The Hydrogen Sonata


In reviewing Iain M Banks, I am tempted to retell his ideas and concepts. The Hydrogen Sonata is a difficult piece of music, which he uses to raise issues about playing and composing and listening to music, and describe a musical instrument created especially to play that one piece.

Or I could describe the planets on which it is set. Seven planets are discussed, with how they have been altered by different civilisations, and how other civilisations have used the alterations. These are beautiful ideas, which give the novel variety and bring it to its necessary girth by going off on wild tangents.

The plot is simple. There is a truth which would be most inconvenient if it came out, so the heroine seeks to discover it, and the baddies seek to thwart her. This leads to much imaginative destruction. The one seeking to conceal that truth is a Banks villain as in others of his books, a psychopathic murderer certain of the good of his cause, but an unusually incompetent one who murders to rectify mistakes caused by his lazy inadvertence, and becomes pitiable in his stress and distress. One of his agents in the heat of the moment does an  act resulting in widespread horrible death, despite having a moral compass, and Banks draws the character subtly to indicate how that might happen. So while the inventive death and destruction is a large part of the entertainment of the book, and most of its excitement, there is some character development and human interest. Why would x, y or z act in that way? That question matters, and Banks gives back-stories for disparate individuals. Some characters could be summed up simply, such as the selfish, silly mother, but not all.

In the end, the truth is discovered, but not published, and the Subliming happens probably as it would if the truth had been published, or not discovered. What is Subliming? The transfiguration of a species to higher dimensions of reality, discussed in several of Banks’ books. All that effort, for questionable results. It raises the question of the value of effort or planning. He writes,

“The Universe says simply, but with every possible complication, ‘Existence’ and it neither pressures us nor draws us out, except as we allow. It all boils down to nothing, and where we have the means and will to fix our reference within that flux, then there we are. Let me be part of that outrageous chaos… and I am.”

And- there is meaning in the actions of his characters, and moral value, as well as a lot of running about and blowing things up.

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