on 23 July 2013
If you've never read any of The Culture novels, then don't start here. You'll be doing yourself a great dis-service. Go back to Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games or Use of Weapons. Only then (assuming you like them) will you truly enjoy the last novel from Iain M Banks.
Being a long-term fan, I approached The Hydrogen Sonata with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation; would it be everything I'd come to expect from one of my favourite authors or would it be a bit of a let-down? Being the last Culture novel, I wanted it to be good. I wanted another Excession and I wasn't disappointed.
It's all there; the grand, sweeping, space-opera of old. The heroes and villains are beautifully written and, of course, there's the ships. For many fans, the ships "are" The Culture, their Minds the driving force behind The Culture's continued existence. Hugely powerful and with all the personality traits of their human charges, they're just....well, you have to read the books. The ship to ship banter alone can justify the cover price. And their names. If there was a book of just Culture Ship Names, I'd buy it. In the meantime, there's wikipedia.
I finished The Hydrogen Sonata with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness; satisfied that it was everything I hoped it would be and sad that there wouldn't be any more. And it underlines what a great loss to the genre that Iain's untimely death was.
on 11 October 2012
As a long time Iain M. Banks fan I must admit I have been a bit disappointed with some of his latest stuff. For example Surface Detail and Matter, while good reads, left me feeling like maybe the prime had been passed. So I didn't have huge expectations for this latest Culture novel. However I was very relieved to find that The Hydrogen Sonata was what might be described on a back cover as a rip-roaring return to form for this master of whatever it is he does when he writes a good Culture Novel.
In Short, if you loved 'Excession' and 'Look to Windward', if you love the way Mr. Banks can craft a single paragraph that somehow manages to take the plot forward, deepen the mystery, enrich the characters and be an elaborately crafted joke while commenting on the contrasts between The society of the Culture and our own, then don't be afraid to go into this book with high expectations.
....Well, I liked it anyway.
I'm really sorry to write what will be a fairly negative review of this book. I have greatly enjoyed many of Banks' previous works - particularly his sci-fi and I absolutely feel that he helped to create a genre within the genre as the uncontested king of space opera. Despite my growing preference for his earlier works - some of which constitute masterpieces in my view - I was still excited to get the newest offering. Unfortunately I was ultimately disappointed.
I can't deny that the writing style remains almost as good, but for me, there is none of the passion and conviction that Banks used to demonstrate. The characterisation is weaker, the narrative / plotting equally so -I got to the end of the book and thought - "Well, so what? I don't care!". Which is really sad. I think ultimately, this book explores a topic that possibly merited a short story and with a braver editor it may have made a great novella - instead I found myself reading what is essentially technical rhubarb and - shock, horror - skim reading pages. If I want weapons specs there are better authors out there for that type of sci fi - what I want from Banks is the grandiose - the awesome. I think perhaps the attempt to cover the issue of subliming is meant to cover that from a philosophical perspective - but I don't think he achieved it. The eventual denouement is practically 'phoned in' I'm afraid.
I've read earlier books several times each, connected with the characters, thrilled at the plotting, held my breath at the amazingly complete, exciting - stunning worlds (galaxies/ universes / realities) that Banks created. I will absolutely continue to read anything that this man writes (sci fi - gave up on his fiction some time ago) but I really hope that he gets some new inspiration - and I say this with utter awe for the ability to stay with a creation for as long as Banks has done.
My overriding sense is that where Banks was great was in the creation of a context - and what he achieved there was completely impressive. Maybe it is impossible to do it again... maybe having done it once and in doing so setting the standard for everyone else, he has created a definitive and final 'other'... if that is so then all credit to him for his original creative work - but my hope and belief is that Banks will create some new context to get his teeth into. If that isn't possible there would be no shame in it - but then I hope that he can get back to writing characters that I give a damn about - the ships are funny and clever, but they lack the humanity that generates common feeling for the reader... think back to the first time you fully understood how complete and brilliant the vision was, to the chair made of bones, whatever your own favourite moments are - how much more did you engage with those characters and those stories? How much more complete were the journeys you went on with Banks?
