The Hydrogen Sonata

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The Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth novel in the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. It is set in the civilization of the Gzilt, which is on the verge of ‘subliming’—that is, departing the physical universe to become immortal beings of pure energy. As the big day approaches, one question still niggles: what was the origin of the Gzilt’s suspiciously well-informed ‘Book of Truth’? Genuine religious inspiration or hoax by ancient meddling aliens? The only person who might know the answer is T. C. Vilabier,1 composer of the famously unplayable sonata of the title,2 and the only person who might be able to find him and persuade him to dish up the dirt is elevenstring player Vyr Cossont. And so a bunch of well-meaning observers from the Culture decide to set a quest in motion whose outcome may cause the Gzilt to think again about the whole sublimation project.

‘Subliming’ started as a throw-away idea serving a narrative function in Banks’ 1987 novel Consider Phlebas. The idea that powerful species eventually mostly ‘retired’ from involvement in the material universe provided a quick explanation as to how relatively young civilisations like the Culture and the Idirans could be significant players in a galaxy that’s billions of years old:

Now it was obvious why the Dra’Azon had made Schar’s World one of their Planets of the Dead. If you were a pure-energy superspecies long retired from the normal, matter-based life of the galaxy, and your conceit was to cordon off and preserve the odd planet or two you thought might serve as a fitting monument to death and futility, Schar’s World with its short and sordid history sounded like the sort of place you’d put pretty near the top of your list.

The witty name ‘subliming’ for this phenomenon first appeared in Excession (1996), which added some details about the results of the process:

Sublimed Elders, become as gods to all intents and purposes, seemed to be derelict in the duties which the more naive and less developed societies they left behind ascribed to such entities. With certain very limited exceptions, the Elder species subsequently took almost nothing to do with the rest of life in the galaxy whose physical trappings they invariably left behind; tyrants went unchecked, hegemonies went unchallenged, genocides went unstopped and whole nascent civilisations were snuffed out just because their planet suffered a comet-strike or happened to be too near a super-nova, even though these events occurred under the metaphorical noses of the sublimed ones.

The implication was that the very ideas, the actual concepts of good, of fairness and of justice just ceased to matter once one had gone for sublimation, no matter how creditable, progressive and unselfish one’s behaviour had been as a species pre-sublimation.

The trouble with taking this idea and running with it as the cornerstone of a whole novel is that “what we know” about subliming makes it look like a really unpromising theme: it’s a mysterious process (from Look To Windward: “the only way fully to understand it appeared to be to go ahead and do it”) typically preceded by “a degree of society-wide ennui”, and typically followed by quiescence.

Banks joins this unpromising theme to a plot that makes no sense. The conflict in the novel arises because there is a faction among the Gzilt that are keen to ensure that their sublimation runs to schedule, and don’t want the distraction of a debate about the origin of the Book of Truth: so keen, in fact, that they are willing to commit mass murder and provoke interstellar war in order to cover up a message from the Zihdren admitting that it was all a childish prank and they are very sorry. But this driver of the plot is witless on multiple levels:

First, in Banks’ Culture setting, it’s not clear what the difference is between a genuine religious inspiration and one that’s merely handed down by godlike beings, nor why anyone would care. I’m open to the possibility that there might be genuine religious fervour, but I need to be convinced, and Banks doesn’t even try: the only character in the novel who actually believes in the religion is Cossont’s mother, and she’s treated as a sad and deluded figure. (The villains who are out to suppress the relevation do so for reasons of realpolitik: they are only concerned that other people will care about it, and want to avoid a scandal at a politically inopportune moment.) Surely for the Gzilt, who are a populous advanced technological civilization in contact with many other civilizations perfectly capable of hoaxing up religious texts to order, the relevation cannot possibly come as a surprise? Every possible theory as to the origin of their religion will have been studied and debated by academics, and every crazy variation used as a plot device in popular media. The likelihood that it was a hoax is going to have been debated to death, and the society is going to have come to terms with it.3

Second, the revelation cannot possibly be compelling. The message that the Zihdren attempted to deliver, and the evidence uncovered by Cossont in the course of her quest, consist of digital records of eyewitness testimony from thousands of years ago. It’s well established in the Culture setting that this kind of evidence can easily be faked or mistaken or the result of brainwashing. So no-one who was really dogmatic about the Book of Truth would be put in a position where they were obliged to change their mind.

Third, the motivation of the villains is premised crucially on the idea that information can be suppressed by secretly killing the messenger. How is this supposed to work in a world where everyone has access to networked information? Have these people not heard of backups? And in any case, the cover-up is bound to be worse than the crime. As explained above, it’s hard to imagine the relevation about the Book of Truth being much of a scandal in the first place. But the murder of the Zihdren messenger and then the mass murder of a group of people who happened to find out about it is something else entirely.

