The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

May 27, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 3 Comments
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Hydrogen Sonata coverThe Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth (and sadly, almost certainly the last) novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Readers who haven’t read any Culture books might infer from that fact they should start elsewhere, perhaps with the first book, if they want to try this popular and influential series. In fact, despite sharing a setting, each Culture novel stands alone and really one can start anywhere and be fine. Conventional wisdom says Player of Games is the best place to start, and that from there readers should move on to Use of Weapons. Usually people say they are more accessible, especially Player of Games, but really if accessibility is the only concern then one might as well start with the first book, Consider Phlebas. The reason why I wholly endorse starting with Player of Games and Use of Weapons is that I think they’re head and shoulders better than every other novel in the series, making them not only the best place to start but also a surprisingly good place to stop. But a detailed discussion of their particular qualities will have to wait for another day; having provided guidance to readers new to the series, I can in clear conscience spend the rest of this review discussing The Hydrogen Sonata in the broader context of the series.

The setup this time is that the venerable Gzilt civilization has been winding down for some time and is now mere weeks from Subliming, a process by which a civilization irrevocably transfers its individuals out of our universe and into a new and incomprehensible plane of existence. But as they prepare for their society-wide death and rebirth, a message sent to the Gzilt by a long transcended civilization is intercepted and destroyed. Vyr Cossont is sent to the Culture to discover the message and the dangerous truth behind it, a revelation that could change the course of her entire people.

That’s a barebones plot summary of The Hydrogen Sonata, the sort you might find on the back of the novel or on its Amazon page. It’s conventional in such writing to avoid even vague references to the ending, but if it weren’t, the summary would be made much more accurate by appending the sentence, “But, in fact, nothing comes of it.”

Nothing coming of it is a surprisingly common ending for Culture novels, starting all the way back in Consider Phlebas and showing up in Excession, Look to Windward, and especially in the penultimate novel Surface Detail. When I finished reading Surface Detail, I was frustrated by the way all of its many viewpoint characters turned out to be irrelevant to the outcome. If anything, Hydrogen Sonata doubles down on this concept. I would have expected this to be even more frustrating, but it forced me to start thinking harder about why Banks insists on writing stories this way. It’s far from the best Culture novel, but I think it might be the one that best captures what Banks has been trying to do with the series for at least two decades. In light of that, and it being the last book, it seems appropriate to discuss the entire series in addition to just The Hydrogen Sonata.

In a recent post, Andrew Rilstone argued that the Star Trek universe is a general purpose “story-making machine” in ways the Doctor Who universe is not. The accuracy of that proposition, hotly debated in the comments on his blog, need not detain us here, but I mention it because I think the Culture universe is a story-making machine…but a very narrow one. You can, of course, tell any sort of story within the Culture setting, but it would contribute nothing more than scenery to, say, a detective story, a comedy of manners, or even a generic SF space opera story. The Culture as an idea has special relevance to two particular themes: the ethics of intervention and the search for meaning in an atheist universe. Even when Banks tries to use the setting to talk about something else, like the idea one might create afterlives in virtual reality for uploaded minds, the presence of the Culture warps the story back toward its two core ideas.

All of which is to say, while each Culture book is independent from the others and theoretically unique in its concerns, they all tend to be talking about the same things. But if they’re all about the same thing, why does nearly every reader agree that Player of Games and Use of Weapons are at least very good while opinions vary wildly about the merits of the other seven novels? There must be something that sets them apart, yet in many respects all nine Culture novels have similar qualities. Banks’ facility for witty dialogue, his excruciating character names, and his believable if not profound characterization are all remarkably consistent across nine novels and twenty-five years, and if anything the prose is more polished in Banks’ later work. I believe that while every Culture novel discusses intervention, after the first three there was a significant shift. To explain that shift, I have to start with the observation that in addition to having two themes, the Culture setting presents Banks with two problems.

