Monday, December 10, 2012

Review: The Hydrogen Sonata

Any Iain Banks book automatically gets put on hold at the library. Triply so when it's a Culture novel. The Hydrogen Sonata is the latest Banks novel, and it's a romp and a fun read, but unfortunately, feels very much like an episode of American TV series pre-Buffy: status quo is reset and there's a bit of hollowness involved.
One of the biggest problems with writing a Culture novel is that the Culture is so technologically superior to most civilizations that they encounter that its ships and technology have no equal and face practically no resistance as they go about their tasks. To counter-balance that in this novel, Banks introduces the Gzilt, a civilization older than the Culture, and that was invited but declined to join the Culture during its setup phase.
As an elder race, the Gzilt has decided to Sublime, going off into hyper-dimensions (Banks clearly read quite a bit about string theory and incorporated what he learned into the novel) and saying goodbye to the Real. But before they can do so, they're contacted by a predecessor civilization which tells them of a terrible secret.

This secret was so terrible that it sparked off fratricide within the Gzilt,  Prompting Culture ships to get involved in understanding the secret. You'll notice that at no point do I mention human/humanoid protagonists. That's because in the Culture, humanoids are relatively ineffectual compared to ships and their minds.

If you enjoyed Excession, you'll enjoy this book. There's very much a similar setup, with a group of Culture minds discussing amongst themselves what to do next, how to approach the problem, and possibly kibitz amongst each other with regards as to what the right thing to do is. The primary human protagonist is uninteresting, in that all that she's good at is getting lucky. She just gets dragged along by one event after another, and when she's finally done, she doesn't seem to do anything with what she knows.

Ultimately, though, the terrible secret isn't very terrible, and in fact, you get a foreshadowing of what the secret was the entire time, and the fact that status quo is more or less retained at the end of the novel despite the reveal makes the entire novel feel empty.

Would I recommend this novel? Yes. It's a fun read, even though the ending was a let down. However, if you've never read a Culture novel before, I'd recommend that you read Use of Weapons instead. That's one novel that's great throughout and doesn't feel like a let down at the end.

Mildly recommended.

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