The Hydrogen Sonata – Ian M. Banks

Hydrogen Sonata“I told you before: I have a perverse delight in watching species fuck up,” says one of Mr. Banks’ characters, purportedly the oldest human being remaining in existence. Which in the universe of the Culture means that he is thousands upon thousands of years old. That statement applies well enough to the novel itself: it delights in spectacular cosmic-scale fuck-ups.

I admit I am a latecomer to Ian Banks’ body of work, and by extension to the Culture novels. I thought The Hydrogen Sonata – the most recent installment in the series – might serve me as an entry point as well as any other book; that particular universe has a reputation of vastness and scale that somehow assured me I needn’t worry too much about skipping the previous nine novels. I think I was mostly right. Banks’ canvas is so large that individual characters, narratives, political entities, even civilizations cease being of much importance in the grander scheme of things. All that ephemeral fuss is supplanted by ideas. BIG IDEAS, as huge as 200-kilometer-long starships hurtling at staggering velocities through regular and hyperspace.

I don’t mean to say that the characters and story of the book are badly constructed, because they are not. In fact, Mr. Banks’ skill in those elements is of  a caliber rarely seen in SF. He has, however, fundamentally restrained it here and provided clear indications that neither the characters, nor the actual story interest him all that much. Rather, The Hydrogen Sonata is a meta study of the meaning of life and existence, a possible critique on religion, and, not in the last place, an exciting space romp. It is a thoroughly winsome strategy, this laying out of the groundwork with miracle SF stuff that snatches the attention by virtue of its sheer awesomeness, with mortar deviously mixed out of  existential conundrums, practically impossible to address in realist literature, unless you have the equivalence of a literary black belt. The world of the Culture, where humongous ships driven by godlike intelligences roam the galaxy and explore an infinitude of possibilities, is, I’d say, the right kind of world to enact that methodology, and Mr. Banks surely has a good grip on that realization.

This particular story revolves around the alien civilization of the Gzilt, a highly-advanced species that now plans to enter the Sublime and must prepare fittingly for its definitive exit from the physical world. This entails massive logistics and uncanny political maneuvers to keep everything in balance. And while Scavenger species of the lower technological rungs circle the about-to-depart Gzilt, ancient secrets threaten to spill out from oblivion with the potential to revert the collective transition of the civilization. Vyr Cossont is a Gzilt officer from the reserve, a musician who has dedicated her last months in the Real to the mastering of a nigh impossible to play instrument. The Antagonistic Undecagon, or elevenstring for short. Cossont, who has gone as far as to implant an additional set of arms in her body in order to manage that unwieldy monster, is in pursuit of a life-quest – the impeccable performance of the most difficult musical piece ever written, The Hydrogen Sonata. Only a month remains till the Subliming but she still believes she has time to achieve her goal. Then out of nowhere she is taken away on a mission that might change everything for the Gzilt. Like a magnet, the escalating situation pulls into orbit a motley band of Culture ships, varying in age, dimensions, firepower and levels of eccentricity.

“The Sublime. The almost tangible, entirely believable, mathematically verifiable nirvana just a few right-angle turns away from dear boring old reality: a vast, infinite, better-than-virtual ultra-existence with no Off-switch, to which species and civilizations had been hauling their sorry tired-with-it-all behinds off to since –the story went – the galaxy had been in metaphorical knee socks.”

This description of the Sublime probably represents the most detailed account of it available in the Real. Many species and individual Minds (i.e. highly-advanced AIs) have entered, very few have returned, to no avail for the furthering of Sublime-related knowledge and understanding. Even the mighty Culture has no clue whatsoever about the nature of that ultra-reality, except that it guarantees non-extinction and infinitely greater computational resources, effectively dwarfing in complexity the experience of the Real. It is an SF construct that directly mimics religious mysteries. Its rhetoric is basically the same, only pruned from the ludicrous and dressed in scientific argot. To some extent the Sublime is probably a statement that life’s mysteries are and will always be inexhaustible, even by the supersmart overseers of the galaxy. The decision to surrender to the unknown, to surrender the will to continue making sense out of a senseless world ­– that is tantamount to faith.

Banks restrains himself from passing judgment on this type of mindset directly. He does, however, juggle around the core of the implicit argument. His characters often engage one another in talks about the meaning of it all, about the individual’s will to existence and the chance of there being any point attached to it at all:

“No. Living either never has any point, or is always its own point”


“One should never mistake pattern… for meaning.”


“It is a mistaken question. Meaning is everywhere. There is always meaning. Or at least things show a disturbing tendency to have meaning ascribed to them when intelligent creatures are present. It’s just that there’s no final Meaning, with a capital M.  Though the illusion that there might be is comforting for a certain class of mind.”

Some of those characters are huge starships, who, while talking to slow biologicals, can simulate entire societies and ponder the imponderable, in the temporal abyss between uttering two phonemes (which in itself is a problematic observation, as phonemes rarely are discretely separated from one another). Another character is a human who has lived many millennia, migrating from body to body, expressing himself and perceiving the universe in sensory modalities of his own choice. Still another is a hyper-intelligent drone living as a recluse in the dessert, fashioning aqueducts and water parks running with sand instead of liquid. Dedicating whole systems to polish each individual grain to a perfect sphere, so that flow is optimized. Talk about existentialism.

Understanding the fundamental ambiguousness and polyvalence of life and then dealing with it is perhaps preferable to the unconditional surrender to the unknown. This idea runs persistently through the novel, only suggested, never dogmatized. The Hydrogen Sonata itself is a central symbol of that line of thinking:

“Fans and detractors alike agreed that this was a remarkable achievement, and also that the work as a whole was something of an acquired taste.

