Saturday, May 23, 2015

Knowledge, Death, and the Sublime: Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I’ve been both anticipating and dreading reading The Hydrogen Sonatathe last of the Culture books: anticipating because the Culture books have come to be among my all time favorites since I started reading them in publication order a couple years ago and dreading because, since Banks himself Sublimed out of our dimensions in June 2013, I now have no new Culture books to read. 

(If you're not familiar with the Culture, I provided background information in my review of Matter). 

As I suggested in my review of Surface Detail, one of the lessons to learn from Banks is that the end is not always a bad thing.  On the other hand, there’s a rumor that Banks asked his friend, fellow Scottish science fiction author Ken Macleod, to carry the Culture on after his death, so maybe it’s not the end after all.

The Hydrogen Sonata deals with the end of individuals, but also the end of civilizations.  Readers of Banks’s previous entries in the Culture universe may recall that some civilizations have chosen to Sublime, which like all Capitalized Words in the Culture universe has a specific meaning.  To Sublime is to leave the four dimensions that we know as the Real in order to live in some exalted state in the higher dimensions of existence.  Banks never gives much detail and it seems that we in the Real wouldn’t understand the details anyway, but the basic idea is that the Sublime is a way of existing beyond the limitations of our four dimensional existence, somewhere in those extra dimensions string theorists talk about.  It's hinted that the Sublime is free from suffering, boredom, ignorance, and basically everything else that’s unpleasant about the Real.  It’s hard not to notice the strong religious dimension – think of it like heaven for theoretical physicists.

Per Banksian usual, the plot is hard to summarize succinctly.  This one is close to the complexity of Excession, especially with all the Culture Minds (AIs) and various factions from several other civilizations.  While the details can be hard to follow, you can rest assured that Banks will bring it all together in the end as he always does. 

The Gzilt civilization, a humanoid civilization almost as advanced as the Culture, has decided to Sublime, something that the majority of a civilization must do at the same time.  The reasons for this are somewhat mysterious, as are all things relating to the Sublime, but they involve the idea that those Subliming earlier would progress so quickly as to be unable to relate to the later Sublimers.  The Gzilt also pride themselves on their Book of Truth, which unlike most holy books, has managed to correctly predict many scientific advances.  Because they feel special about this the Gzilt declined to join the Culture 10,000 years before the events of the book.  There have been rumors, however, that the Book of Truth was actually a sham perpetrated by the long-Sublimed Zihdren.  Mere weeks before the Subliming is set to take place, evidence bearing on this question threatens to come to light; some Gzilt people, notably the military commander Banstageyen, don’t want this potentially unsettling news to threaten prospects for Subliming on schedule.  Other Gzilt factions want to know.  And of course once the Culture Minds hear about it, most of them want to know, too, even if they may not tell the Gzilt. 

Vyr Cossant, a Gzilt human modified with four arms so she can play the impossible “Hydrogen Sonata” on an impossibly complicated instrument, gets caught up in this because she once met a man who claims to be 10,000 years old and to know what really happened with the Gzilt holy book and why they didn’t join the Culture. 

Mix in Minds, other AIs, drones, an android who believes it’s in a simulation, two Scavenger species (one eel-like, the other insect-like) vying for the Gzilt’s post-Subliming goodies, the ethics of how to treat the denizens of computer simulations, a Culture citizen downloaded out of Storage into a new body, a world with a rock formation that creates a haunting noise in the wind, and a 24/7 party blimp filled with drug-fueled orgies led by a man with 53 penises.  Then season liberally with Banksian humor, and enjoy!

I can’t not love a Culture novel, but this one wasn’t my favorite of the bunch (it’s probably a tie between The Player of Games and Surface Detail, but choosing my favorite Culture novel is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child – I love them all for different reasons).  Although this, like all of Banks’s science fiction, has enough ideas for 12 books in less imaginative hands, it was sometimes hard to follow and lacked some of the emotional depth of most of its predecessors.  Measured against the vast majority of other fiction, however, even a lesser Banks novel is an excellent piece of work.

