Hydrogen Sonata: the disharmonic string
We don’t really appreciate the raw length of time, I think. We immerse ourselves in elaborate worlds, galaxies, universes where, thanks to sciency-sounding magic technology, the worth of a year has been demoted to less than that of a second, where entities (for they often cannot be called human anymore), and the events they are intertwined in, take imaginary millennias, aeons, galactic cycles to unfold. Is it any wonder, that we, who love delving into the imagined worlds of SF-nal giants, lose track of just how weighty and loaded a single year is, in this meatspace we’re stuck in. A mere year – and yet, there’s so much raw entropy packed inside each one. As real human beings, we are still slaved to it, so much so that even ten years is an incredible amount of time, for us, to be doing any single thing.
Iain M. Banks has been doing that single thing – writing science fiction – for far more than that.
His most famous works are set in a single universe of fiction, and commonly known as the books of The Culture. A whole twenty-five years spanning between the earliest publication – Consider Phlebas – and the most recent one. Hydrogen Sonata, the newest addition to the series, is the tenth work, and the eighth or ninth (depending if you consider Inversions to be a full culture novel or not) “proper novel”. Twenty-five years… That is such a long time to maintain a series, to keep the same feelings, ideas, constructs. And much as I’d have liked for the new Sonata to touch the same heartstrings that Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, Use of Weapons so masterfully played, it… it just is not quite there, I’m afraid. Something does not resonate properly, much like the nearly unplayable elevenstring that so permeates the novel as a reminder of one’s life goals.
What is it that’s missing from Sonata? Or, if it is not missing anything, where are the redundant instruments of the symphony?
To answer this, we have to cast our sights back on the origins, the aforementioned first three novels that defined the whole series. A few elements that were crucial to setting the scene, tone, and expectations, were the following: A focus centred onto specific characters, and cultures that are not part of the post-scarcity Culture, but effected by it. Interactions between non-parallel paths that characters choose to take – which, in the grand fashion of most SF literature, inevitably converge. Inevitably, a grand finale of subversion, surprise and sacrifice. And the denouement, the piece de resistance, the juxtaposition of a large-scale success against a personal-level tragedy. These are the elements that could be said to be the building blocks of how the Culture series was presented to readers. The instruments responsible for creating a running theme, a familiar melody that runs through all variations and grounds any piece as being part of the album.
The Hydrogen Sonata is a few instruments short of that ideal.
To be fair, it is an almost perfect tune-up. Once again, we are introduced to our lead characters, well-defined, with the staple imperfections, the necessary unease and disquiet that is needed to act as the set-up for the entire oncoming subversion. Once more, we have the Culture as a seeming side-player, becoming entangled in another culture’s business. Once more, we have the raw rhythmic beat of action driving the novel’s events to the tune of rumbling contrabasso sequences that are the Minds, plotting, scheming and directing everything. There are even high stakes on both the personal and the supra-personal level – the ascension (sublimation) of an entire civilization, and the personal doubts of an individual’s place in the process.
And true to the set-up, the novel actually does deliver most of the way through. The tempo is pitch-perfect, the progression through sequences is nearly flawless and practised, and the theme is very similar to that familiar sound from the previous works. It’s just that as it nears the crescendo, things begin to feel more and more out of place. Specifically, two very unique instruments – Reason and Sacrifice – seem to have slept in, failed to appear in the grand event. You can tell that they have been at the practice sessions – the novel quite frankly feels as if the two would have intertwining presence throughout, but at the most important moment, the publication of the work to audiences, the Reason and the Sacrifice are missing themes.
A lack of Reason could, perhaps, be handwaved. Many, I imagine, would be inclined to do just that, to argue that reason has not always been present in the events and actions portrayed by previous novels. Not so. There has always been a meaning, a reason for the actions of the puppetmasters, the Minds, and that reason has been the critical foundation of the entire ending tragedy. In Hydrogen Sonata, however, Reason is not really there. The empty place is, of course, deftly covered by other instruments, trying to fill the missing notes, but throughout the deception it is evident that so much of the events are caused by unnecessary, inexplicable meddling. The entire premise of the actions of these god-like Minds throughout the Sonata is “not because we must, or we should, but because we cannot abide leaving things up to randomness”. It is not as if the fallout of such meddling has been absent in previous novels. It’s the fact that the meddling is unreasonable, unnecessary that truly stands out. And this does not only apply to the Minds, it applies to nearly all protagonists and antagonists we are presented with. And because that Reason, a true justified one instead of an excuse, is lacking, the subversion misses the punch. There is no real weight to it, when things come to a peak.
And Sacrifice. This has been a very strong running element in the theme of Culture. From the doomed expedition on Phlebas, working against one another in a side-theatre of a war that’s been all but predetermined, to the convergence of the past and the present in Use of Weapons, revealing the true secret behind the white, bone-carved chair. The theme of Sacrifice has been enforced by applying it to characters that do not have a ‘backup’. A sacrifice of an android, or a drone, or a Mind, matters most when it is nonreversible. When the personalities and existence of entities concerned are on the breaking point. Sonata severely misses the mark with this all-important factor. Key parts that are obviously meant to inspire compassion and despair fail to tug the right strings, because of the non-criticality of what’s sacrificed. Is it a big moment when a Mind chooses to go down in a desperate last-stand? Yes. Is it a big moment when a Mind does so, having full up-to-the-latest-second backups? Is it a big loss when an artificial avatar, a substrate projected and controlled by a Mind, is lost?
So the Sonata has its flaws when it comes to resonating with the emotions of an audience. But, surely, even with missing a few strings short, the remainders, brilliant as they are, can still achieve a full overture? Surely, even with diminished reason and sacrifice, there can still be the subversion, the reveal? Yes. Yes, there can be. And, crucially, there isn’t.
That is the true fault of the Sonata. It has nearly all the elements of a build-up, it certainly has the expectation of one. But, in the end, despite there being a mad dash and a final confrontation, the outcome is unaffected. And, sure, it is a fair remark that many great stories rely on exactly that as the big reveal, the fruitlessness of all involvement, of all effort, of all sacrifice in the face of unchangeable events. But it’s not even that in the case of Sonata, it is literally an almost complete non-change outcome. The denouement practically turns the entire novel meaningless. Pair that with the absence of reason and sacrifice, and you have a flawed masterpiece. A composition ruined by absences and unresolved buildup. An overall theme made unrecognisable by an overzealous re-juggling of notes.
Twenty-five years is an amazingly long time in our meatspace, in our entropy-ruled world. Things change, there is no denying that. It is just a shame that, finally, it seems that entropy has had a touch on the Culture series. Yes, it has changed over time, adapted to the sensibilities of more and more modern audiences. For the first time, however, it does not feel like an authentic composition. And that is an incredibly saddening thought. The Culture series has always been a wonderful piece of literary harmony, a bittersweet theme that adapts, changes, and always stays true to itself. Now, it has lost itself. The soul is no longer included in the composition, it seems, and thus it fails to resonate with the soul of the reader. Unlike the elevenstring, the Hydrogen Sonata does not have harmonic internal strings.
~X2Eliah still thinks that Hydrogen Sonata is a good book that you should buy, much like a reunion of a great band after decades – it is not the same, and it is not as great, but you go there for the memories.