Iain M. Banks’s newest Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, comes with the usual array of barely-imaginable technologies cloaked in a layer of almost-plausible technobabble, a good complement of action, and a featured high-tech interstellar culture (as in most cases, this culture is not The Culture).  However, it left me feeling rather unsatisfied.  None of the fancy technology is new, the action doesn’t really seem to have much point, and we don’t actually learn all that much about the Gzilt, a spacefaring race who almost joined the Culture, but didn’t (this piece of space history gets mentioned often enough that you would think that it might be relevant to what happens in the book, but you would be wrong).  The pointlessness of the book is prefigured by its title: the Hydrogen Sonata itself, it turns out, is a Gzilt piece of music, written for an instrument that did not exist at the time (and requires four arms to play, which is two more than the humanoid Gzilt normally possess), which is fantastically hard to play and even harder to listen too, and the composition of which, as it turns out, was essentially a satire on the musical scene that its composer found himself in.  The main character, Virisse Cossont, spends most of the book lugging around an Antagonistic Unidecastring, on which she hopes to play the Hydrogen Sonata one day, a quest which is, she learns, pointless: why would you want to play a piece of music which is essentially a nasty joke at the expense of anybody who ever plays or listens to it?  The parallels between the experience of the book’s heroine with the musical piece and the reader with the book are strong enough — the reader even finishes his conquest of the book by reading about the heroine finishing her conquest of the composition — to make one wonder if Banks isn’t also playing a joke at the expense of his readers.

However, that would give Banks credit for more of a sense of humor than he seems, on balance, to possess.  While this might make the reader less likely to storm into a bookstore demanding his or her money back, Banks’s difficulty with jokes turns out to be a problem, as the premise of the book is, like that of the piece of music, a satire.  There are actually two satires, one on religion and one on power, and while both have some promise, neither actually amounts to much.  The religious satire is a broad and simpleminded joke, which is that the Gzilt holy book, the Book of Truth — renowned as the only holy book in the galaxy whose predictions, mostly having to do with scientific and technological developments, were always true — came, not from God, but from a member of an (at the time) more technologically advanced species who was carrying out a rogue experiment in applied theology.  One could potentially derive humor from this premise, but as humor is not Banks’s strong suit he takes the dramatic route, in which this becomes the secret that might, if it becomes generally known, prevent the Gzilt from ascending en masse to a higher plane of existence, the Sublime.  Unfortunately, Banks never really establishes that the secret is all that important: there doesn’t seem to be much organized opposition to Subliming, there’s little indication that the Gzilt are particularly religious, and no particular reason to believe that a loss of religious belief might lead to a loss of belief in Subliming.  All in all, our conclusion is the same as that of the super-powerful Culture AI, or Mind, who says at the end that most likely release of the secret to the general public would have no effect (but just in case, the Culture Minds responsible for finding it decide not to release it anyway).

The political satire is darker and potentially more interesting: it concerns the more-or-less most powerful person in the Gzilt political system, the Septame Banstegeyn, and his desperate attempts to maintain his political power even as the entire culture prepares to change to a form in which systems of power will no longer be relevant (we are given to understand that in the Sublime, the entire culture will change in ways that make our ideas about power entirely pointless).  So desperate is he to keep his power undiminished right up until the last moment — in particular, to ensure that the Subliming, which he has long been promoting, goes off on time, and that the species he favors is chosen as the official Scavenger species (allowed to pick up whatever technology they can gather from what the Gzilt leaves behind) — that he goes to the length of killing multiple people, up to and including the woman he loves, or at least loves to have sex with.  A certain amount of black comedy is extracted from this desperate attempt to retain power even as power ceases to have any meaning, but much more could be done in the hands of a genuine humorist (Waugh, say, would have killed with this material, in the unlikely event of him deciding to write a series of science-fiction novels centered around an atheistic and anarchist utopia).  Unfortunately, while the comedic potential is largely wasted, not much is done with the dramatic side either.  A Dickens, say, would have used this as material for a grand epic, ending with Banstegeyn’s suicide, or his renunciation of Subliming in an attempt to atone for his sins.  Alas, while Banks is clearly considering such a plan — in the last few days before the Subliming, Banstegeyn starts to break down in classic fashion, seeing the dead out of the corner of his eyes and so forth — he doesn’t really carry it through.  In the end, Banstegeyn’s crimes just don’t seem to amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