The Philosophy Report

There’s a lot to be said about this novel philosophically, but I’ll concentrate on three issues.

1. Is it always good to know the truth?

This question has been one of many topics of interest in recent decades in the area known as virtue epistemology.  What do we owe ourselves and others as knowers?  What are the intellectual virtues of a good knower?  Should we always strive to know the truth?

These are major issues in The Hydrogen Sonata.  Some Gzilt factions have decided it’s best not to know whether their civilization is built on a lie.  The Culture, as well-meaning outsiders, want to know, but aren’t sure if they should tell the Gzilt.  As one character says to the person who may have the answers,
“I guess the truth always needs to be chased down.  I’m helping with the chasing … Even if we find out something that it might be best for them not to know, at least we’ll know.  At least we’ll have the choice.”
”But who would we be to make that choice?”
“Their friends.”
“Really?”  (p. 334-5) 

Does the Culture get the answer?  Do they tell?  I’ll let readers find out for themselves!

Most of us have been in these types of situations.  You might not tell a colleague that you really wanted to hire her or his competitor.  If you don’t like the sweater Grandma got you for your birthday, should you tell her the truth?  If you were adopted and nobody told you or if some other major component of your identity were different than you believed, would you want to know?  Is knowing the truth always a good thing?

The ancient skeptics, like Cicero and Sextus Empiricus in the West and Nāgārjuna and Jayarāśi in India, thought that striving to know the truth or to form beliefs about the truth is not always a good thing.  In fact, doing so often makes you upset or leads to mental disturbance and harmful attachments to ideas.  For example, consider the upheaval caused by that dress that almost destroyed the internet in Feb. 2015, which I blogged about here.

But, given that humans are usually naturally curious and even more so for the Culture Minds, how do we deal with the effects of knowledge on our lives?  Can we train ourselves to be curious without the bad bits (as I think the ancient skeptics tried to do)?  Or is the intellectual and emotional upheaval all part of the package of being a cognitive being?  I leave these questions for readers to consider on their own.  Please feel free to leave a comment below!

2. Is Subliming a metaphor for death?

As I mentioned earlier, the idea of Subliming has obvious religious overtones.  Banks dealt more explicitly with the afterlife in Surface Detail and there are heavenly aspects to the Sublime, but I think Banks meant the Sublime as a metaphor for death.  One of the things I love about the Culture is that, while Culture citizens could effectively live forever, most choose to die after 300-400 years, which symbolizes the undesirability of immortality and the need to accept our finitude.  Think about it: do you really want to live forever?  It’s interesting that there is a character, QiRia, who has chosen the path of near-immortality, which turns out to be important for the plot, but also serves as a reminder of the Culture’s diversity and its own somewhat odd unwillingness to Sublime.  Subliming is effectively the end of a civilization, since Subliming is such a drastic change that one effectively loses one’s identity – instead of one’s atoms scattering into the void of the Real, one’s consciousness merges into the inexplicable extra-dimensional Sublime.

3. Is the Sublime sublime? 

The Sublime may also be sublime in the Kantian sense.  Kant gives two examples: the mathematically sublime (such as reason’s ability to grasp infinity while our imagination fails to grasp it) and the dynamically sublime (such as encountering natural powers like thunderstorms, while realizing they have no power over our rationality).  Banks’s Sublime offers a vision of a higher realm that we cannot fully imagine, yet one that thousands of civilizations have rationally chosen to embrace.  Perhaps in the Sublime the reason of these civilizations completely overtakes their non-rational aspects.  Does this then enhance or destroy their identities?

Iain Banks
I’m not sure, but one thing is certain: for me and other fans of the Culture, Iain Banks Sublimed much too soon.  May he rest in peace in the Sublime!

Rating: 92/100

(Note: This will not be the end for me and the Culture on this blog as I’m planning a post on my reflections on all ten books.  Look for my Culture Round Up soon!)


  1. See my reviews of all ten Culture books here:

  2. Here are my reflections on the series: