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Summary

The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, 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 10,000 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 9,000 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.

©2012 Iain M. Banks (P)2012 Hachette Digital

Critic reviews

"Nobody does it better." ( Sunday Times)
"The standard by which the rest of SF is judged." ( Guardian)
"Essential for SF fans." ( Library Journal)

What members say

Average customer ratings

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • M
  • Wakefield, United Kingdom
  • 27-10-12

Sublime

In The Hydrogen Sonata Iain M. Banks - as an outspoken atheist - has finally gotten around to using his Culture universe to explore faith and religion. Though there have never been any gods in his creation (the Minds, though near-omnipotent, are way too vain and profane to fulfill that role) there has always been Subliming: a Heaven-like afterlife for civilisations or Minds to ascend to. He’s never tackled Sublimation head-on before and I was intrigued to see how he would do it; this being Iain M. Banks though, he did it with wit, thoughtfulness and panache (with great dollops of action, sex and intrigue thrown in to spice it up). I couldn't tell which came first, the plot or the theme, but its not important; the plot rattles along - a wondrous travelogue around his beautifully imagined universe - and the theme lies there in the background adding depth to the conversations of the characters we’re following on their various wild-goose chases. Along the way we get to chew over different aspects of religion through the different characters we meet: a hermit Mind who returned from the Sublime representing resurrection; evil and guilt (or lack thereof) are explored through the main antagonists; forgiveness and acceptance of our sins and the meaning of life, the universe and everything according to a millennia-old human. There’s no spiritual epiphany to found though, either by the characters, the author or the readers; the moral (if there is one - I’m not sure it’s even relevant) could be that a truly loving God would welcome all his flawed creations into heaven. Or maybe that personal Truth can be true even if it’s based on lies (and doesn’t hurt anyone). I don’t know, but I love the way that the great mystery at the heart of the story could seem almost irrelevant except for the fact that it’s incredibly important to those involved. Anyways, I really enjoyed the book and it was sublimely narrated (no pun intended) by Peter Kenny - thoroughly recommended!

9 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Colin
  • Tewkesbury, United Kingdom
  • 11-10-12

Hi-Tech Intrigue

Yet again Banks supplies a gripping tale of eons spanning intrigue. This story doesn't have quite the depth of some previous Culture novels but it gives another insight into the many layers that make up his Universe. The Culture ship Minds steal the show yet again but you can't deny that without their seemingly 'pet' biologicals they would get bored and have no choice but to Sublime which would seem to be the point of this book.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Space opera at its finest.

The story- It spans several planets and star systems, flitting from one viewpoint to the next, all using the countdown to the 'subliming' of an entire empires population to keep the pace up. The characters are interesting, the debates between ships is both hilarious and enthralling as is customary with Culture novels, and the prose are smooth. Probably the best Culture novel since Consider Phlebas.



The narrator- Both enthusiastic and entertaining, Peter Kenny reads the books as though he were the sole actor in a multi-part play. Giving each major character a unique and recognisable voice, he has ensured my first download from audible was a very good one.



I genuinely cannot think of any way to improve this audiobook, and I'll be buying more from both the author and narrator. Five stars from me. Love it.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Stephen
  • Downham Market, United Kingdom
  • 26-10-13

You gotta love those Ships Minds.

I have loved the Culture novels and I guess I was a bit reluctant/sad to start this book knowing it was going to be the last. It's fitting that the theme of this book is the idea of subliming that has been present in a number of other Culture novels.

I thouroughly enjoyed this book, it has all the hallmarks and traits of all the best bits of the Culture. I really enjoyed the story, which although was not mega complicated at any point was a great yarn and a gripping story. For me the ships Minds were the stars, their discussions about the dilemma of whether to intefere or not and whether it was their responsibility or not was great.

The subliming species, the Gezilt (may have spelt that wrong as I have only heard the word!) were interesting in terms of they did not seem to be of such a state of social evolution that they in fact were worthy of subliming. But I think that was what made the story so interesting, their acceptance and expectation of what it was to sublime. I also liked the idea that you could stay behind if you didn't want to do the subliming thing. An interesting idea for another novel by someone else maybe if indeed anothe author would be allowed to pick up the Culture's reigns.

