Chris Brown on The Hydrogen Sonata: “A Triumphant Return to Form”

20 December 2012, 1523 EST

General Warning: this is emphatically not a spoiler-free Forum! Hence all of the text all of the contributions will be safely below the fold, and only the identifying information for the author of the contribution will be here for even causal browsers to see.

Chris Brown is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.

Ten books published over twenty-five years, many brilliant and not one of them a real turkey – such is the achievement of Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. This longevity is, in a way, surprising because the Culture is a genuine utopia, a galaxy-wide post-scarcity civilisation that has access to free energy (lifted from the grid between parallel universes, since you ask) and overseen by enormously powerful yet amazingly benign Minds. When you think about it, the possibilities for boredom are immense. This is heaven, and Heaven, as Talking Heads remark, is a place where nothing ever happens – but something must happen if our interest is to be held, and, of course, it does. The Culture novels reveal and play through a series of ways in which an all-powerful and benign civilisation can still face genuine problems.

This is less immediately apparent in Consider Phlebas, the first of the series, because here the Culture is at war with the Idirans, religious fanatics with almost equivalent technology, and thus faces a conventional space-opera scenario for the first and only time. The Culture wins this war and never again faces a similar threat, although the after effects of the conflict – a sense of guilt and a degree of uncertainty – can be felt in many of the later novels, especially Look to Windward.

If the Idiran War provides one source of plot lines, another theme of the earlier novels in the sequence, one more consistent with the omnipotence of the Culture, could perhaps be described as ‘humanitarian intervention’ or, to employ a more recent formulation, the Culture’s ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Unlike Star Trek’s Federation, the Culture has no Prime Directive forbidding interference in alien civilisation – rather, the Culture is pretty sure it knows best, and interferes all the time. Culture agents from Contact and Special Circumstances stick their noses into all sorts of places where they aren’t wanted in, for example, Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, protected by knife missiles and watching ship Minds. These novels give Banks the opportunity to invent some wonderfully awful societies and play through some interesting scenarios – but the sheer power of the Culture removes too many possibilities because in relation to these primitives, the Minds are effectively omnipotent, and the Culture agents invulnerable.

More compelling is the ‘out-of-context’ problem faced by the Interesting Times Gang, a group of ship Minds who try to deal with the apparent arrival of an artifact from another universe in Excession – to my mind the best of all the Culture novels. Excession succeeds for two reasons; because the great power of the Culture is to a degree irrelevant in the face of this situation, but, more important, because this is the novel in which, I think for the first time, the ship Minds are the central characters. The communications between the different members of the ITG are at the heart of the novel, revealing to us a set of beings who are far more real and interesting than any of the ‘human’ characters Banks creates; their quirky sense of humour, partly expressed through their names, is very engaging, as is the combination of a decidedly un-human commitment to honesty with the occasional fits of pique – these are not soulless AIs; they very definitely have personalities and their essentially benign nature doesn’t preclude a degree of darkness in the case of some of the minds who brood too long on human folly.

In Matter and Surface Detail things take a different tack and we learn that the Culture is not alone – there are other Galactic ‘players’ with equivalent capabilities. At one level this is all to the good – it provides new plot-lines and the entertaining opportunity for some Culture ships to get in touch with their inner warrior/psychopath. On the other hand, there is the obvious danger that if the series develops in this direction the uniqueness of the Culture will be submerged in something that looks a lot more like traditional space-opera, albeit with some very untraditional spaceships. The danger is that Banks’s extraordinary imagination will be oriented in another direction; the most striking feature of Surface Detail is the lovingly described sadistic detail of the virtual ‘Hell’ that takes up so much of the novel. This inspired nastiness is a feature of Banks’s writing that has always been present ever since his first conventional novel, The Wasp Factory, but to me it is a feature we could do without.

