Monday, December 17, 2012

Iain M. Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata

One of the great things about Iain M. Banks' Culture novels is the way that they explore what might happen in a society that has essentially left all of it worries behind. When hunger, racism and poverty are things of the past, and war is only waged to defend society from external threat, what might people do? As a result of these thought experiments, many of Banks' characters have been great artists, sexual experimenters or musicians of note. His other characters, the ship Minds with their wonderful self-descriptive names, often seem to spend their time in abstract thought, scientific study or political machinations.

Of the later, the intervention in other civilisations is the most difficult and dangerous. Hydrogen Sonata in fact deals with the collaborative intervention in a society almost as old as the Culture. Unlike the Culture though, the Gzilt have collectively decided to 'Sublime' joining a sort of extra-dimensional group consciousness. However a few days before this happens a piece of evidence turns up that seems to indicate that much of what makes the Gzilt, well the Gzilt is based on a lie.

Culture Ships intervene to try and sort out the mess that occurs as various Gzilt government factions start bumping each other off to protect their interests. Much of the novel then is a Galactic chase as the Culture ship Mistake, Not takes the novel's heroine Vyr Cossont on a tour of planetary systems to try and find the truth out. If we're honest lots of the scenarios are the author playing around with ideas. Banks' highly advanced, post-scarcity societies like the Gzilt and Culture give their peoples the opportunity to experiment with themselves. So many of his characters have extra limbs (though in one case, an important figure has 59 of a special limb that means he needs extra hearts to keep the blood pressure up).

Banks' experiments with ideas and people like this work, precisely because the Culture works. But actually people matter little in this novel. What is really important are the ship Minds (the real force behind the Culture) and the societies themselves. Rather like many historic depictions of Utopia (William Morris' News from Nowhere springs to mind) what matters is less the story than the stage. Our wonder comes from imagining how things "might be".

That said, this is a rollickingly enjoyable adventure. Its action packed, funny and trimmed of any excess fat. A great work of escapism that makes the reader think too. Can't recommend it highly enough.

Related Reviews

Banks - Surface Detail
Banks - Against A Dark Background
Banks - Matter

1 comment:

Climate and Capitalism said...

I enjoyed Hydrogen Sonata, altho I didn't think it was up to the standard of previous Culture novels where the social implications of intervening in other societies were more central to the story. This one was more fun, but not as thought-provoking.

Ian Angus