Genuinely - I love this author - I am not fit to clean his literary shoes - but right now my sense is that I would rather read the early books again than the ones to come. Fingers crossed for renaissance and sorry if I have offended. All just my opinion.
on 24 March 2013
So this was my journey through this book. Excellent a new culture book arrive from Amazon. Great cover love the title. I open it and it starts well. I do like the promise to explore the topic of sublimation, it's an interesting premise, and I love the usual great world building in the shape of the ablate and the sculpt worlds.
Hmmmm this great secret the Gzilt are trying to avoid must be pretty huge to explain all this death and mayhem. No doubt we won't know what it is till the last 50 pages. Hold on I am just about half way through and the great secret is revealed and it's really not that great. Nah.....that cannot be it. There is almost half the book to go, there must be more to come. Oh look lots of talk about simulation and a comedy android that thinks everything is all a simulation. Now that would be interesting. Could the Gzilt all just be a simulation, but simulated characters that are actually sentient enough themselves to sublime? Now that would be interesting. Nope it's not that. Oh wellnver mind there are only 50 odd pages to go and the rest of the big secret from the dawn of the Culture is about to be revealed. Here we go, the rest of the big secret is...... actually no different from the what we already know from much earlier.
The big secret is really just not big enough to explain all the death and mayhem. Indeed the level of chaos and high level deceit introduced to attempt to supress the secret seems worse than the sublimation threatening disruption the plotters fear that the revelation of the secret would cause in the first place.
In short as ever I loved the journey but the destination was surprisingly disappointing.
on 7 October 2012
Mundane disclosure first: I have been a huge Iain (M) Banks fan for a long time, so I won't pretend full objectivity. In fact, had this been a new author's work it would have been a 5 star review. Banks novels set the bar so highly for me that I may be slightly more critical of them than I would be otherwise.
For fans of the Culture series, however, this is a worthy addition: not quite the best (Player of Games remains my all-time favourite, followed closely by Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward - the latter not shared by everyone, I know, and I also have a lot of time for Surface Detail). I found myself, however, looking for any opportunity to return to this whenever possible and, as so often with Banks's novels, am disappointed it's over.
The humour of the Minds is sparkling in this book - Banks's gods in the machines (literally) always remind me of slightly squabbling Olympians, with all those human foibles the Greeks projected onto their deities. However, there is one element that does grate with regard to the book: lots of people die in this novel - including some significant characters (no spoilers) - but the culture of the, ah, Culture is such that the major ones are pretty much all backed up (there is one exception to this, but even that is not, in the end, completely final). I offer this in contrast to the (early) George R R Martin novels, where you come to feel greatly for major characters who then die. Gone. That's it - no coming back (and even Martin baulks at this in later novels). Banks seems to have written himself into a tight spot re. tragedy where the Culture series appears unable to deal with it on the profoundest level. And yet, in Consider Phlebas I really felt the waste and tragedy of the Idiran war.
One note re. pricing: the 1 star "reviews" are extremely annoying, particularly as they are by people who have not read the fracking book! However, I do want to record a milder protest to the publishers. Publishers have to make money - sure - and the costs of production are much, much more than printing a book and distributing it, but I did feel ever so slightly ripped off reading this. Obviously Amazon is hugely discounting the hardback version, but I like reading novels on Kindle and wish they were in the same position to discount the ebook should they so desire. When I saw a new Banks coming out at this price, I thought I'd wait till it dropped. I held out for a day (more fool me, I guess!).
This latter comment has *not* influenced my star rating - in fact, I nearly made it 5 stars to counter the 1 star reviews. This is genuinely a 4 star book for me, though I do feel that unfortunately the price will put off a lot of readers who would really enjoy this novel.
on 2 June 2013
The Hydrogen Sonata
This is Banks' latest (and probably last) Culture novel.