The first is that if Culture Minds are nigh-invulnerable, nigh-infallible, and nigh-omnipotent, what do they need humans for? From the start, Banks acknowledges this problem, explaining in the 1994 “Notes on the Culture” that humans have a status “somewhere between pets and parasites”. The trouble is that as readers we enjoy hearing about the exploits of people at least recognizable as humanish if not actually human. It’s a common observation that the Culture is too utopian for Banks to find enough conflict to tell stories there, forcing him out to the fringes, but it’s actually more troublesome that the protagonists are at best pets. If it’s hard to tell stories about happy people, it’s even harder to tell stories about happy dogs.

Banks begins by resorting to special cases. In Consider Phlebas, he posits a planet from which both Culture Minds and Idirians are barred but the human-equivalent protagonist is allowed to land. In the next novel, Player of Games, the idea is that a human is needed to enter an alien culture’s game tournament. But already this approach was showing worrying cracks. Why not just claim a Mind’s avatar is a human? It’s not like Special Circumstances isn’t willing to lie for the cause, and surely they could put one over the the Empire of Azad? In the “present day” storyline of Use of Weapons, the Culture needs not Zakalwe’s talents per se but his special relationship to a foreign politician, but he formed that relationship on one of his many Special Circumstances missions. The whole narrative falls apart if Zakalwe isn’t valuable as an agent.

Now we must pause to note that as a flaw goes, this isn’t serious. After all, despite these nitpicks Player of Games is very good and someday I will argue that Use of Weapons is a genuinely great novel. Yet though a small issue, if it’s a minor itch in the back of some readers’ mind while they spend a few days reading one of the early Culture books, one imagines that it may well have become magnified in the mind of the author, immersed for months and years in the creation of the novels.

And so in Excession, the narrative focus shifted and while there were humanish characters involved in the story, the story’s conflict is both caused and resolved by Minds. Excession is popular among Banks fans because it foregrounds the Minds and lets them chew the scenery, blowing things up and cracking wise. But it pays a heavy price for what might only slightly unfairly be called fan service. It rapidly becomes obvious that the longer Minds remain on stage and in the spotlight, the harder it is to take them seriously as vast intellects far beyond the ken of humanity. No matter how we might try to forget it, when the Minds move their massive starships, they move them at the behest of the author of the novel, a mere human somewhere between pet and parasite. When they speak, he is throwing his voice to speak on their behalf. It’s not impossible for this to work, but like all illusions, it works best in small doses.

Perhaps Banks concluded the same thing, for in the rest of the Culture series he lets human protagonists come back to the fore. In Inversions, he just dodges the utility question and again leaves himself open to nitpicking. If two human operatives disagree on how best to intervene, why are they running parallel operations instead of having a Mind settle the question for them? In Look to Windward, Matter, and Surface Detail human Culture agents don’t contribute much and even people from outside the Culture find themselves mere cogs in the games of their betters if not totally irrelevant.

Unfortunately, while marginalizing the human characters makes logical sense, it goes a long way toward undermining reader satisfaction in the stories being told. If these people can’t contribute, why did we just spend the novel watching them stumble around the story happening around them? Many great novels have been written in which the protagonists are utterly passive, of course, but the Culture novels are space operas that spend a lot of time on action and adventure. We expect that action and adventure to produce an important outcome, as in Player of Games, or failing that, to produce genuine insight into character, as in Use of Weapons. In most of the later Culture novels, nothing much comes of it.

But the Culture novels aren’t merely action adventures, they’re novels of ideas. If I’m right about the Culture setting’s affinity for the two ideas I mentioned earlier, a great Culture novel must have fascinating things to say about one of them, if not both. That brings us to the other problem Banks has encountered with the Culture setting: in the real world, the politics of intervention shifted dramatically over the course of the series. I haven’t heard Banks describe a specific influence for his conception of Contact, but given the Culture is intended as a perfected left-wing society it’s reasonable to suppose he was looking to a left-wing antecedent, the Communist International. Of course, as soon as the novels were published readers began drawing connections closer to home: the anti-Communist agents of the Western governments, in particular the United States.