There's a lot of humour in the book, in fact the humour from the ship Minds reminded me of Douglas Adam's style quite a lot from the Hitch Hikers series which is great. Plenty of action of course and the Culture tech awesome as usual. The ship to ship stand offs with some great Mind/alien conversations were some of the highlights.

Great last novel Mr Banks - thank you for all of the other Culture books as well by the way.

A quick word on Peter Kenny the narrator, he really made this novel work so well in audio format with great voice acting - and I really really loved his portrayal of the Minds. Great job there Mr Kenny.

So, I suggest you read / listen to this novel. Now.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

So long and thanks for all the Culture

If you could sum up The Hydrogen Sonata in three words, what would they be?

Sublime. Cultured. Operatic

Who was your favorite character and why?

Mistake Not... Never underestimate the capabilities and sheer dogged determination of a Culture Mind - especially one with Contact/SC leanings.

Which character – as performed by Peter Kenny – was your favourite?

Vyr Cossont - starts off as a slightly dipsy lightweight female character, but the narrator develops her along with the plot into a pro-typical Iain M Banks femme fatale.

If you made a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

Towering Seas Of Ire

Any additional comments?

The late, great Iain M Banks leaves this as the wrap-up to the long running Culture series. Banks brought more than big adjectives and big guns to the sci-world, he brought genuine wit, social commentary and killer plot lines.

This book goes a long way to charting the origin of the Culture and their probable future, while stopping off to demonstrate their capabilities and short-comings along the way.

True fans will devout every page, while the literati who have long ignored any Iain Banks books with an 'M' in them would be well served by broadening their horizons, standing back and witnessing what can be done with a limitless imagination.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

The last Culture novel? Its a good one!

Banks brilliantly explores one of the great questions of all time: what is there other than base reality? As well as what people are prepared to do to secure their own immortality (or immorality). Plus all the Culture details we've come to expect, cunning Minds, irritating drones, HUGE ships, ships with impossible names. And all narrated by Peter Kenny's astonishingly flexible voice.

Buy this!!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Barry
  • Coventry, United Kingdom
  • 13-04-13

Elegantly Sublime and sublimely elegant

I have been a long time fan of the work of Iain M Banks and of the work of his alter ego Iain Banks. His writing is always elegant and full of ideas that make you think. Like most great science fiction his Culture novels tell us a lot about the state of our society. The Hydrogen Sonata is immensely satisfying for those of us who have been following the Culture novels and is a great stand-alone story for those new to Banks's creation. It deals with "that whole sublime thing" as I believe he referred to it himself in an interview. It asks us questions about choices, self determination, peer pressure and the nature of ethics along with a bookload of thoughts from a writer well worth listening to; all wrapped up in an absorbing story. It is my favourite Culture novel since "The Player of Games" and I have loved them all. Deep rich and textured, it is a luxurious experience. It is read beautifully by Peter Kenny. Some of the writing is so sublime in itself and so elegantly delivered in this recording that I found myself skipping back to listen to passages again and again even after I had finished listening to the whole thing and before I had heard Iain's terrible news that now tinges it with sadness.



It is tragic that such a gigantic talent is being taken from us too too soon. Good wishes and love to Iain and his family and thank you for the Culture.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • MR
  • United Kingdom
  • 08-04-13

Hydrogen Sonata

the world seems to shift every time we look up - Ian Banks looks up each time we do, and shows us a new way for the world to move. His idea, The Culture, is both an aspiration and a horror show.

We live in a world of persistent vision. Banks takes the camera view to a conclusion, and asks the question - does technology work for you, or do people create technology because it insists on being created.

The Hydrogen Sonata is typical Banks Sci Fi - initially confusing, and eventually confusing.

There is nothing in his writing that allows you to be involved, you must, and should be, an interested alien, an outsider looking with curiosity into the lives and habits of strange and strangers.

And yet, somehow, you do find yourself shouting for his characters, even when you don't like or understand them

Don't ask me to get mythical about Banks, that's up to him

Don't ask me to explain his ethics or motives

I am not going to try

I can tell you this -

don't go for Banks if you want an easy read

or something to go to sleep with

but as the Culture says - "try it, see if it kills you"

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • scotty
  • cannock, United Kingdom
  • 07-04-13

The Last Culture Story?

