The Hydrogen Sonata

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The Hydrogen Sonata
Author Iain M. Banks
Country Scotland
Language English
Series Culture
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Orbit
Publication date
4 October 2012 (UK)
9 October 2012 (USA)
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 528 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0356501505
Preceded by Surface Detail

The Hydrogen Sonata is a science fiction novel by Scottish author Iain M. Banks, set in his techno-utopian Culture universe.[1] The hardcover edition was released on 4 October 2012 in the United Kingdom, and on 9 October in the United States. The book's release marked 25 years since the publication of Banks' first Culture novel.[2] A paperback edition of the book was released on 5 September 2013 in the United Kingdom, and on 10 September in the United States.[3] The Hydrogen Sonata was Banks' last science fiction novel, as he died of gall bladder cancer in June 2013.[4]


An official synopsis and preliminary cover art were released in February 2012.[5] The novel's final cover art, which differed significantly from the preliminary art, was unveiled on 28 June 2012.[6][7] At a book signing at Foyles in London, England, on 11 April 2012, Banks briefly described The Hydrogen Sonata as being "about the whole Subliming business". The first four chapters of the book were read by Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson at an event in the British Library on 9 June 2012. The sonata of the title was revealed to be an almost impossible-to-play musical piece.[6]


The Gzilt, a civilisation that almost joined the Culture 10,000 years before the novel, have decided to Sublime, having had a referendum on the subject and voted in favour of it. The Gzilt civilisation is organised ostensibly on military lines, with every member apparently serving in the military forces at some stage in some way, and holding a lifelong reserve position afterwards. The Gzilt military is organised along regimental lines, with each person tending to retain some form of loyalty or ties to the Regiment in which they served, at the least because they can be called back out of reserve status if required by that Regiment.

Within the novel it is stated that several things tend to happen once a civilisation has made the decision to sublime. Strange objects called Presences appear, Scavenger species (less technologically advanced species wishing to