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I am a big Iain M. Banks fan, and any new Culture novel is a cause for celebration. If you aren't familiar with the Culture -- set in a far future post-scarcity society where AIs, humans, aliens, and impossible engineering co-mingle in interesting ways -- this may not be the ideal book to start with (Player of Games or Consider Phlebas might be better), but all of the books are pretty independent.
As a fan of the series, I wouldn't consider this to be the best offering, though it is far from bad. There is the usual mix of action, wry humor, philosophizing, and amazing flights of imagination that mark Culture novels. But the story itself, while full of great ideas and interesting sections, doesn't really connect the way the most compelling novels do. Perhaps that is because the novel is a bit of a ramble through a civilization that is about to evolve to a higher, immaterial, state. There is an overarching plot about a millennia-old religious secret, but the book is really about the picturesque locations visited in attempt to solve the ancient Da Vinci Code-style mystery. The perpetual parties, people with faces made of bowls of soup, sculpted moons, eccentric robots, and other clever details encountered seem like a slightly harder-edged version of Douglas Adams.
Because the novel veers between humor and seriousness rather suddenly, or perhaps because so many of the main characters are Minds, the super-intelligent ship-board AIs, the book is really interesting but rarely feels emotionally compelling. Since Banks is more than capable of writing at the highest level, this is a little disappointing, but the book is still very much worth listening to, and is generally both thrilling and fun, with a little serious navel-gazing thrown in for interest.
The reading is terrific, but, listener be warned, there are a few very explicit moments voice-acted in great detail. Make sure to have headphones on for, say, the visit to the party ship, or the start of the second half of the book. Overall, I don't think any fan of imaginative science fiction, and especially any fan of Banks, will be disappointing they took the time to listen to the novel.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
I am always thrilled to see the next Culture book drive, and this one did not disappoint.
While somewhat slighter in scope than his previous instalment, "Surface Detail," "The Hydrogen Sonata" hearkens back to "Players of Games" in its relatively straight-forward narrative. There were several side story lines, but one character's story takes centre stage.
Banks has often written his newer culture books to echo events or characters from previous books in the series: "Look to Windward" is the follow up to "Consider Phlebas,"Surface Detail" completed a character arc that started in "Use of Weapons." "The Hydrogen Sonata" does not seem to be particularly closely linked to any of the other books. Perhaps, there are similarities with "Excession" as Minds play a somewhat larger role than usual, but that's a tenuous link at best.
This book has everything you'd expect from Banks: crazy tech battles, smarmy Minds, political intrigue, wacky aliens, up/down-loaded consciousnesses, utopic societies, hilarious ship names (my favourite being: The Washing Instructions Chip in Life's Rich Tapestry) and amazing landscapes (cities that wrap around whole planets, sand "water"-falls).
If you've read the Culture series so far, be prepared to enjoy another excellent novel in this addition to the series.
If you're new to Iain Banks, you might want to go back to the beginning and read them in order, though this is not necessary. Seeing that only four of the Culture novels are available on Audible (at least where I live), "The Hydrogen Sonata" is probably the best one to start with; "Matter" is not the strongest book in the series, and "Use of Weapons" and "Surface Detail" are best read as a pair. Unfortunately for first time readers, "Use of Weapons" is the most dense, difficult but ultimately rewarding of the series. It can be a little off-putting in that the new reader has to get their head around the fragmented narrative and the Culture universe.
The narration was very excellent as always. Bravo Mr Kenny!
This books gets a strong recommendation. Give it a try!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful