#CBR4 Maneuver #39 – The Hydrogen Sonata
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Expanded Continuity
Summary: From goodreads.com, “It is, truly, provably, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization.
An ancient people, they helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier 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 civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.
Amidst 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 – 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. Cossont must discover the truth before she’s exiled from her people and her civilization forever – or just plain killed.”
After Action Report:
Having reviewed more than half of Banks’ excellent Culture novels, I’m getting to a point where I’ve run out of things to say. The Hydrogen Sonata continues the series’ exploration of the galactic metacivilization called the Culture with the same strong storytelling and eye for humor. The themes Banks is exploring are natural extensions of those we found in Look to Windward and Excession. Of course, the problem with consistency, even good consistency, is that it is boring to read about.
The Hydrogren Sonata focuses primarily on the problems faced by a society preparing to ‘Sublime.’ If you’re not familiar with Banks’ terminology, Subliming is a process that civilizations, or extremely advanced AIs, undergo to abandon the material world and become creatures of pure energy and thought. The exact nature of the Sublime realm is appropriately mysterious, but most if not all of the players in galactic civilization see it as a natural step in the evolution of a species. Of course, removing an entire culture from the universe is far from a simple process. The Gzilt have spent centuries preparing for the transition, and now, days before they will make the transition, some unexpected problems have cropped up.
While there are several protagonists, Vyr Cossont’s sections take up the bulk of the novel. We’re introduced to Vyr attempting to play the eponymous Hydrogen Sonata, a pathologically complex piece of music written for an instrument that can only be properly played with four arms. Without getting too heavily into the symbolism, the sonata is a metaphor for the main plot of the book, an insane and complicated quest that ultimately accomplishes nothing. Vyr is used as a cat’s-paw by members of the Gzilt military and a cadre of Culture Minds in an attempt to track down an obscure and possibly useless piece of data that may or may not have any effect on the Subliming.
Of course, just because a quest is meaningless doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Once again, Banks seeks to critique the universe he’s created by exploring events from the perspective of the Culture Minds, incredibly powerful AIs who effectively govern the culture, when they’re not too busy running complex simulations. Their involvement in the Gzilt Sublime is almost on trial in the novel, as the various intellects debate the value of interfering in other societies and asking if they even have the right to tell the truth if it has the potential to damage an entire civilization.
The book also touches on the problem of simulations, something Banks has written about before in The Algebraist. In order for a simulation to be reliable and accurate enough to predict individual human behavior, it must, on some level, be indistinguishable from reality. If this is the case, then the inhabitants of said simulation are effectively living creatures, even if only in a digital substrate, and must be afforded rights. The obvious chain of though here is that we, ourselves, could be nothing more than simulations being run in some sort of supercomputer.
Philosophy aside, The Hydrogen Sonata has its share of action, epic space battles and some deeply funny moments. You’ll laugh out loud when you learn the rest of the Mistake Not…’s Name. As always, the draw of the novel is Banks’ ability to blend the high concept space opera with the fun, tongue-in-cheek humor. That these books have such broad appeal, and that they are so consistently well received, proves that the series is of significant merit. While The Hydrogen Sonata may be a bit too technical to be a good entry point to the series, it’s still a wonderful book, and one I plan on re-reading.