Friday, March 27, 2020

Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I assume like most bibliophiles, there are a few authors that touch that nerve of pure enjoyment and satisfaction inside. Their stories fill me with an inner sense of delight at the places, characters, and emotions described, and leave me feeling a little high upon completion—wanting more but wonderfully gratified with what I have. And completion is, unfortunately, a necessity. While we may like to be forever in those places and among those characters, the last page inevitably turns. And for authors who have passed, so too do oeuvres have a last page; at some point in time I will have read everything by an author and face the reality of not being able to embark on any virgin experience.

And thus it is with a few authors I have patiently let their final unread book sit on the shelf for years, waiting for the moment that feels right to enter upon that last bit of glory. With Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) a couple of weeks ago the moment felt right. And so, with mixed feelings, I dived in for my last, virgin experience in the Culture. I have emerged upon the last page to confirm delayed gratification is a real thing.

The Hydrogen Sonata is the story of the Gzilt and their Subliming—or at least intentions to Sublime. Having achieved what they believe the apex of their civilization, as a group they have decided to forego their mortal coils and enter digital rapture among the Culture. Several greedy alien races waiting on the wings to swoop in on the remains of their civilization once they’ve Sublimed, the entire process doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. Vyr Cossont, a retired Culture attache and now civilian among the Gzilt, is practicing on her eleven-string undecagon one day when emergency contact is made: her presence is urgently required by Gzilt high command. Certain warships having been destroyed for inexplicable reasons at the edges of Gzilt space, only her personal knowledge of one of the people at the center of the mystery will help solve it. Thus, foregoing retirement, Cossont sets out to uncover the mystery and try to set things back in line so the day of Subliming can go smoothly.

Banks strings out the mystery of who and why is interfering with Gzilt Subliming in subtle, almost non-mystery fashion. Shifting scene and place to add a situation or character vital to the overarching story, there is a “grand reveal” upon the conclusion, but by the time the story reaches the final pages, there is in fact only one last nugget to be revealed (and it’s very Banks-ian). The rest of the machinations having been steadily and interestingly fed to the reader through a concatenation of singular, engaging set pieces—Banks’ trademark—the journey to said reveal is the real joy.

Coincidentally or otherwise, The Hydrogen Sonata’s primary theme of transcending mortality was published just months prior to Banks’ own passing. While I incline toward coincidence given the predominance of dark themes in much of Banks’ oeuvre, there nevertheless is a complementary ring to the story of a society looking to leave behind its state in the Real for a place in the higher dimensions of space/time. Highlighting one of the holes in democratic political theory in the process (what if your society voted to transcend but you yourself did not want to), Banks has his usual amount of dark fun with the theme, managing to work in a number of our virtues and vices in relatable, and at time, humorous ways.

While I enjoyed Surface Detail, the Culture novel published prior, I found it to be one of the weakest of Banks’ far-future efforts, thus leading me to wonder whether a decline in quality was starting to set in after eight voyages through Mindship space. My worries were misplaced. The Hydrogen Sonata proves Surface Detail a minor blip that, unfortunately, will have no more blips of any size. Theme fully cohesive (even playing into Banks’ wheelhouse, one could easily argue), the humor sophisticated, dark, and playful, and the story arc as epic yet personal as has been the case with past Culture novels, this latest and last comes easily recommended.

Thus, while I am a little sad to have read the last Iain Banks’ Culture novel, I’m immensely glad to have had the privilege of encountering and experiencing them at all. Nothing lasts forever. Now, Jack Vance’s Alastor trilogy stares at me from the shelf? How long to delay that last bit of virgin gratification?

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