Part of the reason that this is true is that the central focus of the book, the Subliming of the Gzilt, doesn’t really seem to amount to much either.  The problem with imagining a fancy new plane of existence, one which is more than just a gussied-up version of the existence we all live in, is that it really can’t be done.  Banks can talk about the Sublime, but he can’t really explain it in any meaningful way, nor can he explain why a culture Sublimes or not, and so we have no idea whether or not it would be a bad thing if the Gzilt failed to Sublime.  After all, the Culture — which has, since the Gzilt declined to join it when the Culture began, been around just as long as the Gzilt — has not Sublimed and shows no signs of planning to do so anytime soon, and the Culture is Banks’s Utopia: if it doesn’t want to Sublime, why should we care if the Gzilt do or not?  (Plus, couldn’t they always just do so later?)  As a result, when Virisse decides not to Sublime at the end of the book (for reasons which are unclear — possibly she feels guilty about all the people who have died thanks to her ultimately pointless search for truth, or maybe she’s just glad to get an entire plane of existence between her and her mother) it makes essentially no impression on the reader.  Banks teases us a bit more by adding a subplot concerning a Culture Mind that not only Sublimed all by itself, but decided to return to ordinary existence.  Perhaps this Mind will shed some light on the problem?  Well, no, it won’t.  After refusing to answer any except the most general questions about the Sublime, it vanishes back into it, leaving not a trace behind, and leaving the reader just as confused about the meaning of the Sublime, and just as ambivalent about the Gzilt’s choice to go there, as ever.

A similar problem appears when, as here, Culture Minds make up a large proportion of the characters in the book.  Just as the Sublime is an unimaginable new state of existence, Minds are an unimaginable new state of intelligence, super-advanced AI’s which are as far beyond humans as humans are beyond, say, cockroaches.  This is a pretty cool concept, but one that tends to break down when it is examined too closely, since the actual nature of a Mind’s intelligence cannot be described by a more-or-less ordinary human intellect such as that possessed by Iain M. Banks.  The best Banks — or, really, anybody — can do is present the Minds as being essentially very intelligent humans with super-fast access to extremely powerful computers.  This is fine when the Minds are interacting with ordinary human(oids) (or intelligent insects or what have you) but when Mind talks to Mind, one expects the conversation to take place on a plane somewhat above that of normal human talk.  But of course it can’t, as Banks has no way to represent a Mind-to-Mind conversation as anything other than an analogue of a normal human conversation, and as a result the Minds lose much of their interest.

In the end, The Hydrogen Sonata reminds me most of Excission, another Culture novel that I was not particularly fond of.  Both involve phenomena from another plane of existence which are theoretically cool but in practice, since they can’t really be described in a meaningful fashion, turn out not to be particularly interesting.  Both also involve a lot of conversation between Minds, which tends to make the Culture’s most extraordinary creations appear rather ordinary.  And both end up being rather pointless stories, in which actions are taken and people die without anything that the reader cares about being resolved.  The weakness of these novels is a direct consequence of the weakness of the Culture novels in general, which has always been, of course, the Culture itself, as a genuine utopia is a poor topic for a novel.  Generally speaking, this is resolved by basing the novel in the Culture’s interactions with other spacefaring civilizations.  Were Banks more like Ursula Le Guin, he might be able to make something out of this, but he is more adept at inventing new technologies then new cultures.  The Gzilt, for instance, are organized in entirely military fashion, a whole society split into regiments, with clearly defined ranks and all, but this organization doesn’t seem to have any impact on the average Gzilt, who doesn’t appear to be all that different from an average member of the proudly rankless Culture.  As a result, Banks has essentially only three templates for Culture stories: the Culture manipulates a lower-technology civilization, the Culture spars with a roughly equivalent-technology civilization, and the Culture deals with something entirely outside of the realm of its or anybody’s experience.  It is this last template that both Excission and The Hydrogen Sonata are based on, leaving them vulnerable to the inevitable problems of trying to invent something so completely beyond anyone’s conception.  But the series as a whole has larger problems.  By this point, all the templates have been used more than once, and the last three books — Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata — recapitulated them in exactly that order.  They were also, unfortunately, of steadily declining quality.  It may simply be that Banks’s Culture series has run its course.