Book review: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

Iain Banks. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Iain Banks. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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EARLIER this year, Iain Gray MSP revealed in this newspaper that Iain M Banks is his favourite writer, one he regards as even better than the author’s mainstream alter-ego, who lacks a middle initial.

The Hydrogen Sonata

by Iain M Banks

Orbit, 517Pp, £20

When Gray had been the Scottish Labour leader, his advisers had refused to let him publicise his enthusiasm since they felt that admitting he enjoyed science fiction would be political suicide. To Gray’s credit, he went on to acknowledge that, “As it turns out, there are other ways to do that which are all too real.”

While this minor revelation reads at first like an out-take from The Thick of It, it has a worrying undercurrent: perish the thought that politicians should speculate about different ways of doing things, never mind the future. Iain M Banks clearly disagrees because politics are central to his science fiction.

The Hydrogen Sonata is the tenth book in the Culture series, which chronicles what the Chinese would call the interesting times of an interstellar utopia. The Culture is an anarchic collective of humanoids, other species and formidable artificial intelligences who have collectively transcended scarcity. Their advanced technology means that everything is free and the free stuff includes almost anything. Of course, utopias, however attractive, are not wellsprings of dramatic conflict, so the novels focus on the rough edges of the Culture and what happens when these grate against other civilisations.

In The Hydrogen Sonata, that society is the Gzilt, who played a part in the foundation of the Culture millennia earlier, only to decide not to join after all. This paradoxical civilisation with a military structure but a long history of peace is preparing to Sublime. In other words, they are going to leave the physical universe behind and ascend to a higher plane of existence in the hi-tech equivalent of the fundamentalist Rapture. The problem is, at a time when they should be saying goodbye to their neighbours, and deciding on who will inherit their territories and technology, something is rotten in the state of the Gzilt.

Their Book of Truth is unique because its predictions have almost all come true, accurately anticipating phenomena that could not have been imagined when it was written. These sacred writings beg important questions that some powerful figures do not want answered, and clandestine forces will commit murder and even precipitate a war in order to do so.

Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt musician who has modified herself by adding two extra arms to play the titular sonata on a challenging musical instrument, is recalled to service to track down the oldest person in the Culture. Her quarry was there at the beginning 10,000 years ago and may know the truth about the Book of Truth. Cossont’s three collaborators include a cross between a familiar and a fashion accessory, an android that believes itself to be acting in a simulation, and a Culture spacecraft called the Mistake Not … whose full name provides a splendid punchline near the end of the novel.

The Hydrogen Sonata is what Brian Aldiss called Wide-Screen Baroque: “a kind of free-wheeling interplanetary adventure, full of brilliant scenery, dramatic scenes and a joyous taking for granted of the unlikely”. The novel is jam-packed with the extraordinary invention that epitomises Banks’ science fiction. A vast city girdles the equator of one world, while an artificial moon orbits another in a trench cut into the surface, and characters change not only their appearance, but their species.

But these moments of imaginative exuberance and the pell-mell cloak-and-dagger plot are there to sweeten the bitter doses of medicine he administers in his space operas. Even as his characters try to find out the real story behind the Book of Truth, Banks poses a question for himself as author as much as to the great Minds of the Culture: “Once you could reliably model whole populations within your simulated environment, at the level of detail and complexity that meant individuals within that simulation had some sort of independent existence, the question became; how god-like, and how cruel, did you want to be?”

Even though Banks has used his swashbuckling space operas to interrogate difficult questions for 25 years, these novels are often dismissed, usually by people who haven’t read them. First Minister and self-proclaimed “obsessive Trekkie” Alex Salmond asked him at last year’s Edinburgh book festival, “Why is it Iain M Banks for the science fiction and Iain Banks for the good books?” That is a false dichotomy, if ever there was one, and Banks has stated that he makes no literary distinction between the increasingly convergent strands of his output.

Nevertheless, his science fiction novels can do things that his mainstream work can’t. For instance, in spite of all its high adventure and philosophical speculation, The Hydrogen Sonata can quite easily be read as a satire on the Scottish independence debate worthy of Jonathan Swift. Our politicians and their advisers should take note of a book that not only contemplates political suicide, but cultural self-immolation as well.