• The Hydrogen Sonata

  • Culture, Book 10
  • By: Iain M. Banks
  • Narrated by: Peter Kenny
  • Series: Culture, Book 10
  • Length: 17 hrs and 17 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Release date: 10-04-12
  • Language: English
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio UK
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars 4.4 (131 ratings)

Regular price: $21.31

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Publisher's Summary

The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization. An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture 10,000 years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they've made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations: They are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.
Amid preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted - dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over 9,000 years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago. It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilization are likely to prove its most perilous.
©2012 Iain M. Banks (P)2012 Hachette Digital
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Critic Reviews

"Nobody does it better." ( Sunday Times)
"The standard by which the rest of SF is judged." ( Guardian)
"Essential for SF fans." ( Library Journal)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
3 out of 5 stars
By Benbarian on 11-08-12

Hmm... Ok.. But not great

I've read most of Banks's work by now, and this is a little underwhelming. After the depth and breadth of Surface Detail, this leaves me feeling a little cold. Banks as always paints sweeping vistas of alien awesomeness and really digs in with amazing concepts and high tech culture. But one doesn't ever really like his characters, only the Minds seem to have any depth to them.

It won't be the last Banks i read, he does keep me hooked enough to continue. But I hope they get better rather than worse from here.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Jefferson on 08-12-18

To Sublime or Not to Sublime—

Iain M. Banks' tenth and last Culture novel Hydrogen Sonata (2012) is all about Subliming. For millennia the Gzilt have felt superior to other galactic civilizations because of their scientifically prescient holy book, and now only 24 days remain till they Sublime. In theory this happens when a civ has nothing more to achieve technologically and culturally and involves nearly everyone abandoning possessions, desires, and ambitions etc. and transcending from the Real to a Childhood's End-like nirvana in multiple unknown dimensions.

But are the Gzilt really ready for Subliming? Why does one of their warships atomize a diplomatic ship sent by the already Sublimed civ who helped them develop by giving them their holy Book of Truth? The destroyed ship was carrying a message, and if it was, say, "The Book of Truth was an experiment on the Gzilt by an advanced civilization," what would the Gzilt do if they found out? Will the two scavenger civs eagerly waiting for the Gzilt to Sublime start fighting over the abandoned technology too soon? What role should the Culture (the preeminent galactic civilization comprised of disparate societies guided by near divine AI ship Minds) play in all this? Their ship Minds don't like to interfere with other civs, but they also like to get to the bottom of mysteries and want to do the Right Thing. If they confirm that the Book of Truth was an experiment, should they tell the Gzilt? And what is the connection between the Gzilt Subliming and the legendary QiRia, a 10,000-year-old Culture man whose memories are encoded in his body, and the nearly unplayable and unlistenable to Hydrogen Sonata, which the Gzilt woman Vyr Cossont has decided to play as her life work (to the extent of adding a second pair of arms onto her body)?

For that matter, what IS Subliming? It is an act of faith, because information is scarce, because (typically) no one returns from the Sublime or communicates from it to the Real. Is it as most Gzilt believe a promotion to "the most brilliant lucid dream forever" in the "Happy land of good and plenty," or is it as many Culture Minds believe a kind of retirement into an old people's home or an act of collective insanity and annihilation? Banks, who died before he could write another Culture novel, isn't telling.

Whatever happens once you say "I Sublime" and vanish from the Real, it has no connection with ethical behavior. The Gzilt are no angels. Their politicians are amoral, their military leaders inhumane, their artists decadent. All that may be Banks' point. As QiRia puts it, "my heart is broken with each new exposure to the idiocies and cruelties of every manner of being that dares to call or think of itself as intelligent." But he also says (sounding like Banks) that one pleasure of benign misanthropes like him is watching the dolts repeat the same "fuckery."

But Banks is no future downer. He exuberantly spins out small s sublime technologies and scales of time and space for his galactic post-scarcity playground, like sculpted planets, a 30,000 km-long city girdling a world, elevenstring instruments so big you have to sit inside and play them with two bows, hyperspace, anti-matter and anti-gravity, body implants, stored consciousnesses, eccentric drones, combat arbites, nano missiles, and smart battle suits. Not to mention the Culture AI ship Minds keeping an eye on things and deciding what to do in conference calls, with their different personalities, agendas, hobbies, capabilities, avatars, and quirky names: the Beats Working, Mistake Not. . . (ellipsis intentional), Smile Tolerantly, You Call This Clean?, A Fine Disregard For Inconvenient Facts, Empiricist, Caconym (which means an incorrect name), and more.

