Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

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.


Tim Ward said...

I can never quite dismiss the Hydrogen Sonata despite it being kind of, you know, boring and pointless.

I can't help but feel that it's making some point I haven't quite grasped. What I do know is that there's sense of sadness about the book which I found and find quite affecting. It's a quiet and reflective kind of sadness that you might get when you, e.g, think of happy childhood memories but then remember that those days are long gone. Two years before Hydrogen Sonata I lost my dad and, well, there's just something about the feeling of listlessness and just... *something being missing* from the world in that novel that I couldn't help but find familiar. Even his beloved Minds seem to have lost their sense of purpose.

That last scene in particular, the epilogue with the main female character just sitting around in a newly empty city playing her space-tuba for the benefit of absolutely no one. Yeah, that was a thing. That hit home. I can't put into words exactly why, but it did.

It is so on point in places that it makes you wonder if he didn't know something about his illness sooner than he let on.

Then again, this was the guy who gave us Look to Windward almost exactly a year before 9/11.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree about that sense of sadness you identify Tim, especially in the book's opening and closing segments. But I think that the middle of the book makes that sadness maudlin rather than elegiac. This is a story in which thousands of people die for no reason and with no consequences for their killers, and the book gets away with that because those deaths happen as part of a fairly by the numbers space adventure. To suddenly turn around and be sad about life's pointlessness - but again, not about all the people who have just died - is perverse. I'd much rather read The Hydrogen Sonata as a cynical book than a sad one, because otherwise I think I'd find that sadness unbearably self-absorbed.

Jo Lindsay Walton said...

I remember as a really little kid having seen some Hieronymus Bosch or something I decided to draw Heaven and Hell, and I made the dividing line like two-thirds or maybe even three-quarters up the page, because, you know.

And then when I finally got around to adding something heavenly it was ice creams and it was mostly just queuing for them

Jo Lindsay Walton said...

I got a slightly heartbreaking sense of inchoate-ness from HS, like there was a lot in it that wasn't fully developed but actually set up interesting stuff for later ... like he kind of almost Midichlorianed Subliming (& the existence of the Sublimed felt shifted uncomfortably close to The Land of Infinite Fun) ... but it still felt like there was a continuing process of seeking relationships with transcendence / sensawunda / mysticism / enchantment / something, and a process that doesn't permit itself false or cheap or fraudulent tricks. But HS is a snapshot of that process in a moment of being hard on itself, of disenchantment?

Tim Ward said...


Yes, I think that's a fair criticism. The novel suffers from the same sort of plot and theme incoherence all his later (Matter, Surface Detail, HS) novels suffer from; lots of ideas, no real sense of why they belong in the same novel. But this time even the characters don't seem to know why they're doing what they're doing - one gets the impression that at this point the Minds are just playing the game for the sake of playing the game: intrigue for the sake of intrigue. And those people that were killed because of our shenanigans? Well, that's sad but it wasn't by our hand and they're only bios anyway so not that big a loss. So meh.

Yes, that did leave a bad taste in the mouth. And was directly contrary to how Minds and the Culture have been portrayed in the past. This is the civilisation that agonized over atrocities commited by the *other side* in LTW because they could have stopped the war sooner by accepting less favourable terms. And now, in Hyrdogen Sonata, Culture Minds respond to civilian death in war like a modern military PR person; 'regretable, but not technically our fault'. And it's the Mind's wisdom and benevolence that is the ultimate foundation of the entire Culture setting.

But I still think even these problems contribute to the emotional tone of the novel - at this point even Culture's lost it's sense of wonder (the Minds treat the plot like an irritating chore and don't even like each other) and is now paying only lip service to it's previously passionately held moral principles. And you're free to call that emotion self-absored or other unkinder things if you wish, and I probably wouldn't even argue with you if you did, but it nevertheless reflects a real emotion that people experience during their lives so I think exploring it in the way the novel did had worth. Sort of. If you squint.

Obviously, it would have been nice if it had done a better job of it.

Anyway. Great analysis, as always. I don't know how you managed to write a negative review that had me wanting to reread the novel in question. I hope we'll get to see your thoughts on some his non-genre work one day, it'd be fascinating to read your take on stuff like The Wasp Factory, the Bridge or Complicity.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I see what you're getting at (and I think Adam says some similar things in his review). But I definitely think it's something Banks has done better in the past - Excession, for example, does a better job of positing an indescribable unknown while still arriving at that sense of disenchantment you cite. And as I say in the review, I don't think Banks really commits to that disenchantment - yes, you have the end of Vyr's story, and it doesn't exactly come out of nowhere, but it also doesn't feel like what the bulk of the book is about.

I don't know. I can see the novel you're describing peeking out from under this one's flesh, but it's nowhere near what we got. As you say, heartbreaking.


I don't know how you managed to write a negative review that had me wanting to reread the novel in question

Hah! As I say in the review, I think the book gains a lot from the unfortunate circumstances in which I read it. It's hard not to invest it with a significance that the work itself doesn't quite earn.

I will probably read Banks's non-SF stuff at some poine (I think I have a few of them in my TBR). But it did take me ten years to get through his SF so it'll probably be a long process as well.

Jonathan M said...

It is striking how diffuse the later Culture novels are... The early novels are amazingly focused works that ask really pointed and difficult questions of the Culture whereas the later books are these sprawling fat fantasy-style toy boxes full of old jokes and junk rattling around without ever acquiring much shape or resonance.

Looking back over the Culture novels, I find it a bit unfortunate that he never bothered to ask any questions about how the Culture was actually run. Sure.. It's supposed to be this post-scarcity utopia where people wind up drifting into the niche that fits them before eventually drifting out of the Culture entirely but the reality is that the Culture was run by small groups of mandarin-like Minds who operate without any form of democratic accountability. You never hear of a human or a drone participating in those weird usenet-style discussion forums.

What annoyed me about the Hydrogen Sonata is that it's supposed to be a story about an advanced civilisation that was founded on a lie. It is also (I think) the only Culture novel to engage with the foundation of the Culture but despite having a story that seems to have been set up in order to suggest some Original Sin at the foundation of the Culture, that critique never comes. In fact, Banks wound up glossing over the foundation of the Culture in a way that made it seem as though nobody really cared about someone who was at the scene when galactic history was made. I guess that could have been part of the point, that the inhabitants of the Culture are all too pampered to give a shit about their own political history, but as you say of Adam's suggestion that the book might have been satirical; he really needed to put a lampshade on that shit as it really does not come across.

I regret that the Culture effectively wound up changing from a means of critiquing the concept of a liberal superpower to this rather twee version of the Federation that does all kinds of dodgy shit whilst remaining a kind of moral paragon simply because of its familiarity to the audience.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The early novels are amazingly focused works

Well. If you leave out Consider Phlebas, which is really the template for all three later novels. Excession, too, has that jumping back and forth between plotlines and set-pieces quality, as, in a different way, does Use of Weapons. Really, the only Culture novels that might be said to be truly focused are The Player of Games and Look to Windward, and they're constructed around a single, time-sensitive mission. Sprawl has always been part of Banks's SF writing, and at his best it's even part of his charm.

I think we do know how the Culture works. The issue is that we don't see consequences to that. If the Culture is truly as evolved as it claims to be, then its citizens should be interested in what those small groups of mandarin-like Minds get up to, and particularly what happens when they mess up. If they aren't, then that reflects poorly on the Culture in a way that the books, as you say, never seemed that interested in. I think it's only in Look to Windward that we actually get a discussion of this point, and it's definitely abandoned in the later Culture books.

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