The Hydrogen Sonata: Iain M. Banks on 25 Years of Writing Space Opera Novels


Space opera has come of age in recent decades, its potential for complex characters, mind-blowing scope, and a kind of joyous, just plain wonderful strangeness expressed fully in the novels of writers like M. John Harrison, Alistair Reynolds, and Justina Robson, to name just a few. But the Godfather of this sea-change, and still one of the major players in space opera today, is Iain M. Banks.

For twenty-five years now Banks’ restless imagination has conjured up dozens of unique characters, aliens, and approaches to storytelling for his Culture space opera series. The novels often wed page-turning adventure, mystery, and intrigue to incisive commentary on issues related to war, morality, philosophy, and religion. At least two Culture novels, if not more, qualify as masterpieces: Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons. Many of the others come close, with every reader having their own favorites—expect arguments in the comments.

His latest, The Hydrogen Sonata, has just been released by Orbit. In the novel, the ancient people who helped set up the Culture ten thousand years before plan to go Sublime, elevating themselves to a more complete existence. But this process is interrupted when a regimental command is destroyed, with the hunt on for the fugitives and for the oldest man in the universe. And all of this may have much, much wider implications—for the Culture and for everyone else. Suffused with wit and humor, yet also including those amazing moments space opera fans live for, The Hydrogen Sonata continues to fruitfully explore the Culture milieu.

What is the Culture? A far-future human-based galactic civilization that, in its attempts at progressive, benevolent rule, sometimes gets it chillingly wrong. Perhaps his most inspired creation has been the Culture’s intelligent ships, with avatars that can manifest as human. In Excession, the first Culture novel I read, the ship battles and ship communications were a major (and often tense!) highlight.

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