Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

T.C. Vilabier’s 26-th String Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalog number MW1211 (a.k.a. "The Hydrogen Sonata"), is best played on an instrument informally called the antagonistic elevenstring, which ideally requires the player to have four arms and sit inside the cavity of the instrument itself.  One of the protagonists of this novel has had the extra arms fitted so that she can try to get through the piece, which is notorious for its complexity and also for being thoroughly unpleasant to actually listen to.  Incidentially, the elevenstring has more than eleven strings.  So that’s the sort of thing we’re dealing with here.

If you’re not familiar with the Culture series by Banks, then this being the tenth volume in said series may not be the best place to start.  If you are familiar with it, then this one will probably be pleasant enough, but somewhat more insubstantial than some of his other works.

The Culture novels have always been somewhat unique in their actual epic scale.  A lot of ostensible galaxy-spanning empires in fiction seem to have a relatively small cast of characters which actually accomplish everything which needs doing.  In contrast, the Culture is so vast that even if events are referenced from earlier novels, there tends not to be any overlap in personnel.  In fact the galaxy is so big that not even the alien species show up more than once or twice, so it’s not a Federation vs. Klingons kind of thing – each book can introduce whole new problems that you’ve never even heard of before since there’s just so much there.  In terms of continuity, this one takes place sometime after Excession and probably sometime before Surface Detail (they mention needing a Contact section which is actually in existence in Surface Detail).

The focus of this novel is on Sublimation, the ultimate end state of most advanced civilizations in Banks’ work, wherein they withdraw from the physical universe we’re familiar with and hang out in higher order dimensions.  For all intents and purposes it’s a one way trip.  The very, very few entities that do come back find themselves somewhat limited in what they are able to convey about it, but apparently no one ever suggests that it’s a bad idea to go.  The Culture is highly suspicious about the whole thing, and it’s not them talking about taking this trip; in this case it is the Gzilt, a humanoid civilization that was actually one of the founding members of the Culture but didn’t join in at the last minute.  The reason that the Culture has been down on the idea is that it smacks of coercion; as we discover in this one when a species decides to Sublime it's all over in about an hour after the process begins.  The Gzilt have set a time to departure, and they're wrapping up what matters they have left to tend to in the span they have remaining (about three weeks).

In terms of plot structure, this one reminded me a lot of Excession.  There’s the cabal of Minds that comes together as an ad-hoc committee to try and solve a potentially high-profile problem (although this cabal is not quite as aggressive or murderous).  And let me say that the reason I can’t entirely get behind this book is because of the fact that I considered this story, somewhat like Excession, to be kind of a shaggy dog tale.

I won’t spoil the secret, because that would be unfair.  Suffice to say that there is a bit of information out there related to the Gzilt that some of their high-ranking members don’t want known, and will go to pretty extreme lengths to conceal, especially just before the Sublimation.  Nonetheless, both the reader and most of the Culture characters have a pretty good idea what the secret is right from the very beginning.  When the wild goose chase gets especially frustrating about halfway through, the Minds that are working on the problem actually have a vote as to whether it’s actually worth even trying to figure out the mystery anymore, or if they should just assume they know the score and go back to what they were doing beforehand.  The vote comes pretty close to passing.  Towards the very end they have another vote regarding whether they should actually make use of what they’d learned or not, and that one sort of sums up what they actually accomplished here.  When even the characters are openly questioning whether what they’re doing is actually worth their time, you’ve got to wonder if the story is really going anywhere.

There’s also a fair bit of plot digression, as in Banks’ last couple of Culture novels.  You get characters set up, asked to help out in doing something or other, and then their participation abruptly ceases or just sort of peters out without resolution.  This can be somewhere between irritating and soul-crushing, depending.

I also have to say that there’s a little bit of a missed opportunity in the subject matter.  One of the plot threads centers around an individual who claims that he was actually there at the negotiations which resulted in the formation of the Culture about ten thousand years prior to the events of the novel, a claim which, if true, would make him older than any other Culture citizen (even drones or Minds).  I thought we might get some insight around how the Culture actually came together.  There have been hints here and there throughout the series about the heartless steel behind the Culture’s space-hippie veneer - even over and beyond the obvious retaliations that they make against those who interfere with them.  I've always felt that there was more skullduggery and outright violence behind the Culture’s founding than anyone lets on, and possibly even quite a bit more unpleasantness going behind the scenes in the current Culture era than even Special Circumstances wants to acknowledge.  That’s still maybe true, but if so, we don’t find out here.  It’s not the Culture’s secret that is at stake, at least this time.

Reviewing the previous paragraphs, I realize that this is all pretty negative stuff, and that’s maybe unfair.  I tore right through the book, and generally enjoyed it anyway.  Banks is on form here, and there’s a lot of outright humor.  This is possibly the outright funniest Culture novel to date, at least in parts.  In addition, while there is some occasional grimness, on the whole the work doesn’t dip into the darkness of some of his Culture works where everyone is suffering from ennui and existential despair.  Sure, nothing of much consequence happens, but at the same time it’s a pretty entertaining romp.  And aside from a cranky old drone and a couple of humans, most of the Culture characters are Minds, who are always more interesting to hear about.  There aren’t any characters quite as memorable as the Falling Outside the Usual Moral Constraints from the last one, though the Mistake Not . . . has its moments.

So, summing up, my frustrations with this one are mostly based around the fact that this could have been a great book, but ended up being just okay.  Banks is such a good writer that he can get away with a mess of a plot and still have something worth reading.  But although I’m happy to see him writing Culture novels again in fairly rapid succession, I do have to wonder if he’s ever going to give his universe a proper challenge.  I know it’s hard to surprise the Minds, but still.

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