The Hydrogen Sonata (A Culture Novel) - Iain M. Banks There is a perceptive review of The Hydrogen Sonata at The Guardian website that more or less sums up what makes the Culture novels so interesting. Follow the link for a review of the Culture and a summary of the book in question so I can get on to things about the book that particularly struck me (it’s short).

That done, expect spoilers:

It’s true that (IMO) Banks still hasn’t regained the heights attained in [b:Consider Phlebas|1260576|Consider Phlebas|Iain M. Banks||14366], [b:Use of Weapons|18637|Use of Weapons|Iain M. Banks||1494156] or – especially – [b:The Player Of Games|1913598|The Player Of Games|Iain M. Banks||1494157] in this latest entry but he comes closer than his previous effort, [b:Surface Detail|7937744|Surface Detail (Culture, #9)|Iain M. Banks||11345814], so let me get the recommendation out of the way – read the book.

Vyr Cossont is the most interesting character he’s written about in quite a while and I only wish he would have spent more time developing her or involving her more directly in the plot than he does. Scoaliera Tefwe is another character (another “biological”) who deserved more time than she gets.

I was struck by the utter prosaicness of Sublimation – the process by which a sufficiently advanced civilization removes itself from the Real and ascends to dimensions beyond space and time. It’s not a question of spiritual maturity or moral purity but of technical know-how. Any sufficiently advanced civilization can Sublime. The Culture could do it at any time (and many of its constituent societies and Minds have – e.g., the Zoologist). The Gzilt are not a race of Buddhas; they’re still riven by the weaknesses, foibles and sheer stupidities of any matter-based sentience. It becomes a question of “Have we accomplished all that we can in the Real?” or – as I think is the case in a man like Banstegeyn – “How can I escape from the pain of living and the consequences of all my mistakes?” (But there’s a suggestion that the Sublime may not be so paradisiacal as promised, though its flaws are unique and untranslatable to minds (Minds) still mired in the Real.)

Banks also asks “What price truth?” Thousands die, a Mind is destroyed, and all for a secret whose nature all of the principals are 99.9% sure of to begin with (the great “secret” of the Zihdren-Remnanter is pretty obvious even to those not blessed with Minds). There’s a meeting of Minds at the end of the book where the final moral boils down to the LSV You Call This Clean?’s declaration, “Yes, you should always tell the truth, unless you find yourselves in a situation where it would be utter moral folly to do so.” Real spoiler: In the end, they decide not to tell the Gzilt what the Zihdren-Remnanter ambassador’s message was because it really would make no difference at all in their plans.

Another major theme of the novel that I’m not quite sure how to integrate is “sound.” The title refers to a piece of music that can only be played on an Antagonistic Undecagonstring – an elevenstring in popular parlance (even though it has more than 11 strings). Vyr Cossont has chosen as her life quest before Subliming to play “The Hydrogen Sonata” in its entirety; she’s gone so far as to acquire a second pair of arms (as the instrument is best played with four). Ngaroe QiRia, the oldest biological citizen of the Culture and the one man who may remember what the Zihdren’s secret is, is fascinated by sound. At one point, he spent a lifetime in the body of a whale-like species, and he currently lives on a world where a previous civilization carved an entire mountain range to make music (of a sort) and spends his days sitting in a hearkenry just … listening. And – as you might expect – metaphors of and references to sound abound (e.g., the Mistake Not’s… displacement into the Girdlecity on Xown).

As usual Banks has fun with the names of the Minds but my two favorites are the ROU Refreshingly Unconcerned With The Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity and the Ue Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath.

And there’s something “cool” in the fact that the System-class GSV Empiricist carries 13 billion sentient life forms – half the population of the Gzilt’s home system.