Whichever book ended up being the last stop in my meandering progress through the SF novels of Iain M. Banks--a journey that began nearly ten years ago--it was bound to be a bittersweet experience. That that book has ended up being The Hydrogen Sonata only makes it more so. Banks could not have known, when he sat down to write this novel, how little time he had left, or that it would turn out to be the last entry in the Culture sequence. And yet The Hydrogen Sonata is suffused with death, with questions about the meaning of life, of how (and when) to leave it, and with anxiety about what comes after it. If the book itself is not quite the capstone that the Culture sequence deserved, then the coincidence of its timing and subject matter lends it significance and weight.
Like the other recent Culture novels, Matter and Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata is not properly a story about the Culture, which plays a supporting role only. The focus here is on the Gzilt civilization, a contemporary of the Culture, who very nearly became a founder race but instead chose to strike their own path. Now, ten thousand years later, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime, ascending to a higher dimension where the truly advanced civilizations of Banks's universe live an enternal but only dimly-understood existence. It's a time of celebration, of settling accounts, and accordingly the remnants of the long-Sublimed Zihdren, a race who shepherded the Gzilt onto the galactic stage, send an emissary to reveal that the Book of Truth, the religious text which has strongly shaped the Gzilt's worldview, was actually an experiment by a Zhidren scientist. The reactions to this revelation are swift and extreme--the forces loyal to the Gzilt leadership, represented in the novel by Septame Banstegeyn, the most powerful Gzilt politician and the man most directly responsible for the decision to Sublime, ruthlessly seek to suppress it, killing the Zihdren emissary and even going so far as to murder thousands of Gzilt citizens. A group skeptical about the Subliming project, meanwhile, recruits one of its members, the musician Vyr Cossont, to track down Ngaroe QiRia, a Culture citizen who claims to have been alive at the time of its creation, and find out from him whether the Zihdren's claim is true.
The Hydrogen Sonata's story proceeds in several concurrent plot strands. In one, Vyr is rescued from an attack by Banstegeyn's forces by the Culture ship Mistake Not..., who takes it upon itself to help her with her mission. In another, a Contact agent who knew QiRia is reactivated in the hopes that she can find him. The third follows Banstegeyn as he goes to increasingly extreme and immoral lengths to keep the Subliming on track, while also revelling in his own power and the fruits of it. The fourth largely revolves around the discussions of the group of Culture Minds who have witnessed the destruction of the Zihdren ship, and who form a cabal dedicated to investigating the matter and deciding what, if anything, should be done. There's a lot of zipping back and forth between the various planets in Gzilt space, a few space battles, and the requisite feats of Banks-ian invention--I was particularly fond of the hedonist Ximenyr, who has been preparing for the Subliming by throwing a years-long party, and who has modified his body to give himself fifty-something penises, with four hearts to power them.
What's oddest about The Hydrogen Sonata's structure, and about the book in general, is how closely it mimics that of Surface Detail. As in that novel, there is a plucky but clueless woman from outside the Culture who teams up with a sardonic and unexpectedly lethal ship's avatar; a Contact agent who ends up doing a lot less than we'd expect; a villain whose evil is signposted by making him arrogant, vain, and sexually rapacious; and a group of Culture Minds who are trying to manage the situation from afar (this plot strand recalls Excession as much as Surface Detail, and indeed that novel's Interesting Times Gang is even namechecked). But then, perhaps this mirroring is less surprising when one considers that the two novels' subject matters are themselves mirror images. Surface Detail was a novel about a manmade hell--about civilizations that try to manufacture justice by condemning the stored mind-states of their deceased citizens to virtual torment. The Hydrogen Sonata is a novel about an actual, provable heaven--even if, as the novel is at pains to note, no one knows what the Sublime is like, and all attempts to study it have failed. Both are, fundamentally, stories about death and what comes after it.
The problem with The Hydrogen Sonata--which becomes even more glaring when you notice its similarities to Surface Detail--is that the subject of the Sublime isn't actually very interesting. Especially in comparison to the elaborate, baroque hells in Surface Detail, and to the chewy questions they posed--what does it say about a society that it chooses to enact justice through torture? Is revenge ever justified? What level of violence can be excused in the pursuit of justice?--the Sublime, and the decision to end one's existence in this plane and ascend to another, are frustratingly vague. (To be clear, I didn't think Surface Detail did a particularly good job of answering these questions, but merely raising them made it more interesting than The Hydrogen Sonata.) Partly that's by necessity--describing heaven is a lot trickier than inventing hell--but even when Banks has the chance to write around the problem, by discussing the attitudes of those about to Sublime, he doesn't seem to know how to handle the question. Our windows onto Gzilt society are Vyr, who is conflicted about Subliming but seems content to go along with it; Banstegeyn, who is as far from an evolved consciousness as one might imagine and who seems to have instigated the Subliming largely because it flatters his sense of self-importance (in one scene, he extracts a bribe from the representative of a species hoping to gain access to Gzilt planets and technology in the form of a promise to name a star after him); and various military officers, who have no qualms about committing atrocities (among other things, causing the real deaths of thousands of fellow citizens who were days away from living forever) because they're just following orders, and anyway, soon none of it will matter.
