Book Review – “Matter” and “The Hydrogen Sonata” by Iain M. Banks

Sometimes you get blindsided by things in your life. Finding out that Iain M. Banks died over a year ago is one of those moments.

It may seem a little weird, or maudlin, but it really did affect me, coming so soon after I recently finished two of his final books, “Matter” (2008) and “The Hydrogen Sonata” (2012). Both of them are part of the Culture milieu Banks dreamed up in the 1960’s as a kind of anti-Heinlein.

“I’d had enough of the right-wing US science fiction, so I decided to take it to the left. It’s based around my belief that we can live in a better way, that we have to. So I created my own leftist/liberal world. ”

What that world became was a series of sprawling novels, 10 in total, that depict various occurrences in the history of the Culture, a semi-anarchist collective of various humanoids, aliens and god-like AI Minds, trillions in number, spread across the Milky Way galaxy. It is a fascinating setting, teeming with almost endless possibilities, and Banks rips into it with palpable glee, tackling big ideas (shell worlds, radical body engineering, 4-Dimensional architecture), big themes (the limits of interventionism, the significance of individual choices, the existence of reality) and BIG action sequences.

And I mean BIG. Frequently along the lines of “accidentally awakened, god-like, AI/antimatter super-weapon” kind of big.

Other than Steven Erickson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen,” Ian M. Banks is the only author I can think of who so successfully captures the idea of convergence; many separate, seemingly disparate story lines, suddenly coming together in an unexpected, but not illogical, burst of of action, revelations, and resolutions.

The interplay of those three elements (big ideas, big themes and big action), I think, is what brings me back to the Culture novels over and over. He never lost sight of those threads in both of these novels, and I would highly recommend both.

Overall I would recommend “Matter” more simply because the stakes are higher and there is a more “human” level take on the Culture.

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In a world renowned even within a galaxy full of wonders, a crime within a war. For one man it means a desperate flight, and a search for the one – maybe two – people who could clear his name. For his brother it means a life lived under constant threat of treachery and murder. And for their sister, even without knowing the full truth, it means returning to a place she’d thought abandoned forever.

Only the sister is not what she once was; Djan Seriy Anaplian has changed almost beyond recognition to become an agent of the Culture’s Special Circumstances section, charged with high-level interference in civilizations throughout the greater galaxy.

Concealing her new identity – and her particular set of abilities – might be a dangerous strategy, however. In the world to which Anaplian returns, nothing is quite as it seems; and determining the appropriate level of interference in someone else’s war is never a simple matter.

“The Hydrogen Sonata” is also very good, but is dragged down some by, again, the lack of any real stakes. Then again, seeing as the whole book functions as a meditation on the significance, or even the reality, of individual choice, maybe he was making a point there too…

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The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, provably, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization.

An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they’ve made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Amid preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted – dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago.

It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilization are likely to prove its most perilous.

What is your favorite Iain M. Banks Novel? Let me know in the comments.

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