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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Comments (3)

One of these days I am going to have to try a (real) Culture novel.

Posted by: Paul (@princejvstin) | Saturday October 13, 2012 at 5:08 AM

Interesting. You read the Culture as a human-based society? I read it as a machine-based society, whose native inhabitants are the Minds that exist, first as drones, and then as ships, and eventually Orbitals. Being a totally artificial society, it can integrate biological races and help augment and maintain them without losing their particular biological character.

To me, the Culture is what might eventually happen if the robots at the end of the movie AI continued their society indefinitely into the future.

Also -- I think Excession and Look To Windward may be among the best Culture novels, at least for me. Player of Games was the most fun, the most palatable introduction to the world, though it didn't have the grand ambitions of better Space Opera. I REALLY want to re-read Exc. and L2W, but the guy is writing Culture novels faster than I can keep up with reading them (since I have a lot of other reading to fit it into).

Glad to hear about a new one!

Posted by: Jesse M | Monday October 15, 2012 at 10:58 AM

I sure hope this is better than Inversion. That one was great up until about the last chapter, and then it felt like he just gave up, stopped writing, and handed the draft off to his agent for immediate publication.

Posted by: Stewart | Saturday October 20, 2012 at 7:33 PM

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