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The Hydrogen Sonata    by Iain M. Banks order for
Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks
Order:  USA  Can
Orbit, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I haven't read any of Iain M. Banks' distant future Culture novels, aside from Look to Windward, which I very much enjoyed. The Culture is a technologically superior, well-intentioned interstellar association, whose member species have largely conquered death. It is run mainly by great Ship Minds, advanced AIs that meddle in events with largely altruistic motives and interact partly through biological avatars. They meddle once more in The Hydrogen Sonata.

As the novel opens, the Gzilt civilization is on the cusp of Sublimation, joining other ancient cultures that have taken that last step to the Other Side, 'a maze-like series of right-angle turns away from ... normal three-dimensional reality'. Though not a member of the Culture the Gzilt were part of its founding, only bowing out at the last minute. Culture ship Minds and Special Circumstances take an interest in assuring that the Sublimation goes forward as planned and that the Scavengers (races who hope to acquire what the Gzilt leave behind) behave reasonably, avoiding extreme conflict.

If you enjoy fast-paced SF soap operas, this novel is not for you; its action is explosive yet rare. Of all the recent SF I've read, the book that comes to mind as most similar to this one is David Brin's Existence (aside from the fact that the latter is relatively near future and Hydrogen Sonata is very far ahead of us). Both address - and dwell on at some length - the big questions. Both incorporate amazing technological and biological creations. And both merit more than one read to absorb the author's intent.

Though I enjoy thought-provoking reads, what pulled me through this one was its heroine, four-armed Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Crossont, and her far flung, willy nilly quest to track down the very, very, very long-lived QiRia (or at least his key body parts). It all begins a few weeks before the Gzilt are to Sublime with a message that causes the recipent Gzilt battleship to pulverize the messenger and all aboard. This event triggers what follows - an ultimate cover-up engineered by a Gzilt leader, in opposition to the Minds' pursuit of the truth (and subsequent decision on what to do about it).

Essentially The Hydrogen Sonata addresses life, the universe and everything beyond, enlivened by a great deal of subtle Brit humour - from the great Ship Mind names (I loved the Mistake Not...'s full name) and ongoing banter to the titular composition, 'T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Sepcific Sonata for an Instrument Yet To Be Invented', impossible to play (at least without extra arms) and torture to listen to; even its composer hated it. If you're a serious SF fan, don't miss Iain M. Banks' Hydrogen Sonata (or any of his other excellent works).

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