Fortunately The Hydrogen Sonata represents a triumphant return to form. Like Excession – which it resembles in many ways – it deals with an out of context problem, perhaps the out of context problem, the Sublime. Since the earliest novels we have known that civilisations when they reach a particular point in their development may enter the Sublime, leaving the Real behind (some will continue to have a kind of presence and power in the Real, but we don’t know much about these Elder civilisations – perhaps that will be the next novel). In The Hydrogen Sonata the Gzilt, a galactic player of equivalent civilisation to the Culture are about to Sublime when the remnant of a previously Sublimed civilisation reveals a secret about their past which could disrupt the process – some Gzilt politicians try to prevent this secret getting out and some Culture ships decide to get involved, effectively forming a new Interesting Times Gang.

This is not the place to rehearse the plot details and, in any event, what is interesting is what we find out – actually, what we don’t find out – about the process of Sublimation and the changes that accompany it. We learn that the Sublime usually leave behind a Remnant to deal with unfinished business, and we learn of the conflicts that arise when other civilisations on the way up vie to posses the real estate that the Sublime leave behind – this is interesting, but what of Sublimation itself, what of the Sublime? Of course, by definition, knowledge of the Sublime is denied to us – we find out that people do occasionally return from the sublime but they cannot or will not describe what they have experienced. They simply go on about the wonderfulness of it all, as one of the Culture ship Minds sarcastically remarks.

A striking feature of the novel is that none of the Minds actually takes the Sublime very seriously – not that they disbelieve in its existence, rather that they talk of it in disrespectful terms, the Big Outloading, the ‘great retirement home’ and so on. This isn’t really surprising when you consider that the behaviour of the Gzilt leadership hardly suggests that they have achieved the kind of inner peace that one might have thought Subliming required. The idea that Sublimation represents a choice made when a civilisation has exhausted all its potential for development hardly fits the choice made by the Gzilt which was very clearly the outcome of some fancy political manoeuvres rather than the equivalent of a Buddhist recognition of the end of all desire.

In fact, (spoiler alert) when we get to the actual Subliming, it is treated by Banks as a comic episode – “in the presence of Presences, all you did was say ‘I Sublime, I Sublime, I Sublime,’ and that was that. Off you went, just folding out of existence as though turning through a crease in the air that nobody had noticed was there before.” It is difficult to take seriously something that follows such a potentially farcical process, and I assume that this is intentional, that the mockery is deliberate and considered. Banks is telling us that the Real is all there is, all we need or should want; like Tennyson’s Ulysses, Banks’s Minds are determined ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’ and to reject the temptation of a comfortable but meaningless retirement. At least I hope that is what he is telling us.

All this is, perhaps, rather too earnest. Although I’d insist that Banks is a deeply serious writer, he’s also a very enjoyable read at a less high-minded level. The action sequences are exciting and innovative, the politics of the Gzilt – a society whose earlier militarism is reflected in the fact that all it’s citizens continue to hold military titles – is nicely different while obviously recognisable, and the twists and turns in the plot and various subplots are very satisfying. As with Excession, the dialogues between the Minds in The Hydrogen Sonata are at times wickedly funny and always thoughtful and, thought-provoking. And, again as in the earlier novel, the names the ships have chosen for themselves are a delight: the General Systems Vehicle Just the Washing Instructions Chip in Life’s Rich Tapestry may be a little over the top, and the full name of the Mistake Not… may indeed be somewhat boastful, as the Gzilt ship remarks – but still, naming the new Super GSV that all the other ships feel resentful about simply Empiricist is a stroke of genius. These riches more than compensate for a somewhat bland four-armed human protagonist, whose efforts to master the Antagonistic Undercagonstring in order to play T.C. Vilaber’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented before she sublimes with the rest of the Gzilt frame the action of the novel, and lead us to its title.

Returning to Talking Heads, they end their dissection of Heaven on an upbeat note by commenting that although nothing ever happens, ‘It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun’. The Culture would be Heaven to most of us, but things do happen, and it is exciting, and it is fun. As always after finishing the latest installment, I’m really looking forward to the next.