We’ve now had 25 years of Iain M. Banks’ Culture and The Hydrogen Sonata is the ninth novel to be set in this universe. There is much here that is familiar – Bank’s literary language sets out a widescreen Baroque space opera with gobsmacking Big Dumb Objects peopled with aliens both relatable and oblique, clever drones, even cleverer Minds and ordinary(ish) humans. We have a crises that multiple protagonists react to, with some humans being manipulated by their artificial superiors. However things pan out in an interesting and unexpected way, especially when it comes to the ending. But more of that later.
Banks has touched on subliming before but here it is the centre of the novel. Subliming is one of the options for when a spacefaring civilisation, as a whole, wants to retire. By burrowing down into the extra hidden dimensions, that quantum string theory suggests are tightly wrapped around our more familiar four, they can enter into what is basically heaven.
The Gzilt are in their final days of preparation for the event. They were once involved in the founding of The Culture but stepped back from actually joining it at the last minute and the Culture themselves are watching on now.
Vyr Cossont is spending the time left to her trying to make a flawless rendition of The Hydrogen Sonata (or to give the full title T.C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata for an Instrument Yet To Be Invented) – a fiendishly complicated (if apparently not exactly tuneful) piece of music. She’s even got two extra arms in order to play it on the Antagonistic Undecagonstring (aka elevenstring) – that basically seems to be two oversized cellos (plus a few extra bits) melded together. However before she can perfect the piece she is snatched away from her music practise and sent on a mission to find the oldest person in the Culture when events look like preventing the Gzilt Sublimation.
There’s a couple of things here that seem to be nods to Douglas Adams – there’s massive flying party that had been running for year and a plot point that’ll redact because it’s too spoilerish. In fact that’s plenty of the free-wheeling humour that’s common to both Adams and Banks – such as the Hydrogen Sonata and its playing as I’ve indicated above, plus in the reactions of an android who thinks the real world is just a simulation and the personality of Vyr’s effervescent artificial ‘scarf’ familiar, and a running joke involving an old punk band jacket. Banks also gives us usual nasty bits (a redacted bit of body horror), sexy/ pervy bits (there’s a man with multiple penises so as to better enjoy the orgies of the endless party) and a nice bit of literally allusion (a Mind that compares its fascination with close orbiting stars with a human warming itself by an open fire.) And, unless I’m seeing things that are not there, there is a very clever in-joke involving multi-dimensionality and Google Maps.
So the ending. Lets just say it builds up what is looking like a great crescendo but then sidesteps into something much more diminutive. It’s actually a clever twist on the familiar tropes of space opera, and the idea of the Hero, that in a way refers back to the book that started The Culture off all those years ago, Consider Phlebas.
Anyway Bravo! Encore! Here’s to another twenty-five years!
However, soon after we had sat down, a gang of male besuited after-work drinkers had arrived. Ties off, obviously several pubs into a crawl, they had taken over the pool table. But what was most annoying was they had programmed the jukebox for the whole of Oasis’ Be Here Now – singing along to every track.
The Battle of the Bands, the Battle of Britpop, Oasis vs Blur, one of the biggest, most hyped, music events of the 90s. So I had to include reference to the two bands and their ‘conflict’. Although I found it more interesting, and it fitted the plot and timeline of Work of Art better, to reference Be Here Now, with all its coked-up fuzzy guitars, rather than the earlier more classic album. I don’t think I listened to it much at the time but I’ve got to admit, after listening to it as I wrote, it’s kind of grown on me now.
So what’s the matter with you
Sing me something new
It’s quite hard to remember what I knew of Games of Thrones back before the television series had such a big impression on me. I know that I had heard of the A Song Of Fire And Ice book series – that Game of Thrones was the first volume of, and that it was long way from a knock-off Tolkien fantasy, being in part inspired by The War Of The Roses and a lot more realistic, gritty and ‘adult’ – ie there was plenty of sex and violence.
I’ve not a huge fantasy fan and I’ve not really read any of the big modern series in the genre (well unless you count Harry Potter). I had a go with Steven Erikson’s first Malazan book, and whilst thinking it was okay, I hadn’t been sufficiently enchanted to read on. I’d glanced at the Wheel Of Time but quickly realized it wasn’t for me, plus I’d heard the books in that series got a lot worse as they went along. But when the television series for Game of Thrones came around, and after being intrigued by the trailers and the opening minutes of the first episode that had been put up online, I thought I would give it a go in that medium. And, like just about everyone else who watched it, I was pretty much blown away. The only slight negative was coping vast cast of characters. I distinctly remember audibly growing at the scene where they find the pups of a dead dire wolf and it’s all ‘there’s seven pups here for the seven children’ and I’m thinking ‘Oh no, that’s seven more characters I’ve got to keep track of!’ But after a couple of episodes, and with the use of some online ‘Who’s who’ charts that problem went away. The novel has even more characters but Martin does a pretty good job of helping you keep up and it’s never really been a problem there either.
