I’d been saving the final book in Iain Banks’ CULTURE sequence, THE HYDROGEN SONATA, for a while. Iain Banks died almost seven years ago, now — god, I remember buying his first book, THE WASP FACTORY, off a spinner rack in Rayleigh High Street in 1984 and just being knocked flat by its mad audacity – and there aren’t going to be any more Culture books. So I’ve saved it for as long as I can.
It’s probably the best book in the sequence since EXCESSION.
In the far future, civilisations can do something called Subliming – abandoning the real universe and escaping up to a higher dimension beyond spacetime. A civ called the Gzilt is about to do this. They are contacted by the remnant of a civilisation who previously Sublimed, who had taken the Gzilt somewhat under their wing in the years before they left. The remnant has a message for them. The Gzilt ship that the remnant approached takes the message — and then does something dramatic, unexpected and extremely final. This is the mystery: what was the message, and why did the Gzilt ship react in this way?
As in all the Culture books, the mystery naturally comes to involve The Culture, a vast Fully Automated Luxury Communism spaceborne civilisatiion that was Banks’ explicit reaction again the American right wing of space opera that had dominated most of the subgenre’s history.
Ships in the Culture, being god-level artificial intelligences, are characters in their own right, and some of them are big — when GSV The Empiricist shows up, it’s a few hundred kilometres on a side and contains several million people — and big personalities.
You will know Culture readers by their love for Culture ship names. Elon Musk borrowed a couple for his SpaceX drone boats. In HYDROGEN SONATA, you’ll meet MSV Passing By And Thought I’d Drop In, MSV You Call This Clean?, and the VFP Outstanding Contribution To The Historical Process among others.
Banks had the soul of a literary writer despite all protestations, and it’s a literary writer’s ending, but I think it’s one of the strongest endings to a Culture novel. And now I want to reread EXCESSION. Don’t start with this one? But save it. It’s worth it. And if you’ve already read any of the others? Don’t wait as long as I did to read this one.