Banks is not just parading awesome techs and sublime scales for the fun of it (although his book is fun), but to explore serious questions, like What is the meaning of life when there is no Meaning? What are the ethical and practical limitations of simulations? Should more advanced civilizations take a hands on or off approach to less advanced ones? Is intelligence connected to decency or to technology? Can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? What makes us human? What makes us individuals? Where does identity reside? And so on.

Banks writes space opera about the human condition, as when an android in real danger says, "Happily, I am not human, and this is only a simulation." He writes snappy and humorous dialogue, like "Are you afraid of heights?" "No, just of dying generally." He writes sublime space opera comedy: "Back aboard the Passing By, the mind controlling both the systems vehicle and the avatar was doing the hyper AI equivalent of grimacing and mouthing the word, 'Shit.'" He writes straight space opera sublime, as in a description of the sound made by giant wind pipes, like "from an enormous choir of bases singing a slow sonorous hymn in a language you never understood."

Peter Kenny reads the audiobook with verve and skill. He distinguishes among the many characters by changing the pitch of his voice (Vyr Cossont's familiar Pyan talks like an infant stuffed animal, a combat android like a cheerful machine, an Ronte prince like an insect, a mysterious ship Mind like a senile Merlin, etc.) or his accent (though I wonder why people or AI Minds from the same civ speak American, British, Scottish, or Australian English).

Hydrogen Sonata is not perfect. There may be too many advanced technologies and point of view characters, some of which/whom finally don't seem so vital to the plot (like Tefwe, the Zoologist, and even the Hydrogen Sonata). True, Banks wants to freely exercise his imagination in a universe in which anything is possible, and at one point a "body enhancement artist" tells an interviewer that he recently had 53 serviceable penises on his body and that one should "never feel sorry for excesses, only for failure of nerve." But this novel feels more excessive and less satisfying than earlier Culture novels. The climax is exciting, but the resolution (deciding whether or not the Gzilt will Sublime and what will happen to some bad actors) is somehow disappointing. The last words of the novel nearly blow every prior thing away: "caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flyer's departure, [the elevenstring instrument] hummed emptily. The sound was swept away by the mindless air."

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By M on 10-27-12


In The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M. Banks - as an outspoken atheist - has finally gotten around to using his Culture universe to explore faith and religion. Though there have never been any gods in his creation (the Minds, though near-omnipotent, are way too vain and profane to fulfill that role) there has always been Subliming: a Heaven-like afterlife for civilisations or Minds to ascend to. He’s never tackled Sublimation head-on before and I was intrigued to see how he would do it; this being Iain M. Banks though, he did it with wit, thoughtfulness and panache (with great dollops of action, sex and intrigue thrown in to spice it up). I couldn't tell which came first, the plot or the theme, but its not important; the plot rattles along - a wondrous travelogue around his beautifully imagined universe - and the theme lies there in the background adding depth to the conversations of the characters we’re following on their various wild-goose chases. Along the way we get to chew over different aspects of religion through the different characters we meet: a hermit Mind who returned from the Sublime representing resurrection; evil and guilt (or lack thereof) are explored through the main antagonists; forgiveness and acceptance of our sins and the meaning of life, the universe and everything according to a millennia-old human. There’s no spiritual epiphany to found though, either by the characters, the author or the readers; the moral (if there is one - I’m not sure it’s even relevant) could be that a truly loving God would welcome all his flawed creations into heaven. Or maybe that personal Truth can be true even if it’s based on lies (and doesn’t hurt anyone). I don’t know, but I love the way that the great mystery at the heart of the story could seem almost irrelevant except for the fact that it’s incredibly important to those involved. Anyways, I really enjoyed the book and it was sublimely narrated (no pun intended) by Peter Kenny - thoroughly recommended!

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9 of 9 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Colin on 10-11-12

Hi-Tech Intrigue

Yet again Banks supplies a gripping tale of eons spanning intrigue. This story doesn't have quite the depth of some previous Culture novels but it gives another insight into the many layers that make up his Universe. The Culture ship Minds steal the show yet again but you can't deny that without their seemingly 'pet' biologicals they would get bored and have no choice but to Sublime which would seem to be the point of this book.

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4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Elliot on 06-08-18

Intriguing but not outstanding.

An interesting book, not as gripping as Consider Phlebas, and the characters aren’t as memorable, except a small selection. However, the narration is as always second to none, and it is an intriguing in depth look into the Minds of the Culture.

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5 out of 5 stars
By Lyndon on 07-21-17


sad to have finished the series. it's been a superb series to listen to with Peter Kenny.

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