Thursday, October 25, 2012

"The Hydrogen Sonata" – Iain M. Banks

A review of Iain M. Banks' latest Culture novel.

The Gzilt are in their final weeks before Subliming when a political crisis emerges. Evidence, rapidly suppressed, suggests that their whole culture is founded on a manipulative lie. If this becomes generally known, the whole Sublimation project may be in peril. The facts of the matter go back to the founding of the Culture, ten thousand years ago. An almost mythical Culture member was there, part of the negotiating team who seems to know the secret truth of the matter. But Ngaroe QiRia doesn’t want to be found.

Gzilt factions contend: one wants to suppress the facts and proceed with Sublimation; the other wants to discover the truth regardless. Inevitably the Culture itself is drawn in: weapons systems are soon in action. The heroine of this tale is Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt female musician who once met QiRia and was given a copy of his mind-state. Aided by the Culture ship “Mistake Not ...” the hunt is on.
Over the course of his Culture novels, Banks has systematically explored many aspects of his utopia. This novel is focused on the nature of Subliming, and how beings with Godlike powers (Culture Minds) can nevertheless have their actions constrained. Minor themes include the meaninglessness of life, the pointlessness of most political disputes and the self-parody of art.
Sublimation is like Heaven and how do you describe that? Banks has turned to String Theory (like some priests!) to locate the Sublime in the extra, compacted dimensions. To look back to the 4D of The Real from the Sublime is to imagine most of your senses and intellect to be switched off: sophisticated analogies are the best we can do and Banks spends time on this.
The Minds are very smart and one consequence of this is that they simulate possible outcomes of situations. In the simulation of political crises the potential actions of people are important. But once you start simulating people at a precision for accuracy, you’ve created people  ..  and that raises a cloud of ethical issues. So here we see a profound incompleteness theorem: the Minds can’t permit themselves simulations of sufficient power so will be surprised and get things wrong: the novelist still has a job to do.
The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is “T. C. Vilabier’s String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, MW 1211.” The later-invented instrument is the elevenstring (after the dimensional count of String Theory) and the Sonata encodes the elements of the periodic table, starting with Hydrogen.  Is it any good? A notable critic writes: “As a challenge, without peer. As music, without merit.” At its first performance the audience was divided: some hated it, the rest really hated it.
Iain M. Banks’ latest Culture novel retains the house-style of beautiful descriptive writing, character-led plot development interleaved with intelligent speculation on all manner of things. It’s also pretty exciting. The whole Culture thing evidently still has plenty of mileage in it.