Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata (updated)


I've just finished The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain Banks' latest Culture book. I loved it.

It would be hard to say which Culture books are the very best (Player of Games and Use of Weapons are up there for me, and Surface Detail), but The Hydrogen Sonata certainly is in the *type* I like the most: entertaining, lots of fancy far-future super-tech stuff, Sentient, powerful Culture megaships and drones, and so on. Riveting stuff.

Iain Banks has said that the Culture is the *best* society he could imagine, while still being believably human. And that this was what is driving the whole concept and the books. And that he'd love to live there. Me too! Technological wonders everywhere, and all the basic human problems solved. (If one finds this boring, one could just take a ship to a nearby less civilized empire, where one could risk being shot down in the street, if that makes life more precious to one.)

Even just one aspect seen alone makes Banks special to me: his subtle, underlying sense of humor. I think few people would call his books comedies, but the humor is everywhere: in the names the spaceships give themselves ("Of Course I Still Love You", Anything Legal Considered", Just the Washing Instructions Chip In Life's Rich Tapestry"...), in the shapes he gives aliens, in the personalities he gives everybody, not the least the AIs, etc etc. Humor makes life worth living.

Update:
I have to admit this was not always so easy to read, because of all the invented names and invented technology and politics. I had to use an ebook as support when I didn't get what the audiobook was saying. (I'm not sure if it's more so in this book than his others.)

... I've just been going through which of his books I can't yet get as audiobooks, but can get as Kindle books. Man there are many good ones I want to read again! This guy is a tour de force.

30 comments:

David Evans said...

I agree. I also loved this book, and the others you name.

I sometimes think that Banks is a writer of brilliant episodes, rather than of brilliant books. Remembering my favorite scenes I sometimes have to stop and ask myself "which books was that in?"

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the whole Culture series is a single work of art.

David Evans said...

"which book", not "which books". Duh

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Could be viewed as such, sure.

But it's pretty amazing how different many of the books are. For one thing, they stretch over thousands of years. And the Idiran war, which took place in the first one, Consider Phlebas, was formative for the culture, and for the books and is referred to sometimes. Large parts of some take place in really alien places, like a great "planet of air" where millenia-old "air whales" swim around.

Surface Detail seemed at first to be cobbled together from short stories, and probably was, but I think, despite one or two sections barely fitting, it ended up being a really nice whole.

I'm waiting for Excession and Look To Windward to come as audiobooks.

I also love Espedair Street and The Bridge, two of his non-SF books.

I have tended to care less for his non-Culture SF books. I haven't finished the Algebraist, for example.

Dave Nielsen said...

And that he'd love to live there. Me too! Technological wonders everywhere, and all the basic human problems solved.

I don't know if I would. Some of the advantages are obvious - you get virtual immortality, as well as those enhancements for mind blowing sex we Human Basics can only dream of. But humans within the Culture are kind of like pets of the Minds who are millions of times more intelligent and could do anything better. Reminds me of Watchmen when Dr. Manhattan says to Ozymandias that the most intelligent human means no more to him than the most intelligent insect. Even many or most drones are far more intelligent than a human. It would be kind of depressing.

At least, for us. Maybe if you grew up in the Culture it wouldn't seem so bad. Many of them find that there are some advantages to more primitive societies (Gurgeh in The Player of Games) but that the advantages of the Culture outweight the negatives.

So far I've only read the first two but liked them a lot but didn't completely love them. I wouldn't consider myself a conservative or right wing at all but Banks does sometimes seem a bit too extreme far left for me. I remember reading somewhere that he wrote the Culture books partly to counter what he found right wing in American science fiction (apart from Heinlein I don't know what he's talking about there), but I'm not sure the Culture's Libertarian style civilization really could be sustained. I found myself siding with their enemies' view of the Culture a lot of the time.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Sure, it's a stretch that humans could be so libertarian (non-interfering) as the Culture is, but the stretch makes it possible, and fun.

Todd Bridges said...

Non-interfering in the lives of Culture members, but they interfere plenty in aliens civilizations. Even Earth becomes a member eventually.

Todd Bridges said...

Dave, maybe Pascal (if he's even read them) will turn up and give you an intelligent reply.

Dave Nielsen said...

It's a bit like the future of those Bill & Ted movies - I bet the Culture has some excellent waterslides. :-)

Dave Nielsen said...

This is an interesting article about the Culture:

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-ambiguous-utopia-of-iain-m-banks

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thanks! Will check it out.

It's interesting, I think Banks is an atheists, but a funny SF kind of spirituality still has a strong presence in his books. Civilizations will "Sublime" and disappear into a higher state where everything is better. And unlike most writers he has never made this in any way seem ominous. That is courageous and rare.

Anonymous said...

And unlike most writers he has never made this in any way seem ominous.

Unless a civilization Sublimes en masse - he said the Culture figures in those cases there must be coersion. But in itself it's not ominous.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yeah. The latest centers much on a Sublimation. It's made pretty clear that it's all voluntary. But I'll grant you that if everybody you know sublimes, it'll take a particularly hard-headed individual to not go along!

Dave Nielsen said...