For those of you unfamiliar with this series of books, The Culture is an ancient and widely disseminated, loosely knit inter-galactic civilisation. It is comprised of many disparate - mostly biologically and technically augmented - biological races, and effectively run by vast AI, self-aware minds, who generally occupy and run a vast range of Ships and orbitals, (huge, artificially created structures, upon which live millions or even billions of beings). The Culture tend to be the informal overseers of the younger, lower tech' civilisations, trying to help them avoid the greater excesses of their own venality and aggression.
When civilisations reach a certain size and level of technological competence and maturity, the whole civilisation, or a huge part of it, often Sublimes. For the un-initiated, Subliming is roughly analogous to Ascension, where a being moves to a higher state of existence. Leaving behind a few "Remnanter" beings, who have chosen not to Sublime.
The Hydrogen Sonata is about a species/race called the Gzilt who have decided, as a civilisation, to take the next evolutionary step and Sublime. All the preparations have been made, and the book starts about a month before the Subliming. The Gzilt are sort of a sister race to the Culture, of similar technical development, who 10,000 years or so earlier, at the beginning of the Culture civilisation courteously declined the offer to become part of the newly emergent Culture. They nevertheless maintained close links with the Culture, who want to ensure the Subliming of the Gzilt goes smoothly
All through their long history, the Gzilt have been led by the teachings of their holy book. The Book of Truth. It alone of all holy books in all the other known civilisations, appears to be, demonstrably what it says it is - that is to say - True! It has been tested many times over the centuries and it's truth has been established.
However, all is not well in the Gzilt upper echelons, when a Remnanter of another civilisation is killed and its spaceship destroyed, as it is on its way to the Subliming Gzilt with a message that the Book of Truth is actually based on a lie.
The Hydrogen Sonata focusses on the Culture investigation into the Remnanter killing. Along with the machinations of the party/parties involved in instigating that murder as well as the destruction of a Gzilt regimental headquarters - resulting in the deaths of over 2000 personnel on board, and the quest by reserve lieutenant commander Vyr Cossont to find a semi-mythical figure, QiRia, a supposedly 10,000 year old man, who holds the truth concerning the Remnanter claims about the Book of Truth. However QiRia does not want to be found. The following mayhem of murder and intrigue takes the Gzilt & the Culture to the brink of an intergalactic war..
All told, there are about a dozen Culture novels that Banks has written, and I have read and enjoyed them all. This was no exception. His plotting is good. His characters believable and sympathetic, having distinct and, in the case of many of the Ship Minds, distinctly quirky characters, and his world building, (or should that be universe building?) detailed, without being overly intrusive. The narrative pacing, as always in his writing, well-paced, driving you from chapter to chapter.
Whether writing as Iain M Banks for his science fiction, or Iain Banks, in his non-genre novels I have enjoyed everything Iain Banks has written.
He has a non-genre novel, called "The Quarry" due out on June 20th. Which his publisher describes as, "a virtuoso performance whose soaring riffs on the inexhaustible marvel of human perception and rage against the dying of the light will stand among Iain Banks's greatest work". And, while I take this kind of hyperbole from interested parties with a large pinch of salt (I believe it is for the reader to make such claims) I will be buying it. Suffering from terminal gall-bladder cancer, this will be Banks' last book. His is a talent that I for one, will sorely miss.And assuming everyone ( lol - both of you?) who reads the reviews I shall write between now and then, doesn't hate them, I will be reviewing it here too.
Hmmm, that was a lie actually. Not the reviewing bit, I will definitely be doing that. But the being bothered about if people hate what I have to say. It is my opinion. We all have one, and here is mine.
The Hydrogen Sonata? Excellent book. Most enjoyable. I recommend you buy and read it.
All opinions cited herein are my own.