All of this points to a larger problem with The Hydrogen Sonata, and with the later Culture books in general: Banks never managed to create another alien civilization as interesting as the Culture. The Gzilt are extremely undeveloped, unconvincing as a civilization distinct from the Culture but equal to it in technological and cultural complexity, and not particularly interesting. They're meant to have reached a civilizational pinnacle--to have decided, as a culture and by popular vote, to leave this plane of existence, and yet it's never clear why. A civilization that made this decision should, it seems, have something special or different about them. Its citizens should behave differently--tired of life, inward looking, excited about the future, anything. Instead, the Gzilt feel like placeholders, their existence justified merely by the fact that the Culture would never make the choice they are making, so another species has to be invented in order for Banks to tell a story about it.
Late in the book, someone finally says what any sensible reader will have been thinking for hundreds of pages--that whether or not the Book of Truth is a lie doesn't actually matter. If the Gzilt have truly made the monumental decision to Sublime, this revelation (which many of them will anyway surely have guessed) isn't what's going to stop them. But because we have no idea why the Gzilt wanted to Sublime in the first place, the fact that the central question of the novel turns out to be meaningless only makes the novel as a whole feel even more so. In his review of the novel, Adam Roberts suggests that the Gzilt's ordinariness is part of the point--that Banks is poking fun at the SF trope of ascending to a higher plane of existence (and of the religious concept of the Rapture) by making the people about to achieve it as ordinary as we are, and perhaps even less admirable (for one thing, none of the villains of the novel are ever punished or even exposed, and no one in Gzilt society seems interested in an accounting for the thousands of deaths that result from the novel's events). But the kind of satire he's suggesting, if it was indeed Banks's intention, requires a much sharper, more focused novel than The Hydrogen Sonata, which like most later Culture novels is baggy and meandering.
Of course, all Culture novels are ultimately about the Culture. Surface Detail's fixation with the hells offered a contrast to the Culture's decision to address injustice in the here and now, before people die, and offered yet another opportunity to muse on the costs of that determination. If The Hydrogen Sonata doesn't have much of interest to say about Subliming, that's probably because the Culture itself isn't interested in it. And in the absence of that final frontier, what's left to it? What's left to anyone, in fact, in a post-scarcity society, where life can be as long as you like? The answer that Banks has always given, where the Culture is concerned, is "self-satisfied do-gooding," and The Hydrogen Sonata offers a particularly cynical take on that truism when the Minds who have been pursuing the answer about the Book of Truth--and who have caused, albeit indirectly, a great deal of damage and death in that pursuit, as they compelled Banstegeyn's forces to use ever more extreme force in order to suppress it--decide to do nothing with it, and leave Gzilt space, congratulating each other on a job well-done. Like everyone, The Hydrogen Sonata seems to be saying, the Culture is just filling up time, and if its actions aren't leading up to a grand act of good (or evil), who cares? It's something to do.
Perhaps the reason that The Hydrogen Sonata has left me so unsatisfied is that it's impossible to read it without being aware of the counterpoint to that conclusion. In the world of Banks's novels, everyone can live forever. In the real world, so many people live shorter lives than they deserve. Some people die when they still have so much left to give to the world. Some get a prognosis of a year, and then die two months later, robbing them and their loved ones of even those brief, paltry months. For a Culture novel that is so much about death to have so little to say about this heartbreaking truth, especially now, feels like a waste. The Culture has always been a civilization that did not have to deal with our problems, but rather with the ones that emerge when poverty, suffering, and inequality are eliminated. For once, that feels insufficient.
I didn't expect The Hydrogen Sonata to be very good--the buzz was against it, and none of the recent Culture novels have been on the level of the earlier ones. But I hoped that it would have more meat on it, more that it wanted to say or do. I wanted to have more to say about it, even if it was all bad. Instead, the most cutting criticism I can make of the novel is this: in my paperback edition, there is a publisher's interview with Banks. In it, he refers briefly to his future plans for more SF books, to further ideas about the Culture that he'd like to write about. In an entire novel about death and leaving the world, there is nothing that moved and saddened me as much as that interview, and the knowledge that its promise will never come to pass.