The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M. Banks

My collection of Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks paperback books placed on a bookshelf and measured edge to edge measures thirty inches. This measurement represents a nice coincidence as it is precisely the inside width of one shelf on my Ikea bookshelf and a sad fact as it seems unlikely that there will be any more literary inches from this author given his untimely death. Perhaps, like Philip K. Dick, there are some stories that may be published posthumously, but I somehow doubt it given the complexity of Banks’s plotting. It is therefore with mixed feelings that I write this post about his last ‘skiffy’ book The Hydrogen Sonata and the last book of his I will have the pleasure to read.

The Hydrogen Sonata is a ridiculously difficult piece of music written for an instrument nicknamed the 11-string that requires four hands and a strong back to play. The instrument in fact has more than eleven strings and was created some time after the piece of music was written. Vyr Cossont the main female character of the story has a life ambition, a single bucket list item, to be able to play the piece through all movements correctly and without interruption before she Sublimes with the rest of her civilisation. Readers of Banks will understand the Sublimed to be those civilisations that have ascended beyond the material reality into some higher state of existence. Cossont is a member of the Gzilt who after millennia of thinking about it have less than a month until they all collectively move on. However there are complications. No complications no story.

As with most of Banks’s ‘Culture Novels’ Cossont is drawn into a galaxy spanning story involving sarcastic AI Minds who live inside huge spaceships of various capabilities and imaginative names, super-powerful weapon technology, battle suits, exoskeletons, political intrigue and lots of really big explosions. Imagine every sci-fi film from the last forty years crammed into around 600 pages and it won’t quite provide you with an idea of the scale, complexity, originality, and giddy enjoyment that is involved in this story.

I won’t pick holes, because there aren’t any to pick, and I won’t go on to explain the plot further as to do so might risk straying into an anti-matter minefield of spoilers. Suffice to say that this is an excellent book full of thought provoking ideas not just for technological geeks – for example there’s a great philosophical section on the significance of simulations when computational technology means that those personalities that are simulated could be deemed to be alive and therefore requiring protection from being turned off when the sim is over [with maybe a slight nod to The Matrix] as well as more engineering insights into Banks’s signature Orbitals [familiar to any Halo player but predating the franchise] – as well as action-packed sequences full of mind-bending weaponry and the usual dash of humour. I have said it before and I’ll say it one last time RIP Iain Banks.

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