The Hydrogen Sonata (A Culture Novel)
The Culture series can always be counted on for showing Iain Banks' writing at its best and the Hydrogen Sonata proves to be no exception to the rule. If we haven't really had the full-on science-fiction ideas combined with explosive action experience since Excession, the series thereafter has shown a certain maturity, slowing down the pace to consider philosophical and metaphysical questions brought up in that book relating to the Other Side, on questions of Life, Death, Oblivion and the nature of what lies beyond the material world. Those questions are to the fore again in The Hydrogen Sonata, thoughtfully considered and brilliantly interweaved into the whole culture of the Culture, but happily Banks' writing and the plot surrounding the story is once again at a dazzling level of wit and brilliance that we haven't seen from this author for a long time indeed.
You might not expect that from the initial premise, where yet another civilisation, the Gzilt, have reached that stage in their evolution where, tired of existing with the mundane realm of matter and energy, they've made the collective decision to Sublime, crossing over to that indefinable place (between the seventh and eleventh dimensions we discover here) where all advanced cultures and civilisations eventually accede and effectively retire. Some are surprised that the Gzilt have decided to make the big jump at this stage in their development, but with only 23 days left until the Instigation, many have already crossed over, leaving only a small remainder of their people to take care of the final ceremonies and housekeeping formalities, fending off Scavenger races and generally dealing with any last minute business that might crop up. Inevitably, one ship turns up with a big surprise for the Gzilt, and suddenly chaos erupts. The ship Minds of the Culture, and undoubtedly Special Circumstances, are of course very interested in the rumours that abound around the incident and send ships in to observe the final frenetic days of the Gzilt.
Well, "observe" is of course a vague and rather passive term for the inquisitive intervention of the Culture, and of course it involves them gathering intelligence, searching for certain artifacts, transporting and in some cases reanimating stored individuals who might be able to satisfy their curiosity. If I'm totally honest, there's nothing new in this - there's a lot of running around and a lot of confusion where you aren't quite sure what's going on sometimes, the usual conspiracies, bad guys and big secrets which may or may not prove to be anything more than a red herring (I hate it when he does that), and some usual gung-ho intervention - sorry, observation - from the Culture ships and SC operatives (presumably, but who knows?), with an innocent - usually female - figure caught up in it all. It doesn't matter in the slightest when Banks has a concept as good as that of the Culture to play around with (if you haven't read a Culture book before, it won't matter either, because the author sums up the ideas concisely very early on, before getting straight on to business with little formality) and when his writing is as polished and witty as it is here, principally in all forms of interaction between the characters and, as you would expect, between the ship Minds.
After the rather serious and grim tone of more recent Culture books - fine though most of them have been - and great as it is to see Banks' writing at his funniest, it's the intelligence of the ideas underpinning the work and the deeper questions that they raise that make this science-fiction writing of the highest order. Since Look to Windward, the author has spent a great deal of time exploring these concepts relating to the non-material world beyond the Culture universe and offered tantalising glimpses of another reality, and he takes that another step further here in The Hydrogen Sonata, leaving just enough in reserve for further expansion. I'm not sure how long he can continue to draw this theme out, and indeed the latest book is somewhat repetitive of a formula established in all his recent SF books, but the richness and intelligence of the Culture concept still seems to inspire the author's best writing and The Hydrogen Sonata is the most entertaining work we've had from Mr Banks in a long time.
The Gzilt civilisation is preparing to Sublime; for theirs was the only one whose religious texts had been proven to be completely and utterly true (where have we heard that before?)
Ian M Banks' Culture novels have been amongst the most pleasurable Sci-fi books I have ever read. His recent passing has meant that Hydrogen Sonata would be the last of the series. A narrative that has some poignancy in that the story hinges around an advanced civilisation on the point of subliming - i.e. moving towards a higher plain of existence, after which they will no longer be physically present in this universe. A book that has Culture minds high on galactic politics and their own pre-eminence over biological intelligence; there is also a little bit of violence, a little bit of the not so pleasant, and a large dose of wit and at times sarcasm and interesting key theme, is the need for personal fulfilment. In terms of the lead character’s need and commitment to playing an almost unplayable piece, (even with the help of additional appendages), of music is juxtaposed with the AI Mind that can do it immediately, flawlessly and without effort. The author is very much on the side of those trying to succeed as opposed to those that can. For he has used the genre to brilliantly reconnoitre human potential, technological possibilities, metaphysical questions and this last offering is no exception. As he also manages to do so within a high-octane plot that is smart and utterly enjoyable.
