Just finished Ian Banks’ latest work The Hydrogen Sonata. It was . . . interesting to say the least. Banks certainly has quite the imagination and I found myself continually intrigued with the scenarios and worlds which I discovered alongside of Vyr Cossont, our favorite four armed musician, and a seemingly ever expanding crew of spaceships. However, I feel like something was missing. (Spoilers to come. If you don’t want to hear them I guess stop reading?)
What originally peaked my interest in the The Hydrogen Sonata was its title. I came to Ian Banks completely by accident and with absolutely no knowledge of his previous writing endeavors. But the title had the word ‘Sonata’ in it and I sometimes fancy myself something of a musician. I read the back cover blurb and was like “Sweet. A sci-fi novel about a musician. Let’s see where this goes.” And boy did it go. Dragged me all over the universe with the requisite number of explosions and whit (not sure those two belong together but I’m making it work) and finally I get to the end and still something was missing.
What was missing?
For me, I felt the sonata was missing. I know! Shocking right? I mean, it’s in there. Sorta. But I was really just more confused as to its importance than anything else. What I did appreciate was Banks’ general treatment of sound/music in a novel. What makes something music as opposed to just sound? Is sound also music? It’s a tough question and really on the tip of everyone’s tongue the higher up you get in academic music. (I say academic because the type of music in which people push the aforementioned sound/music barrier tends to be studied and created at universities, and generally doesn’t get enjoyed by many in the popular culture. A point Banks seems well aware of and references within the novel.) Those were the types of questions with which I felt most at home. It was that type of imagination which I was most intrigued by. That was the Culture I was a part of.
The mountains on Cethyd, which create music/sound as the wind passes over giant pipes carved into the mountain side. A type of sound/music that you can’t really hear so much as you feel as it rattles your bones and makes your teeth chatter. There are several of these type of environments within The Hydrogen Sonata which would truly be something to experience. I’ve read that a gold fish can listen to a symphony, in some ways, better than we can because of the way it ‘Hears’ with its whole body. However, it lacks the brain capacity to understand what it is hearing. What would that be like? In some ways, The Hydrogen Sonata seems to attempt to address experiences like that.
Another aspect which I found quite amusing was the description of how the actual sonata was created. Created as a joke, to display the simplicity of a certain type of composing that has more to do with science and math, perhaps, than emotion and feeling. I know there are many composers who attempted this form of art in our own history. Bartok, Debussy and even one of my favorites, Chopin, composed pieces according to the Golden Ratio (Approximately 2/3). I never had an Ear for Bartok but I believe Debussy and Chopin turned out quite lovely pieces. But I feel the Sonata in Banks’ novel was supposed to represent something closer to Bartok’s work. Discordant and unpleasureable to listen to in the traditional sense. He mentions it as part of a series of pieces which would follow each element in the periodic table (An interesting idea. I hope Banks isn’t attempting to achieve this with Culture novels). He also talks about how the composer is most known for the ‘hydrogen sonata’ even though it wasn’t the work he was most proud of. I can only imagine the amount of composers stirring in their graves, upset by what they are remembered for.
But, seeing as this novel was an intimidating 500 pgs (Yes after almost two decades of reading things, 500 pgs still seems like a lot), it wasn’t only about the music (and as I mentioned before, it was perhaps too little about music for my tastes). It was also about religion and space travel and Subliming and the Culture. I think why I was really frustrated by was the Culture aspect of the novel. It seemed that there was a lot we were already supposed to know and understand. The sciency parts were like that to. A lot of knowledge taken for granted. I thought I had read my fair share of Sci-fi novels but apparently still not enough. But I’ve resolved to read a few more Culture novels and see if it helps.
The notion of Subliming was interesting. I do not believe that word is commonly used as a verb. However, in using it as such I feel it kind of took away from, and gave a new meaning to the word. It seemed to imply (somewhat satirically I might add) that to ‘Sublime’ was to transfer to into a sort of state where you are essentially in a type of Heaven, or Nirvana, or whatever. The point being is you leave your body behind a join up with everyone else before you in a type of eternal bliss. I suppose the ineffable/uncomprehending part of all that is correct. However, when we talk about the Sublime, we are talking about some sort of state which is either so entirely massive that we cannot comprehend, or so entirely perfect/beautiful that we cannot comprehend. The perfect/beautiful part seems to lend itself to all that math and science like we discussed before. The massive part mostly lends itself to horror. However, I was quite horrified in a uncomprehending sort of way when we finally meet up with RiQia on Cethyd and his eyes are replaced by ears. Talk about the uncanny.
Anyway, if you suffered through all that, and still want to know what I thought of the book . . . just go on and read it. Google the sublime and Bartok, maybe the Golden rule, and anything else I mentioned and I think you will find there is a lot of things to appreciate in this book but that somehow it all felt a little pointless at the end. I suppose this is warranted as there is quite a long section in the book discussing the meaning of everything ever and how you can never find the meaning you’re looking for. Perhaps that is all that happened to me. I wanted the Sonata to mean more to the story. It didn’t. Still a good book though.
You’ll find that with a lot of SF novels, particularly the ones that have had a bunch of predecessors. There’s a certain amount of set-up to do, explaining the concepts specific to that universe (such as what’s a Mind, a drone, or an Orbital, or how does GSV differ from an ROU). Similarly, a lot of that set-up has already been done in the earlier novels, so people who’ve read those might feel bored by having to re-read explanations they already know. I think a lot of these books should come with a glossary to fall back on if you need to (though, arguably, it is on Wikipedia).
Ultimately, the sonata wasn’t really important to the book, it was a device for getting the two characters (Cossont and QiRia) together which the rest of the book kinda leans on. And also a way to add extra detail to the Culture universe, which something Banks will take almost any opportunity to do.
Yea, I guess that is what I figured. It just made the book a little more difficult for me. I see the book isn’t getting the most stellar (for lack of a better term) reviews. I wonder that other people new to the ‘universe’ of the Culture felt similar to me. Always a trade off when writing a series I suppose. I was hoping it would be independent enough to be enjoyable on its own. I guess in a way it just felt like the caliber wasn’t the same through the whole thing. Set the bar pretty high then couldn’t deliver. I’ll probs read another one of his books though.
Yeah I bet other people new to the series would feel the same. And I actually felt it got better towards the end (but then all the chatter between the minds and the ship-toship combat really does it for me in an SF book).
If you fancy checking out some of his other books, there are some which have a different style. Particularly his earlier books – Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Player of Games. All in the same universe but don’t really concentrate on the tech as much (and because they’re earlier in the series, you tend to get more explanation). Use of Weapons is particularly good.
There’s also a few other books which have nothing to do with the Culture (well, almost nothing – I’ll leave that as a surprise). Those are Inversions, Against a Dark Background, Feersum Endjinn and the Algebraist. Feersum Endjinn is one you might enjoy.
Finally, check out State of the Art. It’s a collection of short stories so gives you a bit of a wider view of how he writes.
Hope that helps and happy reading!