Orbit, 2012, 519p.
The Gzilt are of an age with the Culture, were part of the negotiations involved with its founding but declined to join and went their own way. Now they are set to Sublime from the Real – to become Enfolded into a disembodied sort of afterlife from which it is possible to return but few (except an odd AI) do. Gzilt citizens carry, not a watch, but a time-to, counting down the days to this event. Each chapter of The Hydrogen Sonata is subheaded by a letter S followed by a minus sign and number indicating the time left to the Subliming.
The Gzilt religion is based on The Book of Truth, left behind by a previous civilization, the Zihdren, who themselves Sublimed before the Gzilt even made it into space. This was reckoned to be the only holy book to be demonstrably true as it had successfully predicted events in the Gzilt’s development. The (extremely thin) plot of The Hydrogen Sonata revolves around doubts as to the Book’s genuineness and the knowledge of it that an extremely long-lived and reclusive individual may or may not have. This is carried out against a backdrop of petty but lethal squabbling over the material legacy the Gzilt will leave and immature political manœuvring.
Despite the high body count and mayhem Banks is mostly playing this for laughs, as is evidenced by the verbal exchanges between the Culture ships.
I was predisposed to disliking this novel from page one when gases appeared spelled as “gasses” (this also occurred twice more in the following two pages.) Later there was a “miniscule,” a “euthenise”) and instead of piggybacks (or pick-a-backs) “pickup-backs.”
I did read on, as Banks does have a facility for telling story. But this is wispy stuff.
And The Hydrogen Sonata of the title?
It’s a piece of music written for “an instrument yet to be invented” – which of course by the time of the book’s setting has been – the Antagonistic Undecagonstring; a device which not only requires its player to have four arms but also to sit inside it. The word undecagonstring is a spectacularly ugly construction. Since the device is also of a certain shape I suppose eleven-string – as in six-string, twelve-string – would be too limited, though.