Tuesday 20 December 2016

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M Banks, and Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear

The Hydrogen Sonata is the final SF novel by Iain M Banks, who died in 2013. It is therefore also the final novel set in the Culture, the utopian galactic civilisation which formed the basis of nine novels published over a span of twenty-five years, commencing with Consider Phlebas in 1987. Reviews of three of these have already appeared on this blog, and this is what I said in them about the Culture:

"…a galactic humanoid utopia in which almost inconceivably advanced technology provides everything that is needed, immensely capable Artificial Intelligences sort out the mundane business of running civilisation (the most powerful, known as Minds, usually being established in vast spacecraft or space habitats with quirky names), and citizens are mostly free to do whatever they like – live forever, change gender or even species, travel the galaxy. There are various alien civilisations in close contact with the Culture and a lot of others that are not, plus human planetary settlements that don't enjoy the same benefits. Relationships with such peripheral groups are handled by an organisation called Contact, and they apply less diplomatic means when required by means of Special Circumstances, whose agents are kind of blend of James Bond and Jason Bourne with comprehensive bio-electronic enhancements."

The Hydrogen Sonata follows the story of Vyr Cossont, a young woman who belongs to the ancient Gzilt civilisation - which although not part of the Culture is almost as advanced.  The population consists of what appears to be standard humanoids; although Cossont is different in that she has had two extra arms grafted on, to enable her to play a complex musical instrument made for one almost unplayable piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata.

The background to the story is that the Gzilt are shortly to Sublime -  to leave the material universe en masse for an eternal existence in a kind of virtual afterlife. However, the Gzilt's plans are in danger of being disrupted by a threatened revelation that their Holy Book – which unlike all other such, contains predictions which have all come true, thereby giving the Gzilt the firm belief that they are superior to everyone else – was actually the result of meddling by a superior civilisation which sublimed long before this story began. This prompts a division in the Gzilt between those who are trying to discover the truth (aided by a bunch of interested spaceborne Culture Minds with the usual outlandish names and personalities) and those who are determined, at any cost, to stop the truth from emerging.

There are various side-plots including the contest between a couple of minor civilisations for the right to inherit everything that the Gzilt would be leaving behind, and the hunt to find the oldest known being who might even remember exactly what had happened concerning the Holy Book.

Like most of Banks's novels this is not easy to get into. It is difficult to understand what is happening at first (and for some time thereafter), but connections between several sub-plots slowly emerge like a drowned village from a draining reservoir. The number of Culture Minds is also confusing as it is initially hard to recall who's who – this is one book where it might be helpful to write down every name as it appears, together with a note about their place in the story. The author does include a list of characters right at the end of the book which might have reduced the need for this if only I had discovered it before I finished. As is usual in a Culture novel, the generally slow pace accelerates as it approaches the end, which features some spectacular combat scenes.

This is not the best of the Culture novels – for instance, it lacks the baroque inventiveness of Surface Detail or the fascinating shell-world of Matter – but it is very typical of the meandering but engaging Banks style, which enables readers to explore all sorts of odd details of his world. It is sad that the author died at such a young age, but in these novels he has left behind a magnificent contribution to modern SF.


Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, was published in 1999 but I've only just got around to reading it.  It is about the next stage of human evolution, although that does not become apparent until well into the story (not a great spoiler, you can gather that from the book cover).

At the beginning, two separate near-future plot threads are started: one follows a disgraced scientist (paleontologist Mitch Rafelson) who is shown a recently uncovered ice cave in Austria containing the mummified bodies of a couple of Neanderthals, plus their baby. The second follows another scientist (biologist Kaye Lang) in Georgia (the country, not the US state), who is called to investigate some strange bodies found in a mass grave. The viewpoint mostly alternates between these two throughout the book, but sometimes switches to Christopher Dicken, a US Government scientist concerned with tracking viruses.

The story focuses on a newly-discovered virus (an endogenous retrovirus, to be more precise) called SHEVA, which has the effect of causing pregnant women to miscarry a strange foetus, before an immediate second pregnancy which results in children being born dead. As this "plague" sweeps around the world, causing rising panic and threatening human civilisation, doubts begin to be raised about the nature of the virus and its implications for the future of humanity.

This story is extremely science-heavy. I try to keep up with scientific developments, but frequently reached the MEGO stage with this tale (My Eyes Glazed Over) and I skim-read a lot of the pages of detailed technical explanation concerning viruses and genetics. I also found that I had a problem recalling various secondary characters who, after being introduced to the reader, occasionally popped up again later without any help being provided in the way of reminders about who they were or what their significance was. As with the Banks story above, readers are advised to make notes of each character as they appear, it will be a big help later.

This may all sound negative, but buried in there is a story which was intriguing enough to keep me reading to the end; in fact I finished the last quarter of this rather long book in one session. I note that there is a sequel, Darwin's Children, and I might get around to reading it, sometime…