(2012) Iain Banks, Orbit, £20.00, hrdbk, 517pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50150-5
Any self-respecting, early 21st century, science fiction fan of space opera writ large simply has to have satiate their thirst for the genre by dipping into the well of Iain Banks 'Culture' novels. These stand in the history of wide-screen SF along with the mid-20th century 'Trantor' novels of Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven's 'Known Space', not to mention shoulder-to-shoulder with his contemporary Alastair Reynolds' 'Revelation Space'. This is science fiction where engineering is at the planetary scale, where space ships can be many miles long and (naturally) travel at many times the speed of light. This is where artificial intelligence is not called artificial intelligence as the term 'artificial' would be demeaning (if not sacrilegious) to such respectable sentients. The Hydrogen Sonata is one such novel.
The 'Culture', for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a merged collective of ultra high-tech human-like species who live in a post-monetary civilisation along with (artificial) minds. These exist in varying degrees of complexity from small drones (the size of a handbag) to larger entities that control huge spacecraft the size of small moons. The 'Culture' has existed for many thousands of years (ironically/coincidentally roughly the length of the Holocene for those with a science/human ecology bent)). It represents one of the most advanced civilisations in the Galaxy. Indeed there are none significantly more advanced as those civilisations evolve to a higher plane of existence (actually at some of the right angles to the rolled-up dimensions we currently hypothesise with M-theory). These 'more-evolved' species have collectively sublimed from 'The Real'.
The Gzilt, like the Culture, are high-level Involved (in the affairs of the Galaxy) and an old civilisation. So old that they had a part in helping establish the Culture and can be considered to have the same status as the Culture as one of the mature civilisations in The Real in the Galaxy. However they have now (or the vast majority of them) have decided to 'sublime' and leave The Real for their next evolutionary stage. As such some of the junior civilisations are taking an interest: keen to get their share of the technology the Gzilt will leave behind once they have sublimed.
Though those in The Real are very aware of subliming, few sublimed individuals return to The Real and those that do have difficulty in explaining exactly what the other plane of existence is like other than it seems limitless and that perceptions are very different there. Furthermore those that do return to The Real seldom stay for very long: they always (eventually) return to The Sublime. Of course when a civilization Sublimes, not all individuals make this evolutionary leap. A tiny minority stay behind either out of choice or to fulfil some specific purpose for the civilisation concerned, or both. Those that remain behind are Remnanters.
Nearly a month before the Gzilt are due to Sublime a Remnanter ship of the Zihdren approaches Gzilt space to pay their respects and witness the Gzilt's own sublimation. The Zihdren-Remnanter is met by a Gzilt craft who on interrogating it discovers a hidden Zihdren message – a kind of an apology – for the Gzilt. For whatever reason, this does not go down well and the Gzilt craft destroys the Zihdren-Remnanter (together with many kilometres depth of a fragment of former planet that happened to be in the line of fire behind). Such is the brief but destructive burst of energy that it is noticed many light years away by both a Culture ship and, of course, Gzilt officials (who are unaware of what one of its own craft has done).
Vyr Cossont – Lieutenant Commander (reserve) – is spending the last few weeks prior to Subliming learning to play T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, MW 1211, or – as it is more commonly known – The Hydrogen Sonata. This requires a special 11-string instrument and an extra pair of arms which Cossont had grown especially for the task. However she is suddenly taken out of retirement by the Gzilt authorities to investigate an aspect of the Zihdren-Remnanter incident as apparently it might have something to do with a very old person from the Culture whom Cossont happened to meet many year's earlier.
Meanwhile the scavenger species are circling…
Banks is once again bang on form with this latest (9th) 'Culture' book (13th SF title or 14th including Transition) and this one has a galactic scope. (Unlike some of the 'Culture' stories that focus on a comparative backwater for contrast; Matter, his last but one Culture offering, being a case in point.) And so we have high-powered space combat, snollygoster politics, highly intelligent minds with a dry sense of humour (or at least it seems that way), and the goings on of resource-rich, ultra advanced civilisations. All good stuff.
Of course Iain is not Alastair Reynolds, so you have to be a little forgiving of some of the finer science detail: this being the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation one has to touch upon this. (For example, small stars have a longer, not shorter, life than large stars whose fusion is fast and furious… But then brown dwarfs are currently a bit of an unknown and while our theories of stellar fusion are good, there is decided room for improvement. All of which means that there is plenty of SFnal wriggle room for stars close to brown dwarf mass having a short life should an author wish to signal this.) Such deviation from the science can throw readers who may mistake it for an SFnal clue as to what is going on. If this had been Reynolds I would not have forgiven him as that man has worked in space research. But Iain's novels are more concerned with the politicking (small 'p') of his characters: Iain does his own thing, and he does it so delightfully that one easily forgives some of the finer science nuance. In any case, heck, why Hertzsprung-Russell about when you have a galactically Involved's future at stake!
And this brings us to this the whole civilisation subliming thing. This, of course, is something of a minor trope within SF that was notably explored by Arthur C Clarke back in 1953 with Childhood's End, and it is simply great to see it get the Banks' treatment.
In the end this novel is another page-turner for Culture vultures. Hugely entertaining. More please.
The Hydrogen Sonata has been cited by a number of the SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best science fiction books of 2012.
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