You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata is a novel by Iain M. Banks in his Culture universe. The Culture features highly advanced artificial intelligence and technology, as well as a loose confederacy of societies. However not all the cultures in the galaxy are part of the Culture. When the Culture was being created among many different species and systems thousands of years earlier, some decided not to join. One of these was the Gzilt, who backed out at the last minute for unknown reasons.

In the present, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime, to leave behind the physical world and enter an existence of thought and expanded consciousness. But just before the final event, when everything must be synchronized, a hitch has occurred. A Zihdren diplomatic ship arrives at a Gzilt outpost and upon revealing its payload it is destroyed by a Gzilt ship. The Culture vessels nearby frown on this and decide to get to the bottom of the incident.

The secret behind the incident is apparently the nature of the Gzilt holy book, which is different from all other holy books in the universe because it's revelations have always proven true. Now it is widely suspected that the Zihdren, a culture that Sublimed ages ago, were in fact responsible for delivering the holy book. The Culture vessels are concerned that if this secret were reveal then it would put in jeopardy the Subliming which has been planned for decades.

Most of the action centers around Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont, a low level soldier in the militarized Gzilt society. Cossont has four arms so that she can play an instrument called the elevenstring, created to play a piece known as the Hydrogen Sonata. The cumbersome instrument always manages to stay with her despite her waning desire to play it, and it becomes an ongoing joke that it is hard to get rid of. Many of Banks' novels features strong female leads. Cossont is not a typical Banks central character. She is very much a reluctant heroine. She is pulled into the situation by her superiors and feels ambiguous about the mission, much as many of the Culture vessels do. As a lead character she is not the strongest, being led instead of driven. She is not a well skill agent of Special Circumstances, the Culture intelligence agency that is crucial to many of Banks' novels.

The most interesting characters in the Culture are usually the AI Minds of the spaceships. They are highly intelligent and eccentric, bordering on pathological. There are several Minds in this story who take an interest in the events and attempt to figure out the missing piece of the puzzle. However quantity appears to have substituted for quality here. I found myself missing the unique character of a Mind and its avatar. The avatar that Cossont deals with is powerful and cunning, but his personality doesn't seem to show for most of the story.

The plot follows Cossont as she attempts to retrieve a device that contains the personality of an ancient human she had met years ago. The idea is that this person, who as part of the negotiations to create the Culture, remembers the secret that is so dangerous to the Gzilt. Much of the story is a big chase as Cossont and her allies try to race whoever in the Gzilt hierarchy is trying to stop the big secret from coming out. We also see scenes of the conspirators in the Gzilt military. There is no shortage of wonders, such as the vast city that wraps around a planet's equator, called a Girdlecity, where much of the action takes place. And all the characters use powerful technology. Together it makes for some good suspense. The stakes seem high, even though the Subliming never seems in any actual danger. Between the average plot and the average characters, the story is pretty good even if it's not one of Banks' best. B

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