Deeply saddened to learn of I.M.B.’s dreadful illness. Got to admire the panache of his public statement. More power to his elbow!



Read the publisher’s review for the plot, this is what I think...



A proto-Culture... The Mysteries of the Sublimed Elder races? Too good to miss.



Once again incredible imagination with soaring concepts. If you’re interested in Culture novels this isn’t a bad place to start.



Well if this is the last Culture novel, what a stunner to go out on.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Marc
  • BRIDGWATER, United Kingdom
  • 22-03-13

Another great book by Banks

I had read the book on release and really enjoyed it. It's not as complex as some of his other books, but still delivers the usual twists and turns in great Banks style. As a big fan of his previous audio books, I couldn't resist buying the audio book version. Peter Kenny does his usual fantastic job and makes this book a true joy to listen to. I don't think I've ever heard a voice artist give so much to a book. His range of character voices make following the story so much easier and you find yourself rising and falling with the emotion of the book that Peter delivers perfectly.

Buy this audio book..... then buy the rest. You wont regret it!

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Benbarian
  • 08-11-12

Hmm... Ok.. But not great

I've read most of Banks's work by now, and this is a little underwhelming. After the depth and breadth of Surface Detail, this leaves me feeling a little cold. Banks as always paints sweeping vistas of alien awesomeness and really digs in with amazing concepts and high tech culture. But one doesn't ever really like his characters, only the Minds seem to have any depth to them.

It won't be the last Banks i read, he does keep me hooked enough to continue. But I hope they get better rather than worse from here.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Jefferson
  • 12-08-18

To Sublime or Not to Sublime—

Iain M. Banks' tenth and last Culture novel Hydrogen Sonata (2012) is all about Subliming. For millennia the Gzilt have felt superior to other galactic civilizations because of their scientifically prescient holy book, and now only 24 days remain till they Sublime. In theory this happens when a civ has nothing more to achieve technologically and culturally and involves nearly everyone abandoning possessions, desires, and ambitions etc. and transcending from the Real to a Childhood's End-like nirvana in multiple unknown dimensions.

But are the Gzilt really ready for Subliming? Why does one of their warships atomize a diplomatic ship sent by the already Sublimed civ who helped them develop by giving them their holy Book of Truth? The destroyed ship was carrying a message, and if it was, say, "The Book of Truth was an experiment on the Gzilt by an advanced civilization," what would the Gzilt do if they found out? Will the two scavenger civs eagerly waiting for the Gzilt to Sublime start fighting over the abandoned technology too soon? What role should the Culture (the preeminent galactic civilization comprised of disparate societies guided by near divine AI ship Minds) play in all this? Their ship Minds don't like to interfere with other civs, but they also like to get to the bottom of mysteries and want to do the Right Thing. If they confirm that the Book of Truth was an experiment, should they tell the Gzilt? And what is the connection between the Gzilt Subliming and the legendary QiRia, a 10,000-year-old Culture man whose memories are encoded in his body, and the nearly unplayable and unlistenable to Hydrogen Sonata, which the Gzilt woman Vyr Cossont has decided to play as her life work (to the extent of adding a second pair of arms onto her body)?

For that matter, what IS Subliming? It is an act of faith, because information is scarce, because (typically) no one returns from the Sublime or communicates from it to the Real. Is it as most Gzilt believe a promotion to "the most brilliant lucid dream forever" in the "Happy land of good and plenty," or is it as many Culture Minds believe a kind of retirement into an old people's home or an act of collective insanity and annihilation? Banks, who died before he could write another Culture novel, isn't telling.

Whatever happens once you say "I Sublime" and vanish from the Real, it has no connection with ethical behavior. The Gzilt are no angels. Their politicians are amoral, their military leaders inhumane, their artists decadent. All that may be Banks' point. As QiRia puts it, "my heart is broken with each new exposure to the idiocies and cruelties of every manner of being that dares to call or think of itself as intelligent." But he also says (sounding like Banks) that one pleasure of benign misanthropes like him is watching the dolts repeat the same "fuckery."

