Culture Club: What it Knows about the Gzilt’s Holy Book

Re-posted from the Irish Examiner, my recent review of the latest Iain M. Banks novel…

The Hydrogen Sonata

Iain M. Banks 

Orbit; £20

Review: Val Nolan 

For the past twenty-five years, Scotland’s Iain M. Banks has been at the forefront of the so-called “new” space opera, a darker and more character-based incarnation of a traditionally melodramatic subgenre. This, his twelfth work of science fiction and his twenty sixth novel overall, is a perfect example of the plucky characters, snarky, squabbling artificial intelligences, and dynamic, explosive space battles which have made his writing so popular.

Banks’s ninth novel to be set against the backdrop of “The Culture”, a multi-species, post-scarcity, liberal utopia of – as he typically describes them – hippies with weapons of mass destruction, The Hydrogen Sonata is one of the first glimpses readers have been given into this anarchic society’s mysterious origins.

Moreover, the novel continues to investigate the intersection of myth, religion, and science which has typified Banks’s recent fiction, expanding on the intricate mentoring relationships between the inhabitants of the Matryoshka-like “shellword” 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 state of being almost mystical in nature.

The novel opens with the Gzilt, a “ civilization 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 verifiable 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, it might be said, ascending bodily into a technological heaven, transforming en masse into a kind of non-corporeal gestalt existence.

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

As ever, 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 humor is punctuated by a couple of tremendous combat scenes, among which 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 and, with a large number of idiosyncratically named characters and occasionally circuitous subplots, thus may not be the best place for new Banks readers to begin. That said, everything comes together in the final, blistering 100 pages, and existing fans, those who can tell their General Systems Vehicle from their Very Fast Picket, will devour such a wide-ranging romp through the outlandish universe of one of SF’s most energetic and reliable authors.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 12th November 2012, p.16.

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One Response to Culture Club: What it Knows about the Gzilt’s Holy Book

  1. Pingback: Outside Context Problem: Reflections on Iain Banks | illusory promise

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