulfillment because everyone with ears agrees the work has no intrinsic musical merit. Why then does she pursue this? A part of her motivation comes from having heard an Avatar of one of the AIs play it without error. At first this was demotivating. As merely a competent musician, she felt she could never hope to recapture the level of perfection achieved by a machine. But as she winds down her life in the real and prepares for the transition into the Sublime, the struggle to replicate that perfection gives her remaining days shape and meaning. She has heard perfection. Now she wants to get there through her unaided effort. This is an ironic endeavour because it’s essentially futile. There’s no-one around who will appreciate or understand the extent of the physical challenge to play the instrument, let alone enjoy the resulting performance.


If we now scale up to the Gzilt decision to enter the Sublime, the people could be seeing this as the next logical step in their progression to perfection. The Book of Truth has been guiding them but it has run out of predictions (or prophesies if you prefer). This silence in their holy book has been one of the factors moving the debate forward. If the Book says there’s nothing left for them to achieve in the real, it must be time to transition. But let’s hypothesise that the Book of Truth is a fake, perhaps sent by another race as a joke or some kind of social experiment. Would revelations of manipulation by another race affect the decision to transition? With only a few days left and the majority of the population already in storage to ensure everyone makes the transition at the same time, would the need to suppress this debate be a motive for murder? If so, it would be the final gesture of a heartless society that knowingly plans to move its people to a different dimension even though there’s no guarantee such a move will be an improvement on their “living” conditions. When they do relocate, the scavenger races will come to homestead on the now vacant planets and take such of the technology as they can understand. There’s no sense in letting all this good stuff go to waste. And then the final question: suppose the AIs find out the truth and the Book is a fake, do they tell the people? How far should the Minds go in interfering in the lives of a people that have decided to move on into the Sublime?


Hydrogen Sonata is not one of the best Culture novels but, ranking it against other science fiction books published this year, it’s still very good. In the main, this is due to the quality of the ideas which are outstanding. The problem comes in the more general lack of pace. Those of you who are Culture addicts will find a lot of new information to collate and enfold. But the ordinary reader is likely to find much of the information supplied is irrelevant to understanding the plot. It’s Culture background and not essential to advancing the story.


For other Culture novels, see:
Surface Detail.


This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.


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