Fourth, this kind of murderous cover-up seems very naïve: surely the modern public relations industry knows many better ways to suppress undesired revelations? Attack the credibility of the messenger; flood the network with distractions and misinformation; unleash an army of trolls. Or just leak the revelation early enough and let peoples’ short attention spans work their course.

Like several other of Banks’ Culture novels, The Hydrogen Sonata is a bitter exercise in cynicism and disappointment. All expectations are dashed. The villains’ motivations are extraordinarily petty. No-one is punished for any of their crimes. The Culture ships directing Cossont’s quest decide (after far too many interminable committee meetings) not to tell anyone about what they have discovered. Cossont’s comically oversize elevenstring gets comically ferried round with her in spite of her ambivalence towards the instrument and in spite of the desperate situations from which it must be recovered, but then plays no role in events. Cossont has a robotic ‘familiar’ called Pyan, whose only role is to make occasional cute comments on the action. Cossont’s relationship with her mother is not resolved. Loose ends flap around everywhere you look.

In fact, the novel is so permeated by a sense of ennui that you don’t have to read very deeply to see that it is a desperate plea from the author. Recast in metafictional terms it’s easy to decode the novel as follows: The Culture series is preparing to depart to the great backlist in the sky, but there is a small possibility that an interesting plot development will be found that will keep it going. The author sets out on a quest in search of it, but the interesting development cannot be found on the planet Zyse; it cannot be found in high-tech laser battles between robots and mechas; it cannot be found in the evil motivations of evil villains; and it cannot be found in fights inside dirigibles, not even if the dirigibles fly around in a giant network of tubes. Gradually it becomes clear that the plot development is not so interesting after all. There’s simply no joy left in over-the-top evil and Obligatory Deadly Vengeance any more. The author decides it would be better not to follow up the plot development: better that the Culture series be left to quietly slip away into the twilight.

And I can’t help but agree.4


  1.  This isn’t, strictly speaking, a correct summary of the book. In fact, Vilabier is dead, and it’s his old friend QiRia who’s the object of the quest. But the shorter plot summary is much clearer, and it’s not as if you know or care who any of these people are anyway.

  2.  This piece plays no other role in the events of the novel, and some reviewers apparently had difficulty with this (for example, Ian Sales).

    The title has a thematic connection to the events in the novel rather than a literal connection. The sonata, we learn, was deliberately composed to be “near impossible [for humans] to play acceptably, let alone perfectly”, and even if it is played perfectly (for example, by a machine) then all that comes out is meaningless unpleasant noise: “As a challenge, without peer. As music, without merit.” So the question is, what value is there a human attempting to play it at all? But this obviously parallels the main question in the book, what value is there in living in the imperfect physical universe when you could sublime away into perfection? So the answer has to do with the joy of striving and the value of a goal that hasn’t yet been reached, as opposed to the sterility of perfection.

    I don’t know if Banks is making a deliberate reference, but the pieces that come immediately to mind are John Cage’s Freeman Études, which were deliberately composed to be almost impossible to play by humans, and even if they are played very well (as in this performance by Irvine Arditti) all that comes out is meaningless noise. Cage describes the purpose of these études as a celebration of the ability to do hard work: “this music, which is almost impossible, gives an instance of the practicality of the impossible.” (See James Pritchett for more analysis of these works.)

  3.  John Clute makes the same point: “Though we are in fact shown almost nothing of it, we are meant to think of the Gzilt civilization as enormously complex and sophisticated, most unlikely not to have taken on board centuries earlier the possibility that its Bible is a confidence trick; and Banks’s dodging of any attempt to create a portrait of Gzilt life only intensifies a sense that the McGuffin in this novel is an even more blatant damp squib than usual.”

  4.  I wrote this review before reading any others, and now that I’ve had a look around the web, it seems that I’m a bit of an outlier in my reaction. A few reviewers commented on how they felt let down by the ending, but treated it as an aberration in an otherwise enjoyable space adventure rather than a thematic part of a cynical whole. Kristen at Fantasy Book Café: “Toward the end was very action-packed and exciting, but the conclusion seemed a bit hastily explained and was a bit of a letdown since not much was learned that hadn’t already been speculated about.” Donna at Radish Reviews: “It felt a little nihilistic, and that would be fine except it seemed to render the entire plot and galaxy tour Vyr goes on moot. Still, there are lots of clever, clever stops on that tour.” But the prize for best reading goes to Andrew J. Wilson at the Scotsman, who sees “a satire on the Scottish independence debate”.