But Banks is no future downer. He exuberantly spins out small s sublime technologies and scales of time and space for his galactic post-scarcity playground, like sculpted planets, a 30,000 km-long city girdling a world, elevenstring instruments so big you have to sit inside and play them with two bows, hyperspace, anti-matter and anti-gravity, body implants, stored consciousnesses, eccentric drones, combat arbites, nano missiles, and smart battle suits. Not to mention the Culture AI ship Minds keeping an eye on things and deciding what to do in conference calls, with their different personalities, agendas, hobbies, capabilities, avatars, and quirky names: the Beats Working, Mistake Not. . . (ellipsis intentional), Smile Tolerantly, You Call This Clean?, A Fine Disregard For Inconvenient Facts, Empiricist, Caconym (which means an incorrect name), and more.

Banks is not just parading awesome techs and sublime scales for the fun of it (although his book is fun), but to explore serious questions, like What is the meaning of life when there is no Meaning? What are the ethical and practical limitations of simulations? Should more advanced civilizations take a hands on or off approach to less advanced ones? Is intelligence connected to decency or to technology? Can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? What makes us human? What makes us individuals? Where does identity reside? And so on.

Banks writes space opera about the human condition, as when an android in real danger says, "Happily, I am not human, and this is only a simulation." He writes snappy and humorous dialogue, like "Are you afraid of heights?" "No, just of dying generally." He writes sublime space opera comedy: "Back aboard the Passing By, the mind controlling both the systems vehicle and the avatar was doing the hyper AI equivalent of grimacing and mouthing the word, 'Shit.'" He writes straight space opera sublime, as in a description of the sound made by giant wind pipes, like "from an enormous choir of bases singing a slow sonorous hymn in a language you never understood."

Peter Kenny reads the audiobook with verve and skill. He distinguishes among the many characters by changing the pitch of his voice (Vyr Cossont's familiar Pyan talks like an infant stuffed animal, a combat android like a cheerful machine, an Ronte prince like an insect, a mysterious ship Mind like a senile Merlin, etc.) or his accent (though I wonder why people or AI Minds from the same civ speak American, British, Scottish, or Australian English).

Hydrogen Sonata is not perfect. There may be too many advanced technologies and point of view characters, some of which/whom finally don't seem so vital to the plot (like Tefwe, the Zoologist, and even the Hydrogen Sonata). True, Banks wants to freely exercise his imagination in a universe in which anything is possible, and at one point a "body enhancement artist" tells an interviewer that he recently had 53 serviceable penises on his body and that one should "never feel sorry for excesses, only for failure of nerve." But this novel feels more excessive and less satisfying than earlier Culture novels. The climax is exciting, but the resolution (deciding whether or not the Gzilt will Sublime and what will happen to some bad actors) is somehow disappointing. The last words of the novel nearly blow every prior thing away: "caught in the swirling breeze produced by the flyer's departure, [the elevenstring instrument] hummed emptily. The sound was swept away by the mindless air."

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • John
  • 08-11-12

Love it

Where does The Hydrogen Sonata rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Top 10%

What other book might you compare The Hydrogen Sonata to and why?

Any of the Culture series by Banks or the Polity by Neal Asher

Have you listened to any of Peter Kenny’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Yes. Even better, excellent accents, consistent interested delivery.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

yes

Any additional comments?

Don't miss it

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Amazon Customer
  • 15-03-15

Good bye culture

Another amazing installment in the culture series. I didn't like them all, but I liked this one. I really couldn't put it down towards the end.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Wayne
  • 10-12-12

Another great story from a Scifi master

What did you love best about The Hydrogen Sonata?

With the Culture novels I always particularly enjoy the Ships and they are central to this story too.

What did you like best about this story?

The interaction between the humans and Ships

Which scene was your favorite?

The one in which the full name of one of the Ships is revealed - perfectly done with maximum impact and enjoyment :)

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I would say that I was most effected by my favourite scene but at many points I found myself pondering the implications of the events and their impact on protagonists and myself in their place alike.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful