This is the tenth Culture book by the avatar of Iain Banks with Middlename burned into its forehead, and a lot has happened since, twenty-five years ago, Consider Phlebas first introduced into space opera, a form previously dominated by Americans and those who wrote like Americans to pay the rent, the seemingly radical premise that a successful pan-galactic civilization, one able to make low-entropy draws upon the almost infinite energy banks of the universe-as-a-whole, would almost certainly be post-scarcity. Everything that draws upon the universe-as-a-whole is, therefore, free. Only meaning costs. The only non-scarcity multi-planet civilizations in Banks’s Culture are isolated and pitiable trickle-down tyrannies conspicuously modeled on the conviction-capitalist hegemonies now consuming — because that is what scorpions do — our one and only planet. Among the blindnesses of hegemonic American SF, up until the Five-Finger Exploding Palm of Sputnik delivered the death blow to the dream, was a double presumption: that the future could be Engineered Like Orlando (I don't think that's a song title); and that the world to come would be arranged around the maintenance of scarcity-based guy hierarchies, with an occasional Empress or Lady President to do sin-eater for the real boss, in a universe of stupefying plenty. Be that as it may, Banks’s Culture was post-scarcity from the get-go — as the appendices attached to Consider Phlebas demonstrate — which may in fact help explain his relative lack of success in the American market (he has sold millions of books elsewhere), and he has never succumbed to the temptation (again characteristic of American SF) to treat free plenty as a poison chalice. There are millions — perhaps trillions — of sentient flesh creatures in the Culture who occasionally regret an absence of owners (and the penury they impose because that is what scorpions do), but they’re a drop in the Culture bucket. The rest make do with as much life as they can live, in a universe whose meaning-structure (if there “is” one) is not ascertainable through meat senses.
In other words, they make the meaning they can.
A 500-page scherzo whose joyful progress vibrates with momentum, The Hydrogen Sonata is a triumph of continued focus, a shattai garden and echolalia of the remembrances and vistas accorded by the preceding quarter century of Culture tales. It is true to that enterprise. The book can be read as an almost totally unguarded paean to the deeply conjoined joys of making something and finding something out: all in the full and explicit realization that in the end nothing means squat, in the explicit understanding that doing meaning is to make meaning last, but only until you stop.
We begin with a prologue in which a massive warship from the Gzilt civilization (which is about to Sublime, see below) destroys a smaller visiting ship in order to remove all traces of the message, apparently one of good will for the coming moment of transcendent transfer, that the ship is carrying to the Gzilt homeworld. What is contained in that message — and why the larger moiety of Gzilts are willing to risk Culture curiosity by destroying it so violently — comprises the mystery whose solution governs the plot of The Hydrogen Sonata. Because the structure of the novel is pure McGuffin, and because Banks pretty well tells us halfway through pretty well exactly what the answer to the quest a...read more