Whichever model he had in mind, Banks took the idea of a powerful state interfering in a weak one, an idea opposed both by the right (when they thought Comintern agents were sabotaging capitalist economies) and the left (which saw the quagmires of the Cold War as a rebranding of colonialism), and presented the strongest possible argument in its favor. Unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, the Culture’s superintelligent Minds really do know better than the “savages” they are manipulating, and the values they promote are difficult to argue with. How could anyone object to such wise assistance? Right out of the gate, Consider Phlebas gives us a protagonist who does object and starts exploring the consequences. Player of Games and Use of Weapons go considerably farther down this road, and their development of this theme is much of the reason they are still worth reading two decades later.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union brought about a new, supposedly unipolar world in which intervention became inextricably linked with American hegemony, Banks no longer seemed comfortable telling stories about perfected intervention. When in 1996 Excession depicted a less advanced race, the Affront, unknowingly being used as a chess piece in internal Culture politics, it was the first crack in the idea that Culture Minds are nearly perfect. Look to Windward, dedicated “to the Gulf War veterans”, takes this further with its meditations on costly mistakes made in the Culture’s war against in the Idirians and, especially, the Chelgarian civil war, a tragedy resulting from a botched Culture intervention. Matter repositions the Culture as just one of a delicately balanced group of great powers, each supporting less advanced civilizations who themselves have their own spheres of influence including still less advanced cultures. And in Surface Detail, the Culture is for political reasons carefully neutral in the novel’s central conflict despite clearly favoring the anti-Hell side (and working covertly on its behalf).

The effect of all this is to considerably walk back from the first three novels’ picture of the Culture as only just short of all-knowing and all-capable. It goes some way towards preventing readers from taking the Culture as an endorsement of the American neo-conservatives Banks loathes, but it does so by reducing the distance between the Culture as an entity and present countries, particularly America. The Minds are no longer just talking like humans, they’re making the exact same sorts of mistakes humans make.

It’s not that people shouldn’t write stories about misguided or failed interventions. Quite the opposite, it’s obvious those are enormously relevant and important scenarios to think through. But is the Culture the right tool to examine questions of foreign policy and national guilt? No, I would argue, because somehow after nine novels it’s still not clear how exactly the Culture decides to do anything. Supposedly it is a democracy, but we never see the sausages actually getting made, and the impression is always that the Minds decide among themselves what to do without much concern for their lovable pets and parasites. So it’s all and well and good for a Culture citizen to wring their hands and feel a distant and diffuse sense of guilt over the Chelgarians or the conduct of the Idirian War, but is there anything one person, or even one Mind, can do differently? Should they become activists and try to convince their fellow citizens to their own way of thinking? Should the system be reformed? It’s hard to say when we never understand the system in the first place.

For anyone who’s familiar with Thucydides even in summary, contrast the Culture’s botched inventions against his description of the Athenian democracy’s calamitous invasion of Sicily. Sure, that failed intervention has the advantage of having actually happened, but more importantly, we are shown the series of decisions that led to the disaster, allowing us to discuss in concrete terms whether Athens failed in spite of its democracy or because of it. No similar judgment is possible with the Culture. Characters inside and outside the Culture complain about Special Circumstances and say there needs to be more control, but is control even possible in the Culture’s system? The only real civic action we ever hear about is secession.

Another way of putting this is that the Culture series supports stories about the experience of utopia but not the politics of it. This isn’t an inevitable outgrowth of the setting itself, but it’s the way Banks writes it. With a few quick asides, he establishes but never fleshes out the Culture’s fusion of democracy with anarchic consensus, then never challenges the effectiveness of this non-government even while writing stories that are increasingly critical of its outcomes. If we conclude, as is extremely tempting, that the government he’s really criticizing is not that of the Culture but those of the present day, then we give up on the idea of the Culture as an ideal utopia and it becomes just another Earth-analogue space government.

