Saturday, 8 June 2013

And so I face.....The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

It's not like me I know but I thought I would begin this with a Moz quote.  "Even now in the final hour of my life  I'm falling in love again". (Life is a Pigsty).

This was a difficult book to read not because of its content or style but because it very nearly is the end.  Iain Banks announced at the start of April that he was terminally ill.  I posted the  interview he did 10 years ago with the Scottish Socialist Voice at the time.  Reading his latest (and last) Culture Novel which I was given for Xmas prior to all this  it was almost impossible to leave aside knowledge of the author.  Although I am sure in generations readers will be able to do this as it is a strong text.

This must also be true of Banks himself when writing it indeed without any knowledge of his health I thought Banks' last sci-fi was dealing with the issue of mortality.  So on a much bigger scale does this work indeed it deals with the ending of an entire civilisation in the Culture Universe - the Gzlit.  Well, in a sense not an ending but a "Sublimation" to a higher level where the consciousnesses of every individual will exist but they will leave behind the infrastructure of their society - planets, buildings, space ships etc.  It is sort of a non-religious heaven or the most advanced level a society can aim to get to.

Such a monumental event needs a big build up and indeed that is what it gets.  In another slightly ominous undertone each chapter has a countdown to the day.  But as Morrissey pointed out even in people's last hours emotions, feelings and events still occur.  The political machinations, military manouevres and inter-species politics of the Gzlit in fact reach almost fever pitch as the big day approaches.

How then are the Culture involved?  The Gzlit are not part of  the inter-galactic highest stage of communist society but they nearly were in its early days.  So the Culture have a pretty close watching brief on them and as the events of the last days of the Gzlit unfold they become even more embroiled within it.

Like in most of Banks' science fiction he outlines the detail of the fairly complex quasi militaristic Gzlit  he does this through the scheming politician Banstegeyn.  He has been the main architect of the Sublimation and does not want this threatened by anyone or anything.  This event seems to be threatened when knowledge is almost revealed by the remnants of another civilisation (already sublimed - hope you are keeping up!)  that the religious underpinning of the Gzlit society: the Book of Truth is er ...false.

So what?  Well the unique thing about the Gzlit society (and perhaps the reason they didn't join the Culture) is that every prediction and concept in the BOT actually happened.  However Banstegeyn and his military allies don't want this revealed as it would undermine the entire power structure of the society and its countdown.   This aspect of the book is quite interesting as Banstegeyn is not really motivated by money or power or being really villainous (although he does some nasty stuff) but by control and maintaining the edifice of his society.  For that greater good he is prepared to destroy a lot  - which is unusual in this fairly advanced society unlike sadly the human race we are part of.

But what drives the narrative and lifts the book from being an esoteric debate of the themes I have mentioned - a bit like the movie Solaris (the original!) - into the realm of slam bang sci-fi fun is the rogue element of the Gzlit (the Marxist -Leninist wing!) who have discovered the info and want to find out the full story.  To do this they reactivate one of their reserves Vyr Cossont - now living a  musician determined to master the playing of the ridiculously complex, almost unplayable and definitely unlistenable Hydrogen Sonata.  She has even grown an extra pair of arms to help master the only instrument in the Universe that can play it.  Prior to the M-Ls getting destroyed by Banstegeyn's forces Cossont escapes with her task to find the allegedly oldest man in the Culture QiRia who Cossont once knew.  He was involved in the discussions on the formation of the Culture and of the origins of the Book of Truth.  To do so involves her racing across the Universe pursued by a specialised military unit loyal to Banstegeyn.  So  a chase book in part integrated across a massive space opera backdrop - a form which Banks shows here he has ultimate mastery of.

The chase and destruction is where the Culture comes in.  Another thread is a meeting of Ship Minds - the highest power within the Culture where humans have passed over all functions apart from enjoying themselves to AI machines.  These conversations - a common theme particularly in the Excession novel - are witty and allow the Minds to display a character which perhaps is not very logical in the Culture universe but makes it more readable.  Caconym - an almost rogue Mind is the most cynical of the Gzlit and "humanoids" in general.  They operate also as a sort of Greek Chorus and control the intervention of their resources in this intra-Gzlit battle.  What is unclear (and not really dealt with satisfactorily) is why the Culture are so interested - albeit QiRia is one of their society,  In fact the last chapter puts the whole book and events in context for the multi-billion advanced beyond belief Culture as simply an anecdote to be shared  despite the destruction and impact it has had.

As you can see from the explanations you can get lost in books like this I guess that is the idea and there is lots more within it.  Music is examined in several critical and well written scenes.  Arguably his integration and repetition of several themes building to a climax is symphonic in nature which the title of the work nods to.  The nature of being a writer is looked at obliquely and the power you have to create and destroy.  Hedonism always a part of the Culture is also examined as a bit of an aside.  And as always much more which I could write thousands of words about.

It is a great Culture novel and a fitting testament to Banks if this is his last one but it is for fans I think maybe deliberately.  It is also a very individualised book all the protagonists are splintered from each other - there are no relationships everyone seems to be on their own.  Particularly QiRia who has lived so long he can't really relate to any other human. Cossont the "hero" who has her own doubts on sublimation has a pet and is atttacted to the avatar of a Ship! is really on her own.  Maybe this is a reflection of Banks own thoughts in his  last months - it does give the book a melancholy though.

The countdown has  a conclusion but no real resolution - a suitable allegory for human life.  A legacy, a strong brilliant legacy.