The novel “The Hydrogen Sonata” by Iain M. Banks was published for the first time in 2012. It’s part of the Culture series.
The Gzilt civilization contributed to the formation of the Culture but in the end it didn’t join. After 10,000 years, the Gzilt are going to move to a different plane of existence called the Sublime and that’s supposed to be an occasion to celebrate. However, other civilizations have sent spacecraft to take possession of what Gzilt are abandoning creating tension and the Zihdren-Remnant, what remains of an ancient civilization that influenced the Gzilt, sent a mysterious message.
Vyr Cossont is a musician who, on the eve of the transition to the Sublime, is reinstated in the Gzilt army. Why are the Gzilt authorities interested in her past encounter with a member of the Culture? What is the meaning of the mysterious acts of war involving the Gzilt? Various Minds of the Culture officially want to celebrate the Gzilt passage to the Sublime but actually are investigating these strange events.
The last science fiction novel written by Iain M. Banks was also the last of the Culture series. It was published 25 years after the first one and reprises various topics addressed previously. The author claimed he had an idea for the plot of another novel but died before being able to write it.
“The Hydrogen Sonata” only concerns indirectly the post-scarcity society known as the Culture, is instead focused on the Gzilt civilization at a crucial moment in its history, the passage to the plane of existence called the Sublime. Almost all Gzilt are about to abandon the material universe to move to another one known only very vaguely.
The move to the Sublime is a time of celebration that attracts representatives of other civilizations, including the Culture, to greet the Gzilt. It also attracts scavengers interested in all the material goods that will remain after the Gzilt will have completed the transition to the Sublime, and this creates tension. However, the situation starts becoming more complex for other reasons.
The complexity of “The Hydrogen Sonata” plot emerges quickly because it’s also influenced by events of 10,000 years earlier, at the time of the founding of the Culture. The Gzilt had contributed to it but had decided not to join and among the reasons there were their religious beliefs. They derived from texts influenced by an earlier civilization long passed to the Sublime and the verifiable parties had proved correct.
The basics of the Gzilt religion may seem just a matter of academic interest at a time when almost all the members of that civilization are going to move to a different state of existence and only a few remain in the material for their own reasons. Instead, violent events involving the Gzilt at a time of celebration are related to events of millennia before and the interstellar intrigue that follows is central to the novel.
The musician Vyr Cossont ends up involved in a story that becomes more and more intricate because of her encounter with a man from the Culture that seems to be a founding member of that civilization. The mysteries of events dating back millennia in the past aroused the interest of many Minds, the artificial intelligences that in many cases are installed in starships. In “The Hydrogen Sonata” several characters are Minds who are involved in the intrigue.
In all the complexity developed in this novel the best but honestly also the worst of Iain M. Banks comes out. The author shows off all of his imagination in a story that embraces the vastness of space and time. However, he does it often in a way that is often chaotic and sometimes dispersive at a pace that is very variable.
“The Hydrogen Sonata” is a novel that deals with the theme of mortality not only for the central element of the Sublime but also for the presence of other technologies used by organic beings to ensure longevity. This allows to explore themes that are philosophical or anyway very serious but at the same time Iain M. Banks dwells not only in the black humor he often includes in his works but sometimes in a gross humor.
In this novel there are many characters but only a few of them, such as Vyr Cossont, are developed. Sometimes they also get a bit lost in the complexity of the narrative. For example, there are several conversations among various Minds but they’re structured in such a way that it’s hard to follow them and appreciate their different personalities.
In the end, through highs and lows, “The Hydrogen Sonata” certainly didn’t seem to me among the best novels by Iain M. Banks. For its positive elements, I think it’s still a must-read for the Culture fans.