The Gzilt are unusual among all galactic civilisations in that the holy book of their religion has proven to be demonstrably true. It predicted scientific advances long before they were made. There was other stuff in the Book of Truth, of course – the typical moralistic posturing, the usual self-serving self-importance around which religions accrete, all that sort of stuff. But people took it seriously because parts of it actually became true.
Now, the Gzilt are about to Sublime. This means they are about to leave this universe en masse for another where everyone lives in– Well, no one really knows because those few who have returned have been mysterious and enigmatic to the point of uselessness. But Subliming is good. And the universe to which races Sublime is apparently infinitely large and infinitely wonderful and everyone there feels infinitely uplifted.
Subliming calls for celebration, so various other races are descending on the Gzilt worlds to wish the Gzilt well and to, hopefully, if given permission, loot what’s left for themselves. A representative of the remnants of the Zihdren, the Gzilt’s original mentors, who Sublimed thousands years before, turns up with some unwelcome news. But before it can be revealed the Zihdren-Remnanter ship is callously destroyed by a Gzilt battleship. This could upset things. As could the news the destroyed ship was carrying.
Also, the Gzilt were one of the original races – they’re humanoid; very much so, in fact – who agreed to band together to form the Culture ten thousand years earlier. But, for whatever reason, they chose to go their own way. There is a person in the Culture who was there at those original negotiations, and he’s still alive and it seems he might know something about the news the destroyed Zihdren-Remnanter ship was carrying. So the Culture ships hanging around to see the Gzilt Sublime are keen to find out what it was…
It doesn’t take long – less than a third of the way into the book, in fact – before Banks reveals the secret carried by the destroyed ship. The Book of Truth, it transpires, was a put-up job. By a group of Zihdren academics. For reasons of their own – which are alien, no doubt – they decided to plant a holy text which could be proven true on the primitive Gzilt. And for more than ten thousand years, that the Book of Truth might not be precisely what it claims to be has never occurred to those who take it as their creed. Even though they are allegedly civilised enough to Sublime.
But, well, they’re not really civilised at all. And Subliming doesn’t appear to be a reward for being a good bunch of highly civilised people either. Because the Gzilt response to news of the Book of Truth’s, er, true origin becoming known is to go on a berserk murdering spree. The politician in charge during the last days of the Gzilt sends one of the Gzilt Regiments to massacre another who had got wind of the destruction of Zihdren-Remnanter ship. Said politician had also promised scavenger rights to one alien race, the Liseiden, but when the Ronte win the rights instead, he causes a situation in which the Liseiden destroy the Ronte fleet.
And the final action-piece of the novel is an all-out high-bodycount attack on a blimp full of partygoers by a single-minded special forces colonel and his band of lethal attack robots.
Somewhere threading her way amongst all this is Vyr Cossont. Who has four arms. Which she needs to play a piece of music on a preposterous instrument called an Antagonistic Undecagonstring. The piece of music, which was written thousands of years before and is allegedly unplayable, is called…
This is the tenth Culture novel and even before it appeared The Hydrogen Sonata was being heralded as a “return to form” (which is quite a good trick) after the disappointing Matter and Surface Detail. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In fact, I think Matter was a much more interesting novel.
The Hydrogen Sonata is pacey, Vyr Cossont is an engaging protagonist (though she’s somewhat at the beck and call of events), there are one or two nice bits of invention, and there are a number of conversations between Ship Minds which are fun. But. The secret of the Book of Truth is revealed early, which robs the rest of the novel of all tension. You keep on reading expecting the other shoe to drop – but there is no other shoe. The way the violence mounts is stupidly cartoonish, particularly for a people who are days away from Subliming. In fact, the second half of The Hydrogen Sonata reads more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film adaption of a Culture novel than an actual Culture novel.
And that title? What relevance exactly does that have to the story? I know Banks’ Culture novels usually boast titles peripheral to the point of irrelevance, but Cossont’s attempt to play a piece of unplayable music has no impact on the plot whatsoever. Perhaps the title is a joke, perhaps it needs to be decoded… and since hydrogen’s symbol is H and a sonata is a word for a type of musical piece, it could read as…
The H(ot) Air.
Because as Culture novels go, The Hydrogen Sonata contains far more bluster than the other books in the series.
(Sorry, could not resist the title to this piece.)
November 27, 2012 at 3:28 pm
Back in the 1970s, I remember hearing a Radio 3 spoof early music concert (yes, BBC R3 occasionally doesn’t take itself too seriously!) entitled “The Shagbut, the Minikin and the Flemish Clacket”: The last named of these instruments was supposedly the largest member of the lute family, with one plucked and sixteen sympathetic strings, and was so large that the performer had to sit inside it.
Obviously, Banks drew his inspiration for the improbably-named very difficult musical instrument from this, or so I believe…
November 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm
do you think we should compare Banks to previous Banks or to other genre novels I could be reading right now?
November 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm
His books can only be compared to other books by him. I don’t think anyone else really manages to achieve what he does.
November 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm
Yeah, I’m thinking the weakest of the Culture books is still considerably more interesting than a lot of other stuff on the shelves.
November 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm
Crikey, it seems like subliming is going on left, right and center at the moment – I’m reading ‘The Pandora Star’ by Peter F Hamilton – it’s a sci-fi doorstop in the old tradition and you could argue that there is quite a lot of soap interaction between the characters without really gaining a whole lot of empathy for them.
I’ll still probably read The Hydrogen Sonata at some point but I won’t be rushing out to get it and putting it to the top of the reading stack.
Handy review – thanks Ian.
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January 7, 2013 at 7:54 pm
You ask, What relevance exactly does that have to the story?
The title has a thematic connection to the events in the novel rather than a literal connection. The sonata, we learn, was deliberately composed to be almost impossible to play by humans, and even if it is played perfectly (by a machine) then all that comes out is meaningless unpleasant noise. So the question is, what value is there a human attempting to play it at all? But this obviously parallels the main question in the book, what value is there in living in the imperfect physical universe when you could sublime away into perfection? So the answer has to do with the joy of striving and the value of a goal that hasn’t yet been reached, as opposed to the sterility of perfection. Or something like that.
I don’t know if Banks is making a deliberate reference, but the piece of music that sprang immediately to my mind was John Cage’s Freeman Etudes. These studies were deliberately composed to be almost impossible to play by humans, and even if they are played very well (as in this performance by Irvine Arditti) all that comes out is meaningless noise. Cage described the purpose of these etudes as a celebration of human ability to do hard work: “this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible”. (See James Pritchett for more analysis.)
January 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm
It still sounds like a Flemish Clacket to me.