scifi blog — The Hydrogen Sonata

Ok, I’ve listened to the audio of Iain M Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata once, I will go through it again, I expect: I usually do with Banks’ novels. There’s always a lot going on that I miss the first time around. I might, though, read it, rather than listen to it. The same words tell a different story when read than listened.

It’s a Culture book, which basically means scifi Gods at play. It’s a lot of fighting and searching. But, really, though, that’s just the plot, and I no longer read stories for the plot: there’s too few of them, & they get to be oh so the same again after a while—although a good plot does keep me reading. Fortunately, there’s a lot going on here beyond the searching and the fighting and the familiar Culture setting.

His previous Culture book, Surface Detail, dealt with hell. This one deals with heaven, which we don’t get to visit. Everyone goes to heaven, except those who decide to stay behind: good, bad, it makes no difference.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s also a morality play. A political leader lets his own fear make some foolish decisions which causes the death of many of his people. He doesn’t get punished by comeuppance, as nonsense on stilts would normally have it.

But there’s a lot of strangeness from the Culture setting, and the cultural setting (the bad guy belongs to a military society), which neutralises the usual comeuppance. Death is curable. Slow death by horrible pain is a complement. So most of the usual cheap revenge stuff for comeuppance is unavailable. Banks resorts to a somewhat traditional third form of nasty fate, although admittedly it’s more hint than stomp. I get the impression that part was added at the last minute to please an editor, who wanted to have something, anything, so the bad guy didn’t get away with his badiness.

But, if that’s the case, then the editor entirely missed the detail that Banks’ heroes, the Culture, come off pretty badly too. If they had not got involved, the politicos’ fear would only have killed an AI and an android. If they hadn’t been quite so focus group inefficient, many more deaths could well have been caused. They drew the wrong line.

There’s a couple of places where Banks’ Culture universe repeats what has become its own clichés, which is a pity. I’ve got fed up, for example, with being told again that culture minds think faster than human ones. I guess the point has to be made, since it’s central to the context of the story, but I wish Banks would find a more devious way of saying it rather than saying it, if you see what I mean.

These are more reasons why I want to go back through the novel. There’s a lot more to be mined from the morality play. There’s a lot of subtlety I’ve not grasped.

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