Friday, December 20, 2013

Not Comic Review: The Hydrogen Sonata

I know, it's not a comic review, but I needed to do a follow up.

Not Comic Review:  The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Back at the beginning of November, I did a Not Comic Review of Consider Phlebas, the first book of the Culture series by the late Iain M. Banks.  I mentioned at the end that I hadn't gotten to the last book, the result of Banks' premature death, The Hydrogen Sonata yet.  Well I finished it and I have two things to say on it.

1.)  It's not my favorite book of the series, but it's damn close.

2.)  Yeah, read this last.

Every book in the series covers a different aspect of the Culture as it's main point.  Excession is a very Mind (super AIs) heavy book, for example, showing how they think, act and orginize.  Surface Detail goes into artifical afterlives and how it effects the civilizations that create them.  Use of Weapons is all about a single Special Circumstances (Culture's version of CIA) agent.  Hydrogen Sonata covers an aspect that has only been hinted at (and only kind of explored in Look to Windward), the Sublime.

The Sublime are the "evolved beyond the material" branch of civilizations in the Culture universe.  Doing so requires either a lot of special preparation (and can only really be done by a Mind level AI), or by the overwhelming agreement of an entire civilization.  This is the result agreed on by the Gzilt civilization in the book, and the entire book is a countdown to the momentous event.

Turns out, there's a lot of bureaucracy and politics.  No, that's not what the book is strictly about, but there are affairs to attend to, effectively a civilization scale will.  Which would be pretty boring, until the remnant of an early civilization to sublime brings in a message that could turn everything on it's head, and the defacto leader of the Gzilt is damned and determined for it not to interfere with Subliming.

And that's when things get going.  The message is not a mystery, it's stated quiet clearly to the reader and the few involved.  The book itself is the chase to find out if it's true, since the message got more than a little intercepted.  First to find out who might know, then to get there before those under orders to stop it from being found.

I complained that Consider Phlebas had good action sequences, but they felt kind of thrown together.  Not here, there are maybe two serious action sequences and both are just as good as Phlebas, but they feel more controlled and natural.  Once the action kicks off, it plays out well and ends when it needs to.  Of course, there's always twists, but they feel right.

There's also a lot of extraneous story lines, but they're small compared to the larger plot, and they mostly pay off well.  The real purpose of these extra story lines is to expand on the Culture universe a bit more, and show off some really spectacular ideas and locations, which is something Banks is quite good at.

I don't know when, in relation to the writing of this book, Banks learned he was dying.  Perhaps this is because he did die, but I get this feeling from the book that this is something a dying person would write.  It has all these odd elements, like searching for old people/drones stuck in their ways and all the bureaucracy thing with the Gzilt that feels so much like someone preparing for the end of their lives (which in a sense it was).  I don't know if I would feel the same if he was still alive and another book of the series on the horizon.

As it stands, I feel The Hydrogen Sonata fits as a wonderful cap stone to the series.  It's not my absolute favorite of the series (that's still Use of Weapons), but it's probably right behind it.  If you are looking to get into the Culture series of books, I still recommend starting with Look to Windward, but the last two books should be Excession and The Hydrogen Sonata (especially as there's a call back within the latter's pages).

I probably won't review another Culture book, but I do recommend all of them.  Next time, we get back to webcomics.  Until then kiddies.

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