Culture club: what it knows about the Gzilt’s holy book

The Hydrogen Sonata

Iain M. Banks
Orbit; £20
Review: Val Nolan

For the past 25 years, Scotland’s Iain M Banks has been at the forefront of the so-called ‘new’ space opera, a darker, character-based incarnation of a melodramatic sub-genre. This, his 12th novel of science fiction, and his 26th overall, is a perfect example of the plucky characters, snarky, squabbling artificial intelligences, and dynamic, explosive space battles that have made his writing so popular.

Banks’s ninth novel set against the backdrop of ‘the Culture,’ a multi-species, post-scarcity, liberal utopia of hippies with weapons of mass destruction, The Hydrogen Sonata is one of the first glimpses readers have of this anarchic society’s mysterious origins.

The novel investigates the intersection of myth, religion, and science that has typified Banks’s recent fiction, expanding on the intricate mentoring relationships between the inhabitants of the Matryoshka-like Shell Word, in Matter (2008), as well as the artificial afterlives of Surface Detail (2010). It is, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke’s dictum, the story of a society with technology indistinguishable from magic confronting a mystical state of being. The novel opens with the Gzilt, a “civilisation as old and as capable” as the Culture, on the verge of “subliming”, transiting into a realm Banks describes with characteristic flippancy as “the almost tangible, entirely believable, mathematically verifiably nirvana just a few right-angle turns away from dear boring old reality: a vast, infinite, better-than-virtual ultra-existence with no off-switch”. They are ascending bodily into a technological heaven, transforming en masse into a kind of non-corporeal gestalt existence.

With only days to go, this great “enfolding” is threatened by revelations regarding the Gzilt’s eerily prescient holy book; is it nothing more than a sociological experiment by long-vanished aliens? Have the Gzilt been manipulated throughout their history and what does the Culture know about it? To discover the truth, an inexperienced officer, Cossont, is dispatched to find the oldest human alive, a 9,000-year-old musician who might remember what happened.

Banks’s imagination does not disappoint. The Hydrogen Sonata brings to life an atmosphere-piercing city that girdles a world, a mountain range bored through with enormous tunnels to create “a sound like an orchestra of hundreds of gigantic organs,” and an immense starship “home to hundreds of billions of animals and over thirteen billion humans”. The novel’s dark humour is punctuated by tremendous combat scenes — a heavy-munitions spat in a library of “disputed, superseded, or just plain long-proved-wrong knowledge” stands out.

A quest narrative crossed with a grand tour, The Hydrogen Sonata is baggier than previous Culture novels, but, with its large number of idiosyncratically named characters and its circuitous subplots, it may not be the best place for new Banks readers to begin. That said, everything comes together in the final, blistering 100 pages.

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