For me it would matter whether you could un-Sublime or not. As great as it's said to be... It's strange that in the Culture more people don't do it. I've only read two of them so far, but in Player of Games - MINOR SPOILERS HERE - Gurgeh kills himself after the end (though it might have been centuries or millennia later), and in Consider Phlebas that chick in Special Circumstances does too. I can see why in her case, but I wonder why someone like Gurgeh wouldn't Sublime. Then again, none of us knows what it would be like to live for centuries.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yes, these are very interesting questions.
For example me, I am interested in the concept of Awakening or becoming Enlightened, and Ascending. But some of my old friends are indignant, the response being often: "don't you dare take away my wonderful playground".

Apart from the unknown of how Subliming/Enlightenment actually is, I think the people of the Culture just so far love their playground too much. And I think it can become a much larger part of the galaxy before it even thinks about settling down or leaving.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

By the way, in Hydrogen Sonata it's said that somehow it's difficult or unusual single humans or drone to Sublime, that somehow it takes "more mind", either a real big Mind (as in ships) or a big group to do it. I am reading Windward now, and there is no hint of this difficulty, it's only said that it's "unusual" for less than a full civilization to do it. (The Chel did it partly, 6% of the civilization.)

Joe Dick said...

These books sound very interesting, but I prefer audio books and unfortunately itunes, for some reason, only has one Culture novel - Surface Detail. Bit of a drag.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Well, it has Matter too. Not bad, but not his best.

And it has The Algebraist. SF, but not Culture, and frankly I never got through it.

Against a Dark Background, also non-Culture SF, also pretty OK.

And Consider Phlebas, and Player of Games, the latter a fave of mine.

...Surface Detail and Transition. Only the first is Culture, but I like them both a lot.

I sure hope these are not only in the UK part of the iTunes store! ... Nope, I see them in US too. I forget are you there?

--
By the way, Garbadale and Stonemouth are there too, but they suck.

The Wasp Factory and The Business are there too, I liked them both.

Dave Nielsen said...

I sure hope these are not only in the UK part of the iTunes store! ... Nope, I see them in US too. I forget are you there?

Canada.

They have all those titles as actual books, but in Audibooks they just have the two I mentioned. I just double checked.

JOE DICK said...

That's weird. I clearly typed "Joe Dick" but they have me down as "Dave Nielsen." (Just so Dave Nielsen doesn't get mad at me for impersonating him.)

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

That *is* weird. Never heard of that before.

I did have an idea you were in Ca. I'm awfully sorry, it seems Canada in many ways is a backwater what applies to ebooks and audiobooks.
I've heard also Amazon's Kindle ebooks there are not many.
Perhaps it's because of Kobo, which is Canadian, not sure.

Listen, if you can find a friend or a company to help, you can get a US membership for the iTunes store. I've had for years, and and I flick back and forth all the time, Apple doesn't seem to mind. They even shuffle me automatically to the right store if I lock in with the other login.

It's worth it, there are so many things I have which I couldn't find in the UK store.

Dave Nielsen said...

(Just so Dave Nielsen doesn't get mad at me for impersonating him.)

I've just been too lazy to log in. I probably should every time, then there'd be no confusion.

That is a weird fluke, though.

P.S. The Culture novels all appear to be there in itunes for me, the U.S. one.

Dave Nielsen said...

Maybe you actually wrote "Dave Nielsen." Once on another blog, a while ago now, I was typing my name into the box after finishing my comment, and I unconsciously typed the name of the guy I was replying to. Although you weren't replying to me, but still.

Oh well, doesn't matter. Too bad about the itunes stuff, but maybe like Eolake said you could work out something like he did.

Joe Dick said...

I'm awfully sorry, it seems Canada in many ways is a backwater what applies to ebooks and audiobooks.

It sure seems that way. I just wonder why they'd have a couple of his books but not the rest - and why not, as is often done, have the U.S. itunes store for us as well. I mean, when you're talking about electronic content and electronic payment...

I don't know anyone in the U.S. that I could ask, though, so I'll just have to forget about an audio book and - sigh - read it the old fashioned way.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I am using a US re-mailing company, myUS.com. I've heard that some companies will also somehow lease use of a US-registered credit card, though I don't know much about it.

Joe Dick said...

Ah, okay, I'll have to try that.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

I just found out that Use Of Weapons is now out on audiobook too.
That one is considered one of the best by many fans.

Joe Dick said...

Got Hydrogen and Use (the latter there were two different listing, one $16.95 the other $17.95, same narrator...went for the cheaper one as there didn't seem any difference). It's strange they don't have all of them when the US and UK itunes do. I recently asked Amazon.ca why they have such limited content compared to Amazon.com and .co.uk but got some bullshit answer.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Rights and regions is just one big bullshit game which nobody gains from.

Dave Nielsen said...

True. And it seems kind of strange in that we have more and more "Region Free" stuff in DVDs but in other ways it's still like it's always been. It's odd that there even have to be different itunes stores instead of one for the whole world.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Yes, that's a big pain in the ass. Also for ebooks.

It'll take time to change, because most of the many, many publishers are stuck in the idea of buying/selling only rights for one country at a time.