To quote Stuart Kelly of the Guardian “Banks can riff like no other science-fiction writer”
For me, this was another excellent offering.
on 19 July 2013
Firstly it is worth saying that even a "disappointing" Iain M may still be the best thing you read this year. Banks had not only an unusually fertile imagination but an extraordinary ability to vividly describe settings and action completely alien to everyday experience, in a prose style that is both accessible and challenging. The Culture itself is arguably one of the most significant inventions of modern literature (not just SF), a science-based utopia where you would actually want to live. However Banks never forgets the individual, and his protagonists are sympathetic and fallible, for all the enhanced reality surrounding them. The fun comes where the Culture meets other forces, and the edges start unravelling. This book has all the usual delights and riffs on a few of the points alluded to in earlier books, in particular "sublimation", where a civilisation chooses to disappear into higher dimensions, leaving its technology behind.
So what is the problem? The main one is here is I feel a lack of jeopardy. "Excession", "Look to Windward" and "Matter" all set up big wondrous machines, people them with characters we grow to care about, then threaten to blow them up. Here the main risk is to elements of a civilisation who are frankly not very interesting, compared with the Culture. The central mystery is imperfectly developed and pretty much solved by the middle of the book. Also Banks strays a bit into Douglas Adams territory with the weirdness, in particular the musical instrument which needs an extra pair of arms to play, and the person who edits their own memory to hide a secret, which is pretty much a straight lift from Adams. This is all very entertaining, but reduces the suspension of disbelief needed to fully enjoy the book. There are also a couple of rather dull subplots and underdeveloped characters: a passage about a drone who makes sand waterfalls left me thinking "is that it?" Maybe Banks did hurry this book out somewhat, and who can blame him?
So four stars not five, but still a great read. Aficionados may be a little disappointed, especially following "Surface Detail", which was one of his very best, with moving and thought-provoking ideas about morality and punishment set among the fireworks. But as a body of work, the Culture novels are brilliant and anyone, SF fan or not, who is intrigued by the potential of technology to free the human spirit from need and authoritarianism (and enjoys a rollicking good story) should read them. Perhaps start with "Look to Windward", which is probably the most accessible.
on 9 June 2013
I first read Mr Banks when I was 18, in the 1980's. since then I have regularly returned to his work and the Culture novels.
His is the blackest, funniest and strongest body of fiction created in the last 30 years and I don't know of anyone else who has straddled the genres of general fiction and sci-if and been highly regarded in both. I see authors such as Paolo Bacigaluppi as coming from and developing out of his polymorphous unfiltered r-rated imagination.
As to the Culture, the best conception of a human societal ideal, extrapolated across the universe and infinitely challenging and surprising, thanks for that.
I read the novel not knowing of his illness and found it meandering, reminiscent of Excession with a mad rush of civilisations all endeavouring to Intercept an event and influence its' outcome.
What is now clear is the significance of his extended commentary within the narrative on the "Sumbliming" of one of the civilisations in the novel. Sublimining is a form of death or not-death and I have to say that, while reading it "cold" I found these segments interesting but not involving, now and in the knowledge of the author's death they have a huge impact.
This was not a negotiation with mortality, nor a plea or hope for an afterlife. This is a meditation on what might be. It invests the novel,and its' conclusion, with immense power.
I am nearly 50. At this point you spend a lot of time examining your life. I have spent many hours of this single life reading books by Iain Banks and Iain m Banks. There are things I now wish I had spent less time on. Reading those books is not one of them.