Richard Abbott's Reviews > The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
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really liked it
bookshelves: science-fiction

I finished reading this book just a day or so before the sad news of Iain M. Banks' illness, so held off for a few weeks before summing up my thoughts. Inevitably it will be seen to some extent as a culmination of his science fiction writing work, though he also has a long string of novels set in the present day as well, with (so I have heard) one still in the publishing pipeline.

Sadly I have to say that I don't think this was his best addition to the Culture series. I certainly enjoyed reading it, more so than some other recent ones of his which have, in places, dwelt rather too much on horrific brutality for my liking. The Hydrogen Sonata shows a return to big picture, big life-decision stuff, with a mystery plotline weaving the whole together. As usual, the plotting involves a mixture of human and Mind (ie machine) investigation, and indeed the Minds get a higher profile here than in some of the books.

Banks has no problem in describing an array of fascinating places and people as the detective work continues. As ever, his portrayal of how an excess of time and resource can lead to both beauty and grossness is credible and imaginative. For me, the problem was that the central mystery that had to be solved was not very interesting. Without giving too much away, the initial reaction of some of the protagonists that it was just a scam... turned out to be true. But they took a long time finding that out. It was a bit of a let down.

In some ways it could justly be said that this really does sum up part of what the Culture series is saying - so much of what we chase after even now turns out to be a disappointment, and unlimited wealth does not alter that. In a society where resource is not a constraint, the opportunities to consume time and energy over things which are scams - or just plain disappointments - will surely be multiplied beyond imagination. Even in our current society, where we are far from solving resource problems, the quantity of electricity and computer disc space used up for storing ephemeral ideas sent off on a whim is staggering. The nuggets of real lasting value in all that sludge of data are, perhaps, rarer than bitcoins!

So I could appreciate the way Banks was able to address both the potential and the sheer banality of technological advance. However, there were none of the "aha" moments that he normally does so well, where some deft combination of words and ideas make the whole work suddenly come into focus. So, sadly, I ended up feeling that the story was not his best - for anyone who has never read Banks then "The Player Of Games" would be the book I would recommend. Four stars, but not five.

Strikingly, given my own enthusiasm for the art of designing the written word, Banks has chosen a ring structure for this book. The closing section quite obviously mirrors the opening one (leaving aside a brief introduction). The simplicity of atomic hydrogen is reflected in the simplicity of the ring structure, which is not, so far as I could see, developed into proper chiasmus. In passing, long term Star Trek TNG fans will recognise this as a theme in the episode Night Terrors - "eyes in the dark, one moon circles". A cool device, and one which for me at least enhanced the book... though not enough to get the final star.

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Reading Progress

November 24, 2012 – Shelved
Started Reading
April 4, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 9, 2013 – Shelved as: science-fiction

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