Iain Banks lays on inside jokes

Iain M. Banks’ new sci-fi novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, might lose new readers with its plethora of references to previous books in the series. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Page via Flickr) Iain M. Banks’ new sci-fi novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, might lose new readers with its plethora of references to previous books in the series. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Page via Flickr)

Iain M. Banks is a Scottish author who is renowned for his series of space opera novels about “the Culture.” The Culture is a galaxy-spanning civilization that’s solved most of its problems. Everybody can have any material thing they desire; people can take on inhuman appearances and change sex at will over the course of a month; and for the most part, people only die if they choose to, usually after 400 years or so.

The Culture isn’t populated just by humans: There are also drones — floating sentient robots that glow different colors to indicate their emotions — and the Minds, clever, surprisingly human, artificially intelligent beings that run the ring-shaped space stations and kilometer-long starships that make up the Culture’s territory. To justify living in a utopia, the people of the Culture often help younger civilizations find a way to their level, or at the very least prevent interstellar wars. These interactions are the main focus of the Culture novels.

One of the best things about Bank’s series of novels about the Culture is the undercurrent of inside jokes. The war that serves as the backdrop to the earliest entry in the series is frequently referenced in later books. The ships of the Culture are all given cheeky names: In one book, we meet a ship named Who’s Counting and in another book we meet the Me, I’m Counting — a real treat for longtime readers.

Unfortunately, these inside jokes hold back the latest entry in the series, The Hydrogen Sonata. Most of the previous novels would only be enhanced if you had read the earlier ones, but The Hydrogen Sonata requires them. If you know about the Interesting Times Gang, the Azadian Affair, and the Excession, you’ll likely have a lot of fun with this book, but those unfamiliar with the series will find themselves lost in a maze of references and previously established concepts that aren’t adequately explained in the text itself.

The scenario Banks sets up is pretty exciting. The Gzilt, a civilization on par with the Culture, is days away from ascending to a higher plane of existence. For this to work correctly, nearly all Gzilt people need to agree to do it at the same time, but the happy occasion is threatened by the revelation of an ancient secret.

Our protagonist is Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont, a young woman who has grown an extra set of arms to play the titular song on the intentionally complicated string instrument, the “bodily acoustic Antagonistic Undecagonstring.” She has been tasked with discovering the truth about the Gzilt’s past, and does so by contacting a friend of hers, a man from the Culture who has been alive for thousands of years. Standing in her way is a Gzilt politician who wants his society to “Sublime,” no matter the cost.

Banks changes the formula a bit from prior works, with the protagonist being more passive and a Ship’s avatar playing a larger role than most of the humans and drones. The action feels a little clunkier than it did in the previous novel, Surface Detail.

If all this piques your interest, then you’re either intrigued by this world of technical wizardry with godlike machines and people whose main purpose in life is to enjoy it, or you’re already a fan. If you fall in the latter category, you’ll probably enjoy The Hydrogen Sonata, but everybody else should start at the beginning with Consider Phlebas or peruse the two strongest entries in the series, Use of Weapons and The Player of Games.