The Scavenger species are circling.
It is, truly, the End Days for the Gzilt civilisation.
An ancient people, organised on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture ten thousand years ago and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilisations: they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex experience.
Amid preparations, though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossant appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted – dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossant must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what happened all that time ago.
It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilisation are likely to prove its most perilous.
The Hydrogen Sonata is the latest novel in Banks’ long running Culture series, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It centres on the preparations of the Gzilt civilisation to Sublime, leaving their physical experience behind them and attaining a new ethereal existence. However, there is a secret that could change the minds of the Gzilt people and the few that know it go to extreme lengths to keep it to themselves.
Most of the Culture novels are concerned with the Culture’s hyper-intelligent, benevolent Minds influencing the development of less advanced civilisations, nudging them onwards, mediating in conflicts and examining the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise from this philosophy (an earlier book notes that Earth was left alone as a “control group”!). The Hydrogen Sonata is unusual in that the Gzilt are just as advanced as the Culture – having been involved in the Culture’s formation, so rather than influencing their development, the Culture get involved simply to satisfy their own curiosity about the secret.
Most of the main characters are self-aware Culture ships, each one run by a Mind (with a capital “M” – mere biological beings such as humans only have minds). The novels which focus on the ships tend to be the funniest and this is no exception. This novel continues the tendency of the ships choosing humorous and whimsical names for themselves, including the Caconym (literally meaning “The wrong name”) and Refreshingly Unconcerned With The Vulgar Exigencies of Veracity. The passages where the ships are bickering and gossiping with each other had me chortling away.
The humorous tone continues as the early chapters explain that The Hydrogen Sonata is a piece of music written centuries earlier for an instrument that was yet to be invented. By the time the novel takes place, the instrument has finally been invented, but due to its immense complexity, the Gzilt woman Vyr Cossant has had two extra arms implanted in order to attempt to play it, much to the annoyance of her passive-aggressive and over-protective mother.
The novel’s title serves a dual purpose of course, as it is symbolic of the Subliming process itself. The more serious parts of the book feature some adept, and seemingly effortless writing by Banks as he explains the lofty concepts and processes within the book, using that same talent with some inventive and highly impressive action set pieces.
The only point where the book fails is in the ending – an unfortunately common complaint with Banks’ work. The final chapters feel quite emotionally flat and rather predictable. It’s certainly a shame after the huge bombshell dropped in the very final sentence of Surface Detail, the previous Culture novel.
Verdict: Effortlessly combining lofty SF concepts with humorous prose and adrenalin fuelled set pieces. It’s only a shame the ending is a bit of a non-event.
Reviewed by Keith