One of the ubiquitous songs of the 90s… that kind of ended up as a clichéd naff party thing. And I wanted to include a least one bad, if memorable song… I considered ‘Saturday Night’ (but in the end it’s just bloody irritating) and Barbie Girl (which is just daft… and bloody irritating). However if you try and listen to the Macarena without prejudice you might find, like me, that it’s actually a good song with excellent dark driving groove to it. And then when you look at the lyrics…
The Starry Wisdom is a collection of short stories, plus a few essays and illustrated pieces, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. The editor, D.M. Mitchell, has cast the net wide and included authors who you would not normally associated with the Mythos such as William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard but whose selected stories have a definite coincidental Lovecraftian taste to them. However there are plenty of the more usual suspects here such as Brian Lumley and Alan Moore. There’s plenty to like here but much of it is pretty far-out stuff.
Today is the start of NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that you write fifty thousand words over the month of November. It’s not quite a full novel but it will get you well on the way.
And this year, like every other year, I won’t be doing it. However I’m pretty happy with the fact. I wish I was like Iain Banks who can write three thousand words a day and thus knock out a full novel in a couple of months. However I just can’t manage it. Even the thousand to fifteen hundred of NaNo is too much. I’ve finally accepted that for me, a good writing speed is a couple of hundred words a day – not so much drafting as a slow accretion of words. It allows me to get to know the work I’m writing; the characters and how they should react, to think up decent plot twists and turns, to add interesting detail. I’ve found if I force it I just end up writing rubbish, or in the case of the current work in progress, grinding to halt and having to start again when I realised it just was not working. Although, as compensation, whilst getting the words out is a slow process for me, I do find editing and polishing to be a lot speedier.
The one advantage of only writing a few hundred words a day is that it does not take a great deal of time (well as long as you get on with it and leave the mulling over things to when you are doing the washing up or similar). This does allow time for doing other things – I’ve recently discovered Autofocus which is a great simple system if you want to handle multiple projects at the same time. I’ve just kicked a couple of these in the last few days… So whilst pure Na No is a no no for me, NoMultiProj is go go go!
The Prodigy have become my band of the 90s, if not close to becoming my favourite band of all time. I especially love their big booming expansive sound and their dark rocky edge than no other of the techno nob-twiddlers ever had. ‘Firestarter’ isn’t my fave track but it was the one that took them from being just a rave band to and all conquering worldwide chart band (back when we still cared about the charts)… though I love that the video has no fire or flames. And so when I wanted a music track for a scene set on a dance floor that’s more than slightly dark it was time bring on Keith.
Viva La Madness is a sequel to the author’s previous novel, Layer Cake. The tile Layer Cake is, in part, a metaphor / slang term for the illegal drug business, in particular cocaine dealing. The novel featured an unnamed protagonist who was at the point of retiring into the sun with his ill gotten gains as a mid-level cocaine dealer when his boss tells him he has a little job for him to do. Complications naturally ensue…
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Iain Banks had already published three innovative and imaginative multi-genre novels when, adding an extra ‘M’ to his name, he produced his first pure science fiction novel – Consider Phlebas (1987). It was in Consider Phlebas that Banks introduced us to his Culture: a utopian anarchist ‘empire’ of humans and AI Drones and Minds, its department of Good Works – Contact – and Contact’s secret service – Special Circumstances.
Banks had already written several novels, which remained unpublished, before his success with The Wasp Factory (1984). Some of these were later rewritten as the Culture novels Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), the novella ‘The State of the Art’ (published in the collection of the same name in 1991), and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background (1991). When Consider Phlebas was eventually published Banks had been working on the ideas surrounding the Culture for a long time so it was no surprise that he produced such a rich and mature novel. Continue reading →
With the release of Iain M Bank’s The Hydrogen Sonata marking a quarter century of The Culture series of science fiction novels, here’s a few thoughts:
Iain M. Banks’ The Culture hits a sweet spot that, for me, few other examples of science fiction ever get even close to. That subspecies of Space Opera labelled with the term Widescreen Baroque with all the cool stuff, the huge spaceships, the aliens, the ray guns, the exotic planets, the Big Dumb Objects, the ravaging beams of destruction. That is played out against a background that is truly cosmic (and multi-dimensional) in scale. That has that full-on sensawunda… But framed with plotting that is both subtle and complex and peopled with fully rounded characters (human, alien and machine). That includes both terrible horror and witty comedy with the action. With prose that is literary to such an extent that it borders on the experimental in places. That’s somewhere in between the gung-ho American tradition of SF and the more downbeat British and European strand. That looks at the gnarly edges where a post-scarcity socialist dream utopia grinds up against a multitude of dystopias and we watch the sparks fly.
Because of all of that, I’ve bought and read every Culture novel that has come out, that it’s always been there in my life. It’s certainly the only sf that I read outside of the prime influential period of the mid-teens that’s had a lasting effect. And at times it has been the only science fiction, certainly the only space opera, that I have read… when I found I could just not find that sweet spot anywhere else.
From Consider Phlebas to The Hydrogen Sonata we have had the grandest of space operas… let’s hope for many more acts to come.