Sublime: noble and majestic; impressive and awe-inspiring. Sublimation: the transition of a substance from the solid phase directly to the vapour state such that it does not pass through the intermediate liquid phase. To the Culture and their associates, the involved species, there is another definition: for to them, to sublime is to move from the physical state of the known universe to another state of being, unfettered and omniscient. For the Gzilt, a species on a technological par with the Culture though not a member of that metacivilisation, they have considered taking that step for generations, and now, the decision made, are within days of their transition.
The Hydrogen Sonata is Iain M Banks’ ninth novel set in or around the periphery of the Culture (a tenth book, The State of the Art, features a title short story with agents of the Culture’s Contact division on Earth, the only story to feature that backwater planet), twenty five years after the publication of Consider Phlebas, a novel set very much on the outside looking in, told from the point of view of a mercenary in the employ of the Culture’s enemies during a decades long conflict. Over a thousand years have passed since the tragic events of the Idiran War; the Culture has flourished and remains a major power, and in these pages we find the most explicit admission that the Culture, since formation, has been shaped by the Minds rather than the various biologicals that make it up.
As it is traditional at the cusp of a subliming to clear any moral debts, the representatives of a previously sublimed race, the Zidhren Remnant, are preparing to divulge a truth withheld from the Gzilt for their entire history concerning their holy text, The Book of Truth. Planned for a controlled release immediately prior to the subliming, the Gzilt military unit which discovers this information too soon is fractious, as military units about to have their entire reason for existence obviated are wont to be, and destroys the Zidhren vessel. Rather than preventing the spread of the information, this triggers an investigation by the Culture, necessitating an escalating cover up operation by the Gzilt politicians who wish the sublimation to proceed without disruption.
Unaware of this and rngaged in their own covert investigation as to the veracity of the information, the Gzilt 14th Regiment reactivate the commission of Vyr Cossont who they believe may once have known a semi mythical individual of extreme age, who witnessed the events first hand. In her civilian life, Cossont is a musician, who has dedicated her final days before subliming to mastering the performance of an obscure and challenging piece of music, so complex it requires either two players or one with four arms, Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, more usually known as the Hydrogen Sonata.
As is the style of Banks, much of the page count is diversion and shenanigans, the secret that drives the narrative revealed to the reader within the first hundred pages, the subsequent four hundred being the attempts to alternately corroborate and conceal the information by either side, and in fact an entire excursion turns out to be a wild goose chase, though in its favour at least the entire novel does not consist of misdirection, as was the case in the non-Culture novel The Algebraist.
Those that read the Culture novels, however, find as much joy in the travelogue aspects of the works; the astonishingly imagined exotic locations visited, be it the planetary fragment Ablate, anchored within the expanding cloud of a dead supernova, or the headquarters of the 14th Regiment in the hollowed asteroid Fzan Juym, itself orbiting within a trench carved into the surface of the “sculpt planet” Ehsri, its orbit continually tightened until it is effectively below the surface of its primary, and the conversation of our companions through these travels. Vyr Cossant and her avatar guardian Berdle are our primary guides for the duration, with various ship Minds providing interludes of witty banter and snark; it is telling that the assumed position on first communication from a Culture ship is that it is being sarcastic.
As entertaining as it is, there are disappointments; the final set piece, grand in conception and design, is a damp squib over in moments, an oddity as Banks has always enjoyed action sequences, as proven by an earlier confrontation with escalating levels of overkill, and the backdrop against which the book is set, the moment of the profoundest change a change a civilisation can make to its very being, is, perhaps understandably, only ever glimpsed from outside the door.
Another curious omission in a book that does have time to detail the protocols of negotiations for scavenging rights and the dances ships perform to convey honour is any extended commentary on the nature of devotion to a text that is demonstrably false, the Gzilt being the exception to this, as their Book of Truth is the one religious text whose details were entirely in keeping with scientific understanding as it was discovered. Sublimation is effectively a science fiction representation of the rapture, but while the parallels are obvious, they are never explored, and Minds are never shy about discussing the foibles of their biological progenitors.
While The Hydrogen Sonata does deal with occurrences at the time of the foundation of the Culture, that is not a focus of this book, and that key event is only addressed in passing; it is the nature of science fiction to look to the future, even when that future is shaped by the past, and it is this rule Banks has observed, with each book set further into the future. The Culture books may not be serialised, but they are sequential, each building on knowledge of the earlier works and with a required level of understanding, even insight, if such a thing is possible with a society as wilfully contrary as the Culture.
The Hydrogen Sonata is now available from Orbit books