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 actually means, I am now going to reveal it. Gzilt civilization has been built on a exceptionalist understanding of Manifest Destiny, the foundation for which is the Book of Truth which, unlike any other known civilization's book of truth, tells the truth: for many hundreds of years it has precisely predicted and described — thus making possible — the parade of technological advances that has brought the Gzilts to their elevated current position, at least as far as weaponry is concerned. The secret contained in the message is that — but let Banks tell us himself, as he does, early in the book, on page 111 — “the Book of Truth is a lie.” It is sociological experiment conducted by an extremely advanced (but I think we are told now extinct) race capable of something like time travel. The Gzilts responsible for the atrocity are terrified that this revelation will so unbalance Gzilt civilization that its citizens will eschew Sublimation.
One of the great Culture ships — each the embedment of a Mind — muses at one point on the nature of the Sublime:
The Real — with its vast volumes of nothing between the planets, stars, systems and galaxies — was basically ... incapable of true complexity due to its inescapable impoverishment of structure and the sheer overwhelming majority of nothingness over substance. The Sublime was utterly different: packed with existence, constantly immamentising context, endlessly unfolding being-scape.
For a civilization to leave its collective bodies, to immamentize itself into a dimension tinier than anything but simultaneously huger, like the Aleph, seems to require a sort of serene chutzpah — rather like that normally exhibited by Minds, whose impossibly complex and light-swift thoughts Banks renders as slang — and the current rulers of the Gzilt cannot tolerate the thought of missing the boat. This is, perhaps, a tad implausible. Though we are in fact shown almost nothing of it, we are meant to think of the Gzilt civilization as enormously complex and sophisticated , most unlikely not to have taken on board centuries earlier the possibility that its Bible is a confidence trick; and Banks’s dodging of any attempt to create a portrait of Gzilt life only intensifies a sense that the McGuffin in this novel is an even more blatant damp squib than usual; but then that, as I’ve suggested, may be the point of The Hydrogen Sonata: which means to be all journey and no arrival.
The first full chapter of the book describes in some detail an exceedingly sophisticated musical composition called “The Hydrogen Sonata” whose main virtue seems to be the contortuplications required to actually play it; its full name is “26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented,” and the eleven-stringed instrument required, the “Antagonistic Undecagonstring,” can only be operated by a humanoid with four arms and astonishing breath control. Cosson, the main Gzilt protagonist of The Hydrogen Sonata, has duly acquired the two extra arms needed, and her efforts to master the score are isomorphic with the entire cast’s struggle to find the McGuffin. This search, to which she is seconded against her will, provides a Fantastic Voyage tour of several cultures within the Culture ambit, as well as a rather glorious superflux of gabby interplay amongst a range of Culture ships, including one of near-Orbital dimensions. A couple of near immortal meat sentients do gnomic, as is the wont of near immortal meat sentients. Almost everything is all done with great intelligence and edge, though a few Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head moments, sex-cute interludes mercilessly churned from the Hollywood toolbox, do occasionally gum the pace:
“Does she touch you ... like this raindrop?”
“Ah ... ah yes, very much like that raindrop. Just ... like that raindrop.”
“And kiss you, like this raindrop?”
“... somewhat like that raindrop. Only a little like that raindrop.”
“Only a little raindrop?”
See pages 267-271. I made it up about the raindrop. Bring Me the Head of Burt Bacharach.
Anyway, by the end of the tale Cossont has managed to perform the entire enormity of the sonata; at which point there is nothing left for her to do but go traveling, at the invitation of a friendly Mind: because, as she/he/it says, it all “might be interesting.” The McGuffin has been exposed, and the Gzilt, as we surmised, seem unmoved. We return to the sense that what we are being told in this novel is that the search for meaning is inherently a McGuffin Search. That Sublimation may be an option: but not here, not in the phenomenal world, which we meat folk experience through the prim ridiculous reticule of the seven senses, plus augments. So let us go then. There is valor in finding something this side of somewhere that might be more interesting than arrival, certainly something more interesting than what we leave behind. At the very end of this novel whose joy is wrested from nada, Cossont leaves “The Hydrogen Sonata” behind, just as we leave The Hydrogen Sonata: in order to start again, failing better.
The Antagonistic Undecagonstring, caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flier's departure, hummed emptily.
The sound was swept away by the mindless air.