Monday, 3 December 2012

Sublime Culture

While I was complaining last time about the infrequency of Iain M. Banks' visits to the Culture, I seem to have polished off his most recent outing, The Hydrogen Sonata a mere 15 months later. And having raced my way through this scarce resource in only a fortnight, I think I need to be introducing rationing and not complaining in the future.

The backdrop to this Culture novel is the imminent "end" of the Gzilt, one of the civilisations involved in the creation of the Culture, but which pulled out of membership at the last moment. Now, ten thousand years later, the Gzilt are preparing to "sublime", a technological process that transfers the minds of its citizens (biological and artificial) to the elevated plane of existence accessed via the universe's additional dimensions. But as the final countdown ticks down, some long-buried and unwelcome history is floating to the surface, leading to dissent in Gzilt ranks and jeopardising the sublimation. Alerted to this, a loose affiliation of Culture Minds begins to investigate the source of these last minute troubles, only to uncover a link that points back to the origins of the Culture, and to the reason that the Gzilt turned down membership.

As usual, Banks has done a great job with this book. Ten novels into the Culture series and he's still able to draw new stories and angles from his creation. This time tackling both the formation of the Culture and the mysterious phenomenon of subliming, topics only alluded to in the background before. While he demystifies the latter to a pleasing degree, easily satiating this reader's hunger, he's careful not to squeeze every last drop out of it, potentially saving it for further visits in the future (the end of the Culture itself?). And, as usual, he weaves in journeys to remote and exotic corners of our galaxy, creating imaginative settings such as the wind-swept mountains of Cethyd, sculpted by a long-vanished civilisation to produce bellowing, trance-inducing sounds. And no sojourn with the Culture would be complete without the knowing, ironic commentary of the Minds, here keen to get to the bottom of the Gzilt conundrum, but unsure whether it's their place or what to do with what they find out.

All that said - and it does seem rude to complain - The Hydrogen Sonata does still suffer from the same flaws that I identified in Surface Detail. Namely the over-familiar and bloke-y Minds, the feeling that very little is really at stake, and the lack of any resonant underpinning theme. The hyper-threading that stretched my patience last time is also still here, but to a more tolerable and comprehensible degree on this occasion. Another aspect which is beginning to bore is the novel's immersion in the life and times of Involved civilisations. Sure, Banks has a lot of fun with how these have evolved in byzantine ways, but somehow such an "overpopulated" galaxy of near-equals isn't as interesting as what happens at the fringes of the Culture's reach, far from the madding crowd of fully-formed societies. Banks' earlier novels spent more productive time in the backwaters, most notably with The Player of Games. Admittedly, his weakest Culture novel, Inversions, went way too far in this direction, but generally I'd say he needs to head back to the boondocks.

So, overall yet another enjoyable romp with Banks and his Culture. He's still miles away from being dull, or from taking any serious missteps with his signature creation. But I'd appreciate him delving back into the more benighted corners of his universe, back to where deeper and more weighty themes seem more likely to be found.

P.S. One very specific criticism that I forgot to make above is that the central mystery that the plot is predicated on uncovering is (... without getting into spoiler territory ...) pretty unsatisfactorily resolved. Both in terms of the clunky way that it's parachuted in at the end of the novel, and in its actual nature. I think that Banks showed too much of his hand early on, when he'd have been better playing things much closer to his chest.

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