Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Hydrogen Sonata

I think its fair to say that Iain (M) Banks has been my favorite science fiction author since I picked up Consider Phlebas many, many years back when I was first at university. I've a suspicion I picked it up at least in part because it was published in a slightly larger format, and so stood out on the shelf, and had a really cool reflective space-craft on the cover. But even if that was the reason, I fell for Banks as a writer, and fell for him hard. Even when my reading wandered away from the genre, I would still pick up the new Banks as they came out, filing them in my own personal ranking of "best" to "not as best as the others". And after Bank's death earlier this year, it meant that reading The Hydrogen Sonata in the knowledge that it is the last, not merely the latest Culture Novel, was a strangely somber experience.

It is strangely fitting then, that The Hydrogen Sonata is a book about endings. One of the Culture's peers is about to Sublime, the hard-to-explain passing over from the material galaxy to "somewhere else" that all civilizations eventually succumb to. As you might expect, they're checking the lights are turned off, and the paperwork is finished, and throwing a huge party in the final few weeks before transcending else-wards, and in the midst of this it seems that final secrets are set to be revealed, and even at this final moment there are many that don't wish these secrets to come out. So what you end up with is a lot of politicking, running around and general Space Opera coolness, against a backdrop of death and rebirth.

What works best about the book is that at heart its a very personal story. It talks about the evolution of civilizations, and grand clashes, and a lot of powerful people and Minds plot and scheme and worry, but really, nothing consequential actually comes of it. Some die, some live, some are changed, but there is a strange melancholia about the book that doesn't just come from reading it as a recently bereaved fan. Life, it transpires, goes on, and great plans of Mice and Men are pebbles on the beach of history, or to use one of the books own central metaphors, mere notes in the wider symphony.

So it goes, as one of my other favorite authors once said.

One of the joys of reading The Culture novels, specifically, is that Banks hasn't let them sit still. The books take place centuries apart, and gradually chart the evolution of the civilization itself, as well as throwing light on different aspects of it. The Culture of The Hydrogen Sonata isn't the Culture of Excession, or Use of Weapons, and here we see a glimpse of perhaps the Cultures eventual end, its own sublimation seeming not as wildly implausible as it may have done in earlier eras. Sadly, we'll never know, I guess.

I've still got one more Iain Banks novel to read - The Quarry - and then, sadly, there will be no more. So I'm putting that off. But still that's goodbye the Culture; you've been something to look forward for nearly 20 years of my life, and thank you for that.