Scoop Review of Books


A Review of Iain M. Banks The Hydrogen Sonata (Orbit Books/Hachette, 2012)
By Mark P. Williams

Iain M. Banks’ latest novel brings us back into the galaxy of the Culture on the eve of a momentous event. The Gzilt civilization, a companion species who were instrumental in the formation of the Culture, but who, for their own reasons, chose to remain separate, are about to Sublime when a diplomatic incident occurs that could threaten the whole process.

What follows from this opening is a classic Banks’ space opera: intersections of the philosophical, personal and political through diplomacy, violence and relationships, operating across an interplanetary background of tremendous detail and depth.  The novel addresses big questions with elegiac charm, distinctive humour, and a sense of shared (post-, trans- and alter-)humanity.

The major themes of The Hydrogen Sonata are consciousness, memory and truth in their complex expression through various cultural forms.  On the civilizational, macro scale this involves religious faith, politics and militarism, and the ideas and ideals of progress and development. On the personal, micro scale, it is grounded in ideas of music and sound as ways of addressing the limits of sense experience.  The perspective of the Culture is characterised by whimsical, communistic and rigorously secular post-scarcity libertarian social mores, these struggle with restrictive religious, hard-nosed teleological, and often fundamentalist, ideologies of other civilisations in both abstract and concrete ways.

As ever in Banks’ Culture novels, these dense philosophical meditations are given urgency by circumstance to provide the impetus to the plot; the novel is about how individual actions, at the right time have the potential to affect the progress of a whole people.

The Gzilt civilization is about to Sublime; this means they will shortly be moving beyond known space and hyperspace (it is arguably both inside and outside of known dimensions; it is also referred to as the Enfolding).  By Subliming, the Gzilt will join the galactic civilizations which have preceded them, including their effective sponsor ‘civ’, the Zildren. With twenty-four days to go, a message arrives, apparently from the Zildren, left by them before they Sublimed, which concerns the origins of the Gzilt holy text, the Book of Truth. A rogue Gzilt ship destroys both message and messenger, an act witnessed from afar by a Culture ship. And so the plot begins: What was the message?; Why was the ship destroyed and was it sanctioned by Gzilt leaders?; Will the answers prevent the Subliming and should they?

The clock has already started: can the Culture find out what happened and why, and decide what should be done about it before the entire Gzilt civilization Sublimes in twenty-four days time?

Into this time-frame The Hydrogen Sonata compresses epic discussions of sense and perception, memory and the nature of consciousness through the focalisers of the Culture vessel, the Mistake Not…, Gzilt generals and ministers, and one Vyr Cossont ‘Lieutenant Commander (reserve)'(6) who suddenly finds herself to be the key to the whole intrigue.

Cossont appears to be the last known associate of the one being old enough to remember the formation of the Culture itself, a humanoid man named QiRia (who has since spent a lot of time trying out other bodies, other senses, particularly sound, and finding ways of organising his accumulated memories).  QiRia happens to be a witness to the original message from the Zildren to the Gzilt.  Through him, politics and religion, entangled with militarism, all come to hinge on the memory of one impossibly old eccentric and the gift he gave to Vyr when she was travelling with the Culture.

The whole debate is of interest to the Culture because the Gzilt holy text is unique in their experience of sacred documents for having accurately predicted the Gzilt’s civilizational development. If the message interrupts the Subliming it could be many generations before the Gzilt would be able to Sublime again, if, after hearing the message, they still wish to do so at all. The Gzilt civilisation is at least as old as the Culture, and as developed, but with different attitudes towards leisure, life, purpose and happiness–so, we might wonder: What is to be done?

It is always tempting to read SF formulations of such concepts as direct commentary on specific historical circumstances but the real power of Banks’ Culture novels is that they operate as discussions of the terms by which we frame debates about “history” itself, as a force and as a construct.  

Characters on all sides are shown to be in negotiation with the circumstances which define their lives; sentient beings of all kinds, forms and compositions (biological and non-biological) all engage in ethical debates within their own frame of reference which attempt to reach beyond themselves. Even the most Machiavellian and ruthless characters are often conflicted and wracked with self-doubt, going from seeming callous to somehow tragic as the days to Subliming come inexorably closer and the anchors of their lives seem to be coming loose.