The single high note at the start of the work was meant to signify a solitary proton, specifically a hydrogen nucleus, while the following wavering pseudo-chord was supposed to embody the concept of a sole electron’s probability cloud, so that together the first note and the first chord represented the element hydrogen.”

Life is messy, the universe is messy. It is also cold, uncaring, potentially random and awkward to live in, one’s taste for it is indeed acquired. That can be no excuse, however, not to endeavor to learn its ways and languages.

This conceptual undercurrent by no means attempts to abduct the narrative. On the contrary, it is never explicitly cast in relief, albeit Banks apparently did not try to camouflage it. The referential, biologically-timed, nitty-gritty story is in focus throughout and it is, in essence, a very decent space opera involving diplomacy, starship battles, quests on exotic worlds, la-di-da-di-da. The truth is, I did not care one jot for any of the characters in the book. And I think Banks wanted us not to care much. Those characters are well-written, even if not very well-detailed, they engage in sometimes brilliant dialogue, and the whole shenanigan of the Subliming and the paraphernalia that goes with it is top-notch SF-mongering. So to make the readers not care a whole lot about otherwise well-constructed characters and story constitutes the kind of seemingly pointless aerobatics only master writers can perform. Only seemingly though. It introduces a curious bifocal effect in the overall perception of the novel, inviting in a satirical outlook, loads of cognitive dissonance, deep-seated mistrust of the various kinds of eschatological rhetoric, a whole coterie of aesthetic imps to nibble at and continuously try to dismantle the stable fortresses of meaning. In some of the best moments of the novel Banks resembles a much darker Douglas Adams, only one whose humor is dampened by the graveness of the situation at hand.

Meta-aesthetic considerations aside, The Hydrogen Sonata also deals in the simple joys of SF fireworks. Starships that are their own docks, factory and city of billions, effectively capable of doubling the population of almost any system they enter into. Orbital constructs of immense scale, boasting the area of a thousand Earths, circling their suns along perfectly engineered trajectories. The destruction of militarized moons. Peeks into the boundless computational substrates of Culture Minds. A zeppelin carrying a never ending orgiastic Party along the tunnels of a Mega Structure girdling an entire planet. It is a nerdgasm fest that will keep any fan hooked. And Banks has the writing skill to translate those images into text that unpacks spectacularly into the reader’s mind:

“The long piers and bulbous pontoons of the giant, articulated raft flexed and creaked around them, like a giant arthritic hand laid across the surface of the ocean, forever trying to pat it down.”

I am still on the fence about the Culture Ships/Minds, to be honest. It is an amazing idea, one that has been developed much more richly in the previous books, I am sure. Some wondrous thoughts and hilarious verbal exchanges come from the Ship characters in the novel. Banks’ strategy to gloss over the thought processes of the Minds, however, still feels as a bit of cop out to me. On the one hand, the decision to adopt a selectively-omniscient narrative style makes sense – otherwise how could anybody make this setting work? Similarly, it is positively impossible to describe with fidelity the thought routines of a millennia-old, kilometers-long star traveler overdosed on computational power. Abstraction and simplification are inevitable. On the other hand, it seems to me Banks never tries to provide even the illusion of glimpsing under the hood of those vast Minds. In his attempt to optimize performance and channel his ideas to serve well-defined functionalities he has missed the chance of actually touching upon the Sublime, at least the Sublime that we simple biologicals sometimes can access fleetingly through art and other memetic prosthetics. I really hope I am proved wrong by some of the other Culture novels. I definitely feel Mr. Banks has what it takes to be that kind of writer who can rearrange your brain in blinding bright flashes of genius.

The Hydrogen Sonata is a fine novel, SF at its best, but missing a few essential ingredients that could make it great. Maybe it is missing some of them by design, which is something I still cannot wrap my head around in full. It is certainly very cleverly written and precisely aimed. I will be coming back to Banks and the Culture and my intuition tells me I am in for a spectacular ride. You too, if you like myself are yet to venture deep in that classic SF universe. To quote one of the Culture Ships: “Take great care, but smite promptly and thoroughly if/when situation calls.”


5 comments on “The Hydrogen Sonata – Ian M. Banks

  1. Redhead says:

    I So want to read this! But I aughta get through the half dozen unread Culture novels that are sitting on my bookshelves first . . . right??

  2. Random says:

    The Hydrogen Sonata was my first Culture novel, so I don’t think you have to have read the previous ones to appreciate it. It might enhance the experience a bit, I guess, but not too significantly. From what I’ve read, novels like Use of Weapons, The Player of Games, Look to Windward are supposed to be amazing, better than this one, which is really quite good.

  3. “On the other hand, it seems to me Banks never tries to provide even the illusion of glimpsing under the hood of those vast Minds..”

    Not providing even an illusion would be a pretty massive failure of the SF-method though, no? And I don’t get the feeling from your review that Banks is prone to such failures.

    • Random says:

      OK, maybe not the kind of illusion I wanted 🙂 My problem with his method of portraying the Ships/Minds is that he is implicitly assuming that their thought routines are simply too complicated to render in fidelity (which is true, I suppose) and that this justifies his decision to make them sound quite human (when they are much more than that). They are nevertheless pretty central to the story and POV-characters at that. This made me perceive those POVs as filtered through a Mind-mind interpreter, sort of, dumbed down to an easy to understand level. I suppose he wanted to focus on other stuff, rather than get himself bogged down in a super ambitious formal experiment. And yet, it’s a shame because it feels as a cop out, as I mentioned in the review. Also, it would have made the book much much better, had it been a successful experiment. Maybe he has actually done it in some of the previous books, I don’t know… But yeah, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of author who is prone to tolerate loose ends, that’s why it nagged me.

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