Monday, 22 October 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata

Iain M. Banks, 2012
(October 2012)

Whoo, look at me. All kind of topical like, doing a book post mere weeks after its release. Hey, it’s quick for me, alright?

A new Culture novel is always going to be exciting. There really isn’t anyone who does the scale thing quite like Iain M. Banks, whether we’re talking about the impossibly large or the infinitesimally small, there’s always something joyously simple about the way he revels in the possibilities for black-boxed future tech to just do cool stuff.

The Culture, is of course, a libertarian lefty’s wet dream. My impression is that gritty dystopias are far more prevalent in SF than the kind of post-scarcity utopia The Culture represents. That’s understandable really, because given a society where there are no material limits on what a person could want a writer has to work that much harder to create the conflict necessary for dramatic tension (though see the discussion here for an interesting working through of the messy business of attaining such a society). If there’s more than enough stuff for everyone, what’s left to fight over?

Which is where other societies come in. Banks does moral and ethical exploration very well from the Culture’s point of view, but of late his antagonists have tended towards being out-and-out pantomime villains. The main baddie in The Hydrogen Sonata isn’t quite as bad as Veppers in Surface Detail (the weakest Culture novel to date) in that respect, but is still fairly one note. In terms of the motivation for the various protagonists, this one seems to address it more frontally than before; there are more than a few conversations between Minds lampshading the whole ‘why are we doing this all again?’ question.

But that means you get lots of conversations between Minds. These are always, without question, the funniest parts of the books, and anything that means we get more is a good thing. And while it’s unlikely we’ll ever match the Gravitas series of ship names, we’re back on track here as well.

What’s interesting is that this time around the principle antagonists are representatives of a species who have tech-parity, whereas normally it’s just The Culture’s black-ops wing sticking its oar into simpler, less enlightened places. So unfortunately there’s none of the pure Boy’s Own wish fulfillment of just beating up on the baddies à la the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints last time, but that’s easy to overdo and it’s engaging to see a Mind actually having to work at stuff for a change.

The first Iain (M) Banks novel I read was Excession, which I got from a book exchange while I was backpacking up the east coast of Australia. Airlie Beach is gorgeous, apparently. Most of what I can remember of it is being holed up in various cafés and hostels engrossed in the book. The concept of these vastly powerful but sardonic ships with their own personalities just hooked me. When he’s not on top form, it sometimes feels a bit like he only includes the humanoid and/or organic characters so he can write about sex or squick. And the thing is, I’m completely fine with that. More ships and Minds, please.

Five hundred odd pages and they raced by. For all that it’s a bit of a shaggy dog story, I loved it and can’t wait for the next installment of the Terrific Things The Culture And Its Brilliant Ships Have Got Up To Over The Years.


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