These are the voyages of the starship "Mistake Not"--um, and some others, to boldly go where...well, where lots of people have gone before.
~~Moved from GR~~
The Hydrogen Sonata
by Iain M. Banks
Welcome to the future, where most cultures have evolved past want and need, where AI is so advanced that the nonbiological minds have left the humanoids in the dust, where it is possible to take a trip to the afterlife and return--if you wish. The Gzilt, an advanced group of humanoids, are about to take the next step in their cultural evolution: within a few weeks, they plan to Sublime.
Note that "subliming" does not precisely match my initial mental image--
--rather than referencing the process in which solids are converted to gases without an intermediate liquid step, "Subliming" refers to entering the Sublime, a higher state of being similar in spirit to the Taoist concept of the afterlife. The Gzilt have been preparing for this final step for years, guided by their surprisingly accurate holy text. Now, as the date of the ceremony approaches, other societies have come to pay their respects and, if need be, settle any misunderstandings. These visiting societies, of course, include The Culture, the extremely advanced, machine-aided civilization where even the ships have independent consciousness. On its way to Gzilt territory, one Culture ship is taken aback to observe a Gzilt ship torpedo another ship into space dust. As it turns out, the destroyed ship was carrying some rather significant information about the Gzilt holy text--information that might cause the Gzilt to put their subliming plans on hold. Vyr Cossant is trying to prepare for the Subliming by mastering the impossibly intricate Hydrogen Sonata on the impossibly finicky 11-string instrument when she is pulled into a web of conspiracy that forces her to partner up with a Culture vessel onto a quest for knowledge from an ancient mind.
Banks has a large and loyal following, for he is, I suspect, as close as you can get to a Terry Pratchett of the scifi world. It seems to me that scifi, especially hard scifi, tends to be Very Serious Business and therefore not a place for punniness, so Banks' humour must be a blessed relief. I enjoyed the witty repartee between the Culture Minds, as well as their hilarious names, from "Just the Washing Instruction Chip in Life's Rich Tapestry" to "Beats Working." I found myself entertained by the flights of fancy, from the asteroid placed in subsurface orbit to the music written by a man for an instrument that did not yet exist. It is light and entertaining, yet also introduces several deep and interesting themes.
From my perspective, there were really only two components that were missing: (1) characters, and (2) plot. Even though I firmly believe that these weaknesses were intentionally created to amplify the overall theme of the book (more on that later), I consider them to be rather important elements for a novel. In terms of characters, there are a multitude of personalities: individuals such as the ship Minds wander onstage, disgorge a comic line or two, and wander back off, but do not exhibit any deep growth or engage the empathy of the (or at least this) reader. We have as many point-of-view switches as an epic fantasy, yet most of them seem function only to push the narrative forward rather than to explore the people.
The concept of elevated cultures was one aspect that I found profoundly problematic. Banks explicitly connects sophisticated culture with decency and morality (ch 13). Yet almost all of the characters that we meet, all from these ostensibly "elevated" cultures, are remarkable only for their belligerence, naivete, and generally grasping, myopic, shallow, narrow-minded attitudes. The ships of the Culture may be able to think quickly, but swiftness does not imply maturity. The name itself put my teeth on edge, for the singular article implies that the Culture is the only civilization worthy of the term. Yet despite their "prime directive," the Culture is willing to disrupt precarious balances and risk a multitude of lives for no other reason than to satisfy idle curiosity. The Gzilt are far worse: while waiting to enter the most elevated state of being possible, they behave like immature teenagers, dissolving their entire societal structure into debauchery or freezing themselves into stasis. The removal of consequences has apparently also removed all sense of responsibility. It did make me curious: what happens to a shallow, grasping, mean mind when it enters the Sublime? Does it simply dissolve into nothingness?
Our main protagonist, Vyr, is little better. Despite at least 40 years of life, she is an ingénue who is clearly supposed to be on a voyage of self-exploration. Yet after page after page of the world from her perspective, I knew nothing about her friends, life, or interests. She is, above all else, passive, and I found her to be completely lacking in emotional depth. For example, early in the novel, individuals she knows are killed; Vyr vaguely hopes that no one she "really" knows died, but otherwise puts it entirely behind her. If this was Vyr's quest for self-discovery, I don't think there was much of her to find in the first place. The most complex character, and the one that really captured my interest, is the ancient QiRia. He exudes a world-weariness so raw and real that he brings a sort of humorous pathos to each of his scenes, and his comments elevate even the shallow prattlings of Vyr into something more meaningful.
