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The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Published by Orbit on October 9, 2012 

The Gzilt are about to transition from the Real to the Sublime, where they will live a blissful existence in dimensions seven through eleven. In most instances, an entire civilization must enter the Sublime at the same time to retain individual identities, and this is what the Gzilt are preparing to do in 24 days. When a ship from the Zihdren-Remnanter attempts to deliver a message to the Gzilt -- a message that could undercut the very foundation of Gzilt society and possibly affect the civilization's readiness to join the Sublime -- a Gzilt ship blows it to bits. Ever watchful, the Culture dispatches Caconym, one of its Mind ships, to join an advisory group that is responding to the incident. Caconym is a logical choice since it shares its structure with another Mind that has actually been to, and returned from, the Sublime.

Other than various Minds, the central character in Iain Banks' latest Culture novel is a Gzilt named Vyr Cossant, who added two arms to her body so she could play The Hydrogen Sonata on the elevenstring. Because she once met an entity (sometimes humanoid, sometimes not) named Ngaroe QuRia who has lived for thousands of years, Cossant is recommissioned as a lieutenant commander and ordered to find QuRia. QuRia is thought to possess the information that the Zihdren-Remnanter were attempting to deliver to the Gzilt. Also making an attempt to find QuRia is his former lover, Scolliera Tefwe, whose consciousness has been stored on a Culture ship for the last four hundred years. As the Gzilt countdown to the Sublime continues, Cossant and Tefwe and a number of Culture Minds race to uncover the truth about the Gzilt before the civilization makes its collective journey, a task that is impeded by some Gzilt political/military folk who would prefer that the information remain buried.

There is, of course, quite a bit more going on: political scheming to determine which race will become the rightful heir to the worlds and possessions the Gzilt leave behind; political quarrels among the Culture Minds; military maneuverings leading to explosive confrontations between the Gzilt, the Culture, and others. All of this adds up to a fun, intelligent, fast-moving story.

If this abbreviated plot summary is confusing, you probably haven't read any of Banks' Culture novels and are therefore unfamiliar with the ancient, droll, sarcastic, pedantic, and sometimes mentally ill Artificial Intelligences known as the Minds.  Don't worry.  You can read The Hydrogen Sonata as a stand-alone novel and it will all make sense to you before too many chaters have gone by.

The best thing about The Hydrogen Sonata is that it is wildly imaginative without becoming too silly. From the descriptions of alien beings to the wonders offered by other planets, Banks creates a fully realized environment. He effectively conveys a sense of the age and vastness of the universe, plays with theories about other universes/dimensions that might exist, and peppers the story with a wonderful array of gadgetry. Not all of this is original, of course, but Banks often uses technology and theory in original ways.

I particularly like Banks' playfulness: the amusing names the Culture gives its ships; the banter between ships' Minds; the quirky personalities the Minds develop; the nettlesome nature of inter-species politics; a dirigible that hosts a five-year-long going-away party prior to the Sublime; an avatar whose head is made of alphabet soup; the fact that audiences other than academics and Culture Minds regard The Hydrogen Sonata (which may or may not be a musical representation of the periodic table) as unlistenable; the snarky pet Cossant wears around her neck; an android that mistakenly believes it's in a simulation as mayhem surrounds it; some truly bizarre sexual escapades ... and more.

The novel concludes with an intriguing moral equation. Members of the Culture learn that a shared belief critical to Gzilt civilization is false. Should the Culture reveal the truth on the ground that it is always best for the truth to be known? Or should the Culture keep quiet to protect the Gzilt from the social disruption that the truth might cause? An interesting quandary, but this isn't the kind of science fiction that lends itself to deep thought. It's meant to be fun and exciting, and it achieves that goal admirably.


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