Beyond intervention, there is the series’ other great theme, the search for individual meaning. This isn’t actually as separate as it sounds, because from the beginning Banks’ best answer to the question of what people should do when all their needs are met is that they should help other people. People outside the Culture, that is, since by definition Culture citizens don’t need anything.

That’s not to say it’s his only answer. The series gives the impression that the vast majority of Culture citizens fill their days with varying combinations of sex, drugs, thrill-seeking, and creative expression. It’s for this reason, by the way, that I always hesitate when people say the Culture is a communist utopia. The Culture citizen does not own everything in common with their fellow citizens; they merely can afford to own whatever they want. This strikes me as, if not a capitalist utopia then at least a consumerist utopia. Freed of scarcity, most Culture citizens happily gorge themselves on their preferred mode of consumption no matter how expensive.

But although this is generally the part of the Culture people are thinking of when they say that, unlike most speculative fiction settings, it would be a wonderful place to live, Banks carefully rations exposure to this side of the Culture and most of his protagonists have an eye-rolling disregard for the intoxicated masses. If life isn’t just about gratifying one’s own desires, what then? If we aren’t to turn inward, then we must turn outward, but toward what? The divine is a popular answer in our world, but the Culture (presumably following the author’s own preferences) has little time for religion. Another outward option is to serve the inanimate world, but while the Culture are described as fervent environmentalists, in practice this never comes to the foreground in the novels, nor does Banks seem to have ever put much effort into making their beliefs on this subject consistent (they oppose planetary terraforming as wilderness-destroying, Banks says in the Notes, right after describing how comets and asteroids are strip-mined to create enormous orbitals).

That basically leaves helping other people as the only option left, and this is where the series’ loss of faith in intervention comes into play. If intervening in other cultures is too risky for even Culture Minds to manage, what’s left for the thoughtful Culture citizen?

For the answer to that, we should turn, finally, to the ninth entry in the Culture series, the novel you surely assumed I had forgotten I was reviewing, The Hydrogen Sonata. I’ve described my theories about the series’ trends in such exhaustive detail not because Hydrogen Sonata breaks with them, but because it takes them to their logical conclusion.

The plot concerns, as usual, a Culture intervention in another civilization’s affairs. Or rather, a theoretical intervention, because after much posturing and scurrying around, nothing comes of it. The not-all-that-momentous secret from the beginning of the Culture is discovered, but then not disclosed. The Gzilt head off to wherever it is they’re going, just like they’ve been planning to do for centuries. Previous Culture novels have ended in whimpering anti-climaxes, but this one is on another level. The matter is decided in an Excession-style Mind conference, with the rhetorical equivalent of unenthusiastic shrugs and mumbling without eye contact. The tepid debate is won by the following argument: “If we do nothing then any disaster that befalls the Gzilt over the next few hours is entirely theirs. If we intervene we become at least complicit.”

This argument is so ghastly that I don’t want to think Banks means to endorse it, but all the allegedly super-intelligent Minds agree with it, even the previously skeptical Caconym. What can be said objectively is that everything possible is done to leech the decision of any drama. It’s as if Watchmen ended with Veidt saying, “Look, this is a weird situation and it’s hard to say what’s best, but the path of least resistance is just to keep lying about this. Right? I don’t know. What do you guys think?” To which, of course, Rorschach would respond, “Well, I’ve bitterly opposed it until now, but I find I can’t be bothered to argue for my position. So yeah, I guess so. Whatever.” Many past Culture novels have ended with some or all of their characters’ efforts proving meaningless, but at least the characters themselves cared right up to the end. Now Banks has made the obvious refinement and allowed the characters themselves to perceive and acknowledge the unimportance of their actions.

The novel pays a heavy price in reader engagement for this anti-climax, but in return, it has a clarity to its ideology that was missing from the previous five novels. Against the ultimately intervention-friendly depiction of the first three books, Hydrogen Sonata portrays intervention as a ridiculous, self-centered exercise that gratifies the egos of the Culture Minds in idle moments but is at best without effect and at worst destructive. I’m not convinced, but if a story makes its case honestly I don’t penalize it if I disagree.