My second major problem was with the plot. There's a certain amount of sadistic brilliance in dragging the reader through a pulse-racing, heart-wrenching quest only to reveal, in the last possible moment, its utter futility. That is not what this book does. The main plot arc is a multi-pronged mission to find an ancient man who will be able to confirm whether or not the Gzilt holy book is a fake--a mystery whose solution is handed to the reader in the freaking prologue. The antagonists' grand conspiracy has such small minds at its forefront that it begs credulity. All of the characters react as if the task is All Very Significant, yet one has to wonder why. Banks' explanation is that the Gzilt use their holy book to back up their sense of exceptionalism, and that being confronted with the fraud will impact their self-assuredness and potentially their plan of Subliming. But wait--first, almost all Gzilt are essentially irreligious, and anyone with more than three brain cells must have realized that a holy book which venerates a more advanced culture and which perfectly matches the innovations of said culture is probably not divine. Therefore, either (1) the Gzilt no longer place much meaning in the truth of the book, or (2) their faith is effectively bulletproof, and no proof to the contrary will ever convince them. Either way, I would think that a really old man to making a statement on the subject would have no impact. I therefore spent the entire book waiting to discover what on earth the characters had planned to achieve in the first place.
The question about faith and proof is an interesting one, but I think Banks needed to include a religious character with a crisis of faith to truly explore the issue.
Banks tackles big ideas, but the style of the novel is light and humorous. In some ways, I think it went too far in the direction of immaturity. I tend to read hardboiled urban fantasy, which is pretty much about as pulp-press as you can get, and even I was rather shocked at the amount of profanity in the book. Certain characters apparently use "fuck" as the separator between words, interjecting a curse between every gap in every sentence. And what was with the penises thing? Was Banks trying for some sort of bad pun on "hard scifi"? Considering we're in an elevated and evolved culture of nonhumans, I rather expected a blessed escape from a coarse sexualized environment. Instead, Banks uses alien augmentation as an excuse to graphically describe a man with 53 penises, ship avatars with penises, people who store memories of sex in penises, beds shaped like penises, weird sexual death devices vaugely related to penises...Banks must have had a bet with someone about the number of times he could shoehorn the word "penis" in a novel.
Leaving the coarseness aside, there are many other questions about self and identity that Banks introduced that I think it would be fascinating to explore. For example, if one can back oneself up, alter and augment one's physical form, and presumably edit one's personality, what, in the end, is the self? If one copy enters the Sublime, reaching a new and elevated consciousness, what remains behind? If one can be transferred to an entirely new non-biological identity, duplicated to be active in multiple places at one time, backed up so death is no longer the end, what does the concept of identity, of life, even mean? One of the digressions that I found most interesting was that of AI simulations. Banks introduces the Simulation Problem: if one can construct simulations so realistic that they are effectively indistinguishable from life, what does it mean to end that life? He does not extend the idea to its fascinating and natural corollary: when one can create multiple copies of an identity, what does it mean when a particular instance dies? Ships construct avatars of themselves to interact with the humanoids; does the act of decanting part of one's personality into an avatar construct a new identity? If the avatar is destroyed, is it a death of self?
Within his intricate world, Banks tries to interleave light humour with complex ideas. Yet in the end, all of the humour rang hollow, for at the heart of the story is a single question: what is the purpose of existence? We have so many examples of aging, from the vague and fractured Mind who returns from the Sublime, to the terminally bored Culture ships, to the ancient man whose only pleasure is seeing the failures of those around him. As QiRia says himself, although beings may try to imbue the world with meaning, perhaps the only meaning is that we can create for ourselves. It may have been a voyage of discovery, but I'm not convinced that any of the characters really discovered anything, even about themselves. It seems that Banks' world has advanced beyond meaning, beyond purpose, and because of this, perhaps beyond hope. This is a story about a single question, and the emptiness of the characters and futility of the plot merely reinforces the conclusion, for Bank's answer is that there is no answer.