Consider Phlebas remains for me the gold standard of Culture novels. So stand by for comparisons to it and complaints that Banks didn't just reproduce the exact same plot. But anyway, The Hydrogen Sonata is another book set in the Culture Universe. That means space opera and fast talking AIs.

The Hydrogen Sonata is about one Vyr Cossont, a member of the Gzilt civilisation in their final days. The civilisation as a whole is preparing to Sublime, that is transcend the physical universe. However with just a few days to go before the big event a dirty secret threatens to emerge that could wreck the whole affair. So it's up to Vyr and whoever she happens by to figure out the secret, decide whether to let everyone know and not get killed by the entire army that's after her.

The Hydrogen Sonata can be viewed as a topic book. It takes a particular topic, the process of Subliming, and demystifies it. In previous Culture books Subliming was mentioned and those who had done so were cosmic forces interacting with the mundane world only through visions or occasionally supernovae. Here we get to see it happen and realise the people who undergo it aren't ascetics or mighty beings, they are really just people. All the other topics around subliming are mentioned. Those who choose to remain behind, what happens to all the technology, how people live out their remaining days when there's a definite end to civilisation. It's a monumental book that succeeds in digesting this vast setting concept and boiling it down for us. There's very little to beat the opening of Hydrogen Sonata, as Vyr walks through a near abandoned city, her home city. Later on she visits a party boat representing the other extreme, a massive celebration of life before it ends as we know it. There's pay-off for it later on too.

Unfortunately it's like the plot gets in the way for the rest. Vyr is whisked away and at the same time thrown out of her own story. Various other characters take over, especially the Culture who are only tangentially involved. They're not bad characters, even the antagonists get Banks careful development to the point where you can understand their motives. The problem is they just end up spoiling the mood of Vyr's story. Her ending is the real ending but it's crammed in amidst endings for every character we met, so the effect is lost. The ending is in many ways similar to Consider Phlebas. A lot of people die for dubious achievements and we're forced to ask if anything the main characters did really mattered.

The Hydrogen Sonata is almost two books. One a very interesting look at the end of civilisation through one of its members, the other a lot of people trying to out-maneuver the apocalypse. Perhaps it would have been a better book if it had just been one or the other. Looks like this sonata should have been a solo.

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