A nice, comfortable read I knew I’d be happy with. Just what I needed. And indeed, just what I got. Sometimes predictable is good. Sad though, as this is the last of the main novels in the Culture series (as far as I’m aware) that a) I’ve read and b) exist. The boyfriend and I had neither of us read it so we’d got to a gap in both our reading schedules, read it approximately simultaneously and then had a handy person nearby to discuss it with. Would recommend, as a tactic. It’s quite different to discussing with someone who’s read it but a while ago (especially if that person is me, as my memory of books I neither loved nor hated fades super quickly).
That being said, for all that it was a pleasant reading experience, it’s not a book I have an awful lot to say about. I’ve blogged nearly every other book of Banks’ I’ve read (save Consider Phlebas, as that predated the blog, though I intend to reread it now I know I like Banks), and it’s not like he’s got radically different between novels. He’s still, shockingly, really quite good at this space opera lark.
One thing that does leap out to me now I’ve finished reading the Culture novels, though, is how early he peaked. I don’t think we got better again after Use of Weapons, and that was a good few books back. Which isn’t to say the rest aren’t good – they really are – but the best was pretty early in the run. Personally, I think I lean on The Player of Games being his best, but it’s a close thing between it and UoW. So that’s… books 2 and 3? Not a strict series, but still. I suppose I’m used to longer series/connected books having peaks and troughs, rather than this kind of structure.
But back to the book itself, The Hydrogen Sonata follows a woman in a culture on the verge of subliming* – ascending to a higher plane of being en masse now they’re done with the material world – and how she interacts with that decision, but also exploring what led to this subliming, and some mysteries associated with it and some cultures that went before. It’s a little less fast-paced than some of his novels, but not in a bad way – it has a decent sense of purpose throughout that saves it from wallowing too much, and there’s just enough action in the right places to keep us going when needed. To me, this meant it felt a lot more thoughtful than the others (which is saying something) and it has a sense of contemplation about bigger things that one would expect from a novel about a whole culture deciding to up sticks and depart the material plane. But what makes it work is the main character really is someone it’s easy to get into the head of. She feels plausibly frail and human (despite being quite alien, both physiologically and psychologically), and has a life to reflect back on that, while in some ways extraordinary, is plagued with a lot of dithering and uncertainty in much the same way as many of us can connect to.
She’s also not within the Culture, which is nice when it happens. He’s done it before, but I like these perspectives as a contrast to the ones from within the Culture looking out. He’s giving us a comprehensive view of this world he’s made by letting us see it from other vantage points, showing up its flaws and failings as well as its successes. I think, on reflection, the Culture is one of the best examples of solid-worldbuilding in any novel/series I’ve read. It’s just so well-considered, but it doesn’t feel the need to bombard you with that consideration. You just have to read the books and pick it up at the pace the author wants you to pick it up, no glossaries for you. And the way each novel focusses its attention on one area of the Culture/that universe – be it what happens after death, the Minds that control things, or in this case subliming – means you do eventually get a fairly comprehensive view… you just have to be willing to get there naturally. And that is what world-building should be. Save me the info-dump, the glossary and the character-just-there-for-exposition, the awkward conversations telling someone about their world they’ve lived in forever that just feel crow-barred in. Absolutely give me ignorance and a slow piecing together of the puzzle every time.
But obviously it’s not just about world-building. It can’t be. This is why I hate Dune for instance. A novel still has to be a novel, no matter how interesting the world you set it in. And Banks has an absolute gift for everything that goes into that – the light, witty and charmingly funny prose, the characters who manage to feel intensely real, despite being totally alien, the way he skips between ideas and still leaves you with a sense of understanding, the emotional depth as well as the intellectual. They have everything, and I love them, and I shall no doubt read the entire lot again in time.
And again, The Hydrogen Sonata is a great example of all these things. And so it feels a fitting ending for the “series”, however sad I am to get there. Not that there isn’t more Banks to read – I shall seek out Against a Dark Background and Feersum Endjinn I am sure – but the Culture is just such a comforting place to go back to each time. I love optimism. I love hope. And the Culture is an optimistic view of the space future**, post-scarcity, post-ageing and illness, one where humanity is outward-facing, open and accepting. And I think that, more than anything, is what I come back to. It’s why I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. I like my view of the future to be one where everyone is welcomed and looked after, and I love my media that take that and don’t dismiss it as a boring premise with no scope for interest. Grim can be interesting. Dark and gritty can be cool. But I will always come back to optimism for comfort. And this book – and all of his novels that I have read – have been intensely comforting.
If you’ve never read this, or any other Banks, I would recommend it. But if you’ve never read any Banks, go back and start with The Player of Games. It’s worth it.
*I want to type “sublimation”. It’s been a few weeks since I read the book, but I’m pretty sure he sticks to “subliming”. But my fingers resist it…
**Though upon talking to the boyfriend/reading Wikipedia, it’s not our space future, as the dates apparently put it contemporary with some existing earth history in parts (in short stories, I think? I’ll have to read those too).