The latest Culture novel from Iain Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata will also be his last. The author died of cancer last Sunday. So I tried to be a trooper with his last sf novel. But it was difficult.
Mr Banks wrote with wit, complexity, and a twinge of cruelty and hedonism. Well, more than a bit of that last item. His writing and his life (from what I read) was basically a mirror of his Culture, the future interstellar society largely ruled by artificial intelligences and filled with humans and other beings living promiscuous lives. It’s pretty much anything goes and the computer intelligences keep people (mostly) from hurting each other. Except when it comes to full scale interstellar warfare.
In this book, the main character is a musician and military reservist called to active duty when her culture (not part of the big Culture) decides to leave the known universe en masse in a process known as Sublimation. Problem is that this advanced civilization has attracted scavengers and treasure seekers and others who want to swoop in and pick through their material accomplishments after they leave.
The book is leads off with some curious military action, and continues with Culture ships that spend a lot of time talking and being witty. Plus, there’s a quest for the oldest known living being in the galaxy. Interesting that the most wonderful places to visit in the galaxy are artificial constructs, not natural wonders. A city that girdles the equator of a planet. Tunnels cut through mountains so the wind can play them like organ pipes. I can watch nature documentaries on cable tv and get more wonder. And that’s just one planet.
Let’s get back to the Culture. The author described it before his death:
It’s my secular heaven. It’s where I want to go, well, when I’m still alive.
Mr Banks was an avowed atheist. Atheists can make for good writers. But despite this book being shortlisted for a number of sf awards this year, it was a difficult read. There’s a lot of talking. Isaac Asimov (another atheist) was good at “talky” fiction because the ideas were often (but not always) intriguing.
It is an intriguing idea for a computer intelligence to have wit and engage in intrigue. But it seems like the drawback in the Culture universe is that they all reflect a one-sidedness. Is it inevitable that all AI’s evolve to be smart-asses? One or two is enough for a book.
This novel is part travelogue and part cocktail party. The former element would succeed better if we spent more time at these interesting places and they were somehow woven into the story. But the self-indulgence, be it from sex, drugs, or endless artificial wonder, makes me question why anyone in the far future would even bother to go into space when all the indulgences can be sampled from home.
I will remember Iain Banks as a very good writer who peaked early and mostly parlayed that into a comfortable life, but failed to challenge himself or his readers in his late fiction.