The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks has been on a goddamn roll lately. I’d go so far as to sat that his writing now is as good as it’s ever been. Ladies and Gentleman, we are at peak sci-fi Banks!

Backing up: Iain M. Banks is a fucking brilliant science fiction author. Minus the initial, he’s a fucking brilliant literary author. (Literary Author? What the hell does that mean, exactly? I guess it would be more appropriate to say that he’s a dramatic author, maybe? Whatever, the point is that there aren’t any space ships.) All in all and everything being equal, Iain (M. or no M.) Banks is probably my favorite writer ever, and the one I most often catch myself unconsciously emulating. It’s basically him and Joyce Carol Oates. Anyway, his long-running loosey goosey Culture series (and assorted stand-alone novels) is probably the only work of modern science fiction which I’m able to appropriate on any kind of serious level. I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of other sci-fi writers out there doing great work, but I’ve not come across them and have no particular interest in seeking them out. Feel free to recommend, though (leave a comment, eh?)

I’ll save the non-M talk for another post, but it’ll have to suffice to say that sci-fi Banks has always been my second favorite Banks. Lately though, Iain’s been working on changing my mind. His last three science fiction novels have all been, in a word: pretty great and occasionally incredible, if a touch on the slack side and maybe in need of more focus/editing ha ha the joke is that I said “in a word” and have now been going on far longer than the promised singular linguistic unit did you get it? Anyway.

It took me three attempts actually to get into Transition, but it turned out to be a fucking awesomely bizarre multiverse-spanning parallel universe espionage story that stripped bare the concept of torture in a terrifically disturbing and inventive fashion.

Surface Detail, on the other hand, was immediately engaging. It turned out to be a fucking awesome and intense virtual reality revenge thriller that stripped bare the concepts of hell and damnation in a terrifically disturbing and inventive fashion.

And that brings us, at last, to The Hydrogen Sonata.

1350403485The Hydrogen Sonata is about a civilization called the Gzilt which is on the brink of assertion to a nebulous higher plane of existence. The main character is a Gzilt woman named Cossont. She is trying to play a song called the Hydrogen Sonata. She get’s caught up in a web of intrigue and adventure. The Hydrogen Sonata is a very good book. I liked reading it. It had good action parts. The characters were fun and cool. I liked the ship minds because they were funny. I’m not sure that this was a good choice for my third grade book report. There were a lot of penises in this book. Most of them were attached to the same person. People got blown up. I’m not sure you should have made us write a book report on The Hydrogen Sonata, Miss Grady, I think my parents are upset at you. I think they are going to complain to the school. I hope you don’t get fired Miss Grady. You are my favorite teacher. The Hydrogen Sonata was a good book. I liked it.

Okay, so this book took me about a month to read. Somebody somewhere once said that if you don’t read a book in two weeks or less than you haven’t actually read it. That somebody was an asshole, and is completely wrong. Mostly. Anyway, my point is this: it took me about three weeks to make it through the first half of the novel, and only a few days to tear through the second half. Basically, I’m trying to say that this is a slow-building novel, and that it takes a lot of time to get to its feet, but that it’s worth it in the end. I was trying to convey that information without having to resort to simply spelling it out, but you had to spoil that, now didn’t you? Oh well. At 500+ pages, this could have afforded to be a good deal more tightly paced. Somebody’s slaking off in the editing department. What’s that? You’re saying that this “review” is pretty poorly paced itself, and that I’m really in no position to criticize? Hm… you might be right. On the other hand, perhaps the lax pacing and poor structure of my review was in fact an intentional comment on the similarly lax pacing and poor structure of the novel itself? Did you think of that, asshole?

Hydrogen Sonata has a lot going on. It doesn’t, however, have an issue. Transition had torture, Surface Detail had hell. This book lacks that kind of central theme. It’s hard to relate to what’s going on here, all that’s left is to sit back and enjoy the show. I mean, everybody knows something about torture, it’s something we experience as human beings; debate about torture is a part of our current cultural language. People do not, however, know much about the invented concept of “subliming” i.e. passing on as a civilization into a higher form of existence. It’s just not on most people’s minds, and it’s kind of a hard concept to grasp. It’s not relevant to us the reader, right?

But never mind that! Your questions is: should I read this book, eh?

In a word: yes you should, if you’re looking for a fun smart science fiction novel and are willing to give it a little space to develop oh look I did it again but you were probably ready for it this time and weren’t so caught off guard, right?

Of course you weren’t.


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