But rejecting intervention means the series needs a new answer to the search for meaning. As a correspondent of Adam Roberts (quoted in the comments of his Hydrogen Sonata review) points out, the novel’s diverse cast try to find meaning from an equally diverse set of sources: truth, glory, duty, and art. No previous Culture novel has given the question such a thorough examination, but none of the answers turn out to be at all convincing. Characters motivated by social concepts, like the Gzilt politicians and its military factions, achieve nothing in their struggles. Characters who pursue experience or art, like QiRia and the sand sculpting drone, have become anti-social almost to the point of mental illness. Art earns the strongest rebuke, despite being the answer one might expect a novelist like Banks to prefer, in the form of the titular Hydrogen Sonata, a piece of music Vyr tries to play even though no one, least of all herself, wants to hear it. Only a few musicians have ever managed to play it through correctly, yet a Mind’s avatar plays it perfectly on the first try, tearing down any sense of nobility in Vyr’s struggle for struggle’s sake.

In that same review, Roberts complains that the martial, religious Gzilt don’t seem to represent the highest possible stage of societal development. But Banks is clear on this point: societies don’t Sublime because they have become smarter, wiser, or more ethical than other cultures. They Sublime because they can’t think of anything better to do. Apparently after millennia of experimentation, civilizations finally exhaust all possible sources of meaning and, in desperation, they Sublime in the blind hope of finding something better in a realm they can’t hope to understand until they get there.

This civilizational lifecycle wasn’t clearly illustrated in previous Culture novels, but the same idea has always been lurking unspoken in Banks’ speculation about human lifespan in the Culture. Humans, we were told, generally live about four hundred years. While there are some exceptions, it’s usually at that point that people for some reason decide four centuries of drugs, parties, art, and meddling in other cultures is enough and they choose to die. People who “stabilize” biologically and never age are regarded as defective in some way. In the Notes, Banks justifies this with some platitudes about death being natural and giving shape to life, but it’s always struck me as dubious. Natural human lifespans are definitely too short, Banks is arguing, but surely four hundred years ought to be enough for anyone. Until medical advances allow the hypothesis to be tested we won’t know, but this seems predicated on a misunderstanding of human nature.

Regardless, the underlying philosophy here seems to be that the search for meaning in life is hopeless. There is no real reason for living, and that having at last satiated our inborn drives for pleasure, friendship, and expression, there is nothing better for us to do than die. If Banks believes this to be true of individuals, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this same logic repeated at the civilizational level, right down to the Culture being viewed as vaguely immature because it seems uninterested in Subliming (because, we can assume, its preoccupation with intervention is tying it to reality).

And so with Hydrogen Sonata the Culture series ends much as it started in Consider Phlebas: mired in bleak despair. From the standpoint of ideas, Hydrogen Sonata strikes me as the most articulate of the last six Culture novels and the only one that presents a viable argument against the worldview of the first three. Unfortunately, being loyal to these ideas necessarily undercuts then novel’s effectiveness as a story and the narrative is correspondingly weaker. Of the last six Culture novels, I’d say Hydrogen Sonata was the worst as a story, yet it’s the one I’m most likely to reread at some point in the future.

3 Comments »

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  1. I’m so glad you’re back to posting reviews, at least for May. I really think this blog should get a lot more comments than it does, but perhaps this is the nature of literature-themed sites.

    In any case, this review was articulate, thought-provoking content as always, and that’s so hard to find on the Internet. I hope the next comes sooner than later!

  2. I couldn’t finish Hydrogen Sonata, it was so staggeringly dull. Call me shallow if you will. It felt like Iain Banks had no interest in engaging the reader at all.

    Frankly I haven’t enjoyed Iain Banks writing for a long time and was buying his books out of misplaced loyalty. I won’t be buying Quarry. Oh well. RIP, Iain. I loved many of your earlier books.

  3. Surprised at the dearth of comments as well. Good review and discussion!


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