The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata was the last novel, and the last Culture novel, Iain Banks published before he died in 2013. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it.

An ancient people organised on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the culture ten thousand years ago and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilisations: they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Amid preparations, though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted — dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago.

It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilisation are likely to prove its most perilous.

And that synopsis doesn’t come close to capturing the scale of this novel which, while built around a ten thousand year old conspiracy, really is an opportunity to spend time with a collection of Culture Ships.

Ships in the Culture are unimaginably advanced and unbelievably powerful artificial intelligences that are both fully autonomous and big — some of them measured in kilometers — with personalities to match.

And before anyone asks, the answer is yes: This blog is named after a Culture ship.

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are utopian science fiction at its best, and The Hydrogen Sonata is one of the best of the Culture novels. It explores some big ideas and may well have one of the strongest endings of any of the novels.

Now I’m thinking I should go back and read the whole series again.

2 thoughts on “The Hydrogen Sonata

  1. Weirdly I’ve read a lot of his stuff as Iain Banks but not Iain M. Banks. I don’t know why. Just too much stuff to read I suppose. But he was a brilliant writer so I’ll add that to a long list of ‘reading wrongs’ I need to right.

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    1. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Iain Banks as well and I agree that he was an absolutely superb writer.

      When he has the M in his name, he’s writing science fiction and it’s just as brilliant as his other stuff.

      It’s all well worth reading.

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