WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the book 'The Hydrogen Sonata' by Iain M. Banks. Read at your own risk.

I just started, and promptly finished reading my first book for 2016: 'The Hydrogen Sonata' by Iain M. Banks, and let me tell you: WOW. I'm now stuck in a funk, trying to understand and wanting to live in the book. I wish it hadn't ended and I selfishly wish it had a sequel.

TL;DR: 10/10 - Fantastic, funny, thought provoking, melancholic and serene.

(Cover image from Orbit Books)


The story starts, following the Gzilt as they are preparing to enter the great Enfolded; To Sublime and leave the Real world in order to live in an apparently blissful place in the higher dimensions. This is, of course, all predicted in their equivalent of a holy book, The Book of Truth. Having been delivered from a civilization called the Zhildren, who have long since Sublimed and left their legacy to the Gzilt, The Book of Truth has correctly followed and predicted each step along the way for over 10,000 years.

The whole affair is a rather sobering and melancholic as the whole civilization of the Gzilt is preparing for this momentous event, and as other civilizations, the Culture included, stop by to pay their last respects and make good on the small lies or any secrets they'd been keeping all these years. The moment is punctuated by the arrival of various Culture ships (including the largest GSV Empiricist, to pay their own respect to the Gzilt who were part of the founders for the Culture. However, because of The Book of Truth, the Gzilt eventually decided not to join the Culture and went on their way, along side their new cousin civilization.

There is only one small problem: The Book of Truth isn't actually True. Far from it, in fact, as a small group discovers the book was actually a sort of joke, a jest at a fellow scientist to prove some inexplicable point. In the end, the Gzilt are nothing but an elaborate experiment. Thankfully nearly no one knows this, except whats left of the Zhildren that didn't Sublime (referred to as the Zhildren-Remnant or Z-R), who decide that they should probably make clean on their people and tell the Gzilt.

What follows is something of pure luck it seems when a Culture ship, the Ue (Unit, eccentric) Mistake Not ..., observes the unexplainable destruction of the Z-R ship sent to relay the true Truth. As this happens, a subgroup of the Gzilt military, the 14th Regiment, who are skeptical on the whole Subliming issue recall one of their reserves, Vyr Cossont, to track down a man who was at the beginning of it all. Older than the Culture itself, Ngaroe QiRia is perhaps one of the only people left outside of the Z-R that knows the truth.

Following an attack on the 14ths HQ, we're thrown into a mass of parallel plot lines; Vyr and her overly dramatic synthpet Pyan are rescued by the Mistake Not ... who chooses to help Vyr with her mission. All the while the head of the Gzilt political parties and the driver of the Subliming decision is working to ensure that the truth doesn't get out, while other Culture ships start working to track down QiRia on their own, all while trying to keep the scavengers who have shown up to lay claim on whats left of the Gzilt civilization at peace.

The end result? The Mistake Not ... having a dirty little firefight with supporters of the head Gzilt politico resulting in the deaths of quite a few Gzilt only days before they all get to "live forever" in the Sublime, including the death of the Mistake Not ...'s avatar, Berdle. After this, the truth is finally recovered and the Culture Minds decide what their next move should be: tell the Gzilt or quietly keep it their own little secret until some future time.

All of this begs the question: Why? Why do the Culture Minds seem to care so much about uncovering the secret surrounding the origins of the Book of Truth, to the point that they are willing to risk not only their own lives but those of the biological beings they are entrusted with?

Its a light hearted, fun adventure to find the truth that turns into a rather interesting moral question about whether the truth really should be known or not, followed by the serene ending as the Gzilt complete their trip into the Enfolded. The conversations between the Minds and other AIs are humorous and interesting, and the over all plot is incredibly thought provoking. To add to this, this book was, unfortunately, the last sci-fi book that Banks wrote (published in Oct. 2012), before passing away from gall bladder cancer in 2013.1 A rather somber, and fitting, end to the Culture universe.

Anyways, since I'm pretty bad at writing book reviews heres just some general thoughts, most of which are missing an end and trail off:


Lets start with the obvious bit: The Hydrogen Sonata, from which the book draws its name. This is an interesting commentary and a massive foreshadowing of the entire plot. Its a piece of music that was composed as a bit of a joke: just because it could be composed, didn't mean that it was anything special or beautiful. In fact he hated it, saying that it was just to show how easy it was to write.

But, at the same time its a piece of work that required a massive amount of discipline to play properly. For many people it seems to take a lifetime. Oh yeah, and its written for an instrument that requires 4 hands instead of the normal two. Just a bit of a commitment, that is.


Oh yes, the big R. This is an bit of an interesting topic in the Culture universe. The Culture itself doesn't have a religion and in fact I don't remember ever reading about large gatherings of religion inside of the Culture, outside of maybe an orbital or star system.

But what is interesting, is that to me and indeed to a lot of the galaxy, the Culture Minds are practically gods; Or as close as a physical entity could be, at least. They are housed mostly in hyperspace, control everything from drones to biological avatars to massive GSV scale ships and Orbitals too. They have magical effector fields to manipulate the world, displacers to rapidly move matter from one place to another, and hyperspace engines to move across vast swatches of space in the blink of an eye all at their disposal.

And with all of this, what do they choose to do? Meddle with the affairs of the lesser beings around them. Its an interesting view, and a theme that is repeated in all the culture books. While not the definition of a religion, I do have to wonder how ship Minds would react to having their humans worship them and raise them to deity status?

Also, having just read Surface Detail right before this, and seeing how the Culture detests the notion of hells it was interesting to see the other side; After all, Subliming feels an awful lot like the concept of Heaven to me.


As the end of the Gzilt, as we know them, draws nearer the Minds are faced with an interesting moral predicament. Knowing the truth about the fabric of the Gzilt civilization, that The Book of Truth is a joke played out by the Zhildren before the Gzilt had even invented space travel, what action should the Minds take if any?

Its an interesting problem, because at what point does letting the truth be known result in more harm than good?


The Zoologist is an interesting little ship Mind. Once sublimed, it has returned to the Real and taken up life in a small corner of the LOU Caconym, although it proves to be unable to explain life as a sublimed. Mentioned only a few times, The Zoologist seems to be a vestigial story line that was forgotten until it came time to wrap up the book, according to quite a lot of internet discussion on the book. But I've noticed that little side stories like these tend to be sprinkled through a lot of the Culture books, often to prove some small point. In this case? We don't actually know what lies beyond, and there isn't really a way to comprehend it. The fact that The Zoologist sublimed and then returned is in its own right a little confusing, but the fact that it return, it itself a Culture Mind, completely baffled both about life there and why it left, shows this simple fact. And let us not forget that Culture Minds are practically like small gods in many senses.

Sure, Banks could have just said (and he did actually) "its really a difficult place to know and understand" but no one believes that. I mean, hes the author! He can make up whatever rules and experiences he wants to! But thats not really the point though, is it?


  1. "Iain Banks dies of cancer aged 59." Bbc.com. N.p. Web. 9 June. 2013. [http://www.bbc.com/](http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-22835047)