Consciousness and unconsciousness in their relationship to memory and experience are central to this novel, taking on varying but urgent application as characters struggle against the great countdown. Simulation and backing-up of consciousness are both key plot points, played for serious meditation and occasional humour.  Vyr Cossont is repeatedly rendered unconscious for her own protection, leading to abrupt narrative breaks in events where she remembers her meeting with QiRia, before she wakes up again in unfamiliar situations. It contrasts her apparent inferior humanoid consciousness to that of the Culture ships’ Minds and Avatars, who think immeasurably faster and are never unconscious. Despite her disadvantages in this regard, Cossont is the key to reaching QiRia, and his memory, in turn, is key to the political events which threaten Cossont’s life and may determine whether or not the Gzilt will Sublime.  This aspect of her treatment says everything about the central dynamic of the Culture, which is a civilisation dominated by its Artificial Intelligences, the Ship Minds, who are often dismissive or paternalistic about humanoids, but which remains firmly tied to the lives and interests of its more humanoid scale members in so many other ways.  Banks makes this continuing tension a constructive dynamic with powerful resonances for the ways we think about our own place in a world governed by forces far greater than the individual, familial and group scales we live within day-to-day.


A consideration voiced often in Banks’ books by the opponents, or at least non-friends, of the Culture, is the question of how this apparently disorganised and pleasure-obsessed association of beings can possibly be such a formidable force. Banks’ Culture appears to be the ultimate in bohemian societies, operating out of philosophical good intentions, but beside this its actions and actors often manifest through remarkably ruthless means. The question is writ large in Player of Games and Look to Windward, and returns in a more subtle formulation in The Hydrogen Sonata. The apparent answer is deceptively simple: on the one hand, the Culture offers unparalleled autonomy and freedom for anyone within the Culture and actively proselytises itself; on the other, it employs ruthless fighters whom it deploys only with a constant sense of self-examination. The apparent disconnect between these two states is Banks’ sustained meditation on political utopian ideals and their relationship with messy realities, from the most fundamental conception of democracy to the possibilities of a genuinely post-scarcity social organisation.

In a sense, the power of the Culture is its precise indefinability; it is ideologically indestructible because its ideology is to maximise autonomy, comfort and pleasure with totalising egalitarian equity as a basic ethical-and-aesthetic requirement of civilisation. The limits of the Culture’s power are the limits of what we understand as “culture”: freedom versus shared frames of reference; the bonds of commonality and the drive towards independence. In previous novels like Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward this attempt to negotiate the limit of culture (while remaining Culture) was opposed by more rigid, militaristic ideologues, often religious ones. In the comparison of Culture to Gzilt things are less starkly divided.


Stylistically The Hydrogen Sonata is a continuation of the Modernist-inspired inflection which accompanies so much of Banks’ fiction from The Bridge to Feersum Endjinn: an attention to the diverse means by which distinctions of thought are expressed through writerly technique.   Contradictory approaches emerge in The Hydrogen Sonata: scenes of sexual intimacy between two characters are a disembodied dialogue, like Beckettian erotica, while a scene of dialogue between two Ship Minds takes place in a wholly, eccentrically virtual castle, constructed at absurd levels of Piranesian physical detail but with no objective reality.  Such scenes form a subtle accompaniment to the overarching questions of subjectivity posed by backing-up, duplicating and projecting consciousness which take place throughout.

The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is another paradoxical image for the text as a whole.  It is the name of a composition for an instrument yet to be invented at the time, the ‘elevenstring’ or ‘bodily acoustic Antagonistic Undecagonstring’ (13). This piece is intended to represent the structure of the universe from its most basic to most complex levels (it also has more than eleven strings; the others are internal and cannot be played directly by the musician, functioning by resonance with both the eleven played strings and the atmospheric conditions of the time). This elaborate metaphor for the structure of material existence based on mathematical dimensions is also, for the reader, a metaphor for Banks’ conception of both Culture, and Science Fiction in general, and the relationship to the concept of the limit.

Banks’ concern in the development of the Culture cycle has been increasingly to explore the necessary limits of political perspectives using the most extreme model of plenitude and freedom, coupled to the most equally extreme levels of interference.  These fictions are an ongoing examination of the apparitional dialectic of utopian/dystopianism by which we often (for convenience) designate the future-making of SF writing.  Banks’ writing pays particular attention to the unification of technique and concept, and The Hydrogen Sonata makes a fascinating extension.


Mark P. Williams
Journalist and Independent Academic Researcher

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