Is viewing Phlebas worth reading
Rundschau: Why does God need a spaceship?
Iain Banks: "The Hydrogen Sonata"
Paperback, 700 pages, € 16.50, Heyne 2014 (Original: "The Hydrogen Sonata", 2012)
The space. Infinite expanses. - No, that was the day before yesterday. The sublime. The almost tangible, completely believable and mathematically provable nirvana, only a few right angles away from the good, old, boring real: a huge, infinite, better-than-virtual ultra-existence with no off switch. Since the galaxy's metaphorical childhood, the sublime has been the target of all species and civilizations fed up with life in the real.
The Gzilt say hello
In the unfortunately last novel in the "Culture" series by Iain Banks, the focus now shifts to what was previously only mentioned in passing: A species decides on the great transcendental remmidemmi of sublimation, the walk to a higher level of being that lies somewhere in dimensions 7 to 11 of string theory. The above formulation alone shows that Banks also sees the "afterlife" in a more secular way. And the humanoid Gzilt don't necessarily look more mature or sublime than the normal interstellar empire next door.
They are a "cousin civilization" of culture, that sympathetic, egalitarian, hedonistic, mobile, curious, shameless and - as it was rightly called in a review - also Machiavellian alliance of human-like peoples and artificial intelligences that gave the series its name Has. The Gzilt helped found the culture 10,000 years ago, but at the last moment decided against joining it and mingling with the rest of the human race.
And now you are ready for the next step. "Scavenger" species present themselves to take over the planets and technical achievements to be left behind - it is important to prevent conflicts. And out of the blue, quite different hardships are brewing. An ambassador of the Zihdren, the former mentors of the Gzilt, would like to quickly get rid of something important about the Holy Book of the Gzilt before they enter eternity. But his ship is shot down before he can announce the potentially worldview-changing message.
Lost in Culture
A whole series of characters is then engaged in a kind of cosmic scavenger hunt to find the only surviving witness to the founding of the culture, because only he can confirm the truth of the message. First and foremost Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont, a Gzilt who has grown two additional arms in order to be able to play the hydrogen sonata, which is notorious throughout the galaxy on a monstrous instrument - instead, she is now being taken out of retirement. Or the culture ship "Caconym", which has given asylum to a second AI in its brain. That was already in the sublime and therefore makes the "Caconym" the supposed expert in the Gzilt case.
Characters carrying chapters come and drift back into the background, but others appear ... I have to admit that I got a certain feeling of confusion from about halfway through the novel. Also because several storylines are always represented per chapter and are only separated by paragraphs. Quirky ways of speaking and artistically laced dialogues, which are almost overflowing with names and place names, sometimes become a challenge. And the names of the culture ships are, as always, so conspicuous that they are almost interchangeable again. By the way, my favorites this time are "Only the washing instructions for life's plump tissue" and "You call that clean?".
On the other hand, this bizarre humor has always been Iain Banks' trademark. And I have to clearly contradict those who praise Bank's political blueprint for a positive future society and his wealth of ideas, but do not consider him a good stylist. On the contrary, the style here ideally expresses what the philosophy behind it is: Don't take everything so seriously. And if you have to take something seriously, at least take it easy.
And in terms of inventiveness, Banks does not disappoint this time either. For example, we have a "suborbital space station": a hollowed-out asteroid whose orbit has been successively lowered until it now sweeps through monumental channels below the surface level of a planet like Pac-Man in 3D. Or dancing spaceship formations of insectoid aliens or an orgy that gives completely new dimensions to the concept of carnality. In short: it is a revue with first-class equipment.
As you Like It
Any Banks fan should approach this book with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is the anticipation of finally a new "culture" novel. Yet that is far outweighed by the grief over Iain Banks' death last year.
The fact that "The Hydrogen Sonata" has unplannedly moved into the rank of legacy does not make an objective classification of the novel any easier. In any case, opinions differ widely as to what the best "culture" novel is. For me, for example, it plays "War of souls" right at the front. Others see it completely differently and swear above all by the oldest parts of the series such as "Beenke Phlebas". Ultimately, the effect is likely to be the same as with a favorite band: which album you like best depends mainly on the section of the band's history in which you became a fan.
The sense of life
But the peculiar fact remains that the metaphysical - which has been thematized over and over again in the entire "Culture" series - is most strongly present in the last two novels: In "War of the Souls" there were virtual hells in which "Hydrogen Sonata" is the step into the sublime, a kind of SF version of Tolkien's Immortal Lands. As if Banks had foreseen the near end - but both novels were finished before he received the devastating diagnosis of cancer with no chance of cure.
Even if Banks' personal situation has not been included here, one cannot help but read the text in this light. When the 10,000 year old QiRia philosophizes about the meaning of life - and that ultimately there is none - you have to swallow. But also grin, because here the typical Banksian humor, which the author retained until the end, comes into its own once more. It almost sounds like Banks' own obituary when QiRia describes what remains of the trials and tribulations of life if one only looks at them calmly from the outside:
"A kind of malicious joy. If you survive the low point that comes with the understanding that people will continue to be stupid and cruel to one another, no matter what, for all eternity - if survive this low point; many commit suicide at this point - then you can begin to adopt a new attitude that reads: Oh, what the heck. It would be far more desirable if things were better, but they are not and we have to make the most of them. Let's see what nonsense the boobies come up with this time to make life difficult for themselves. "
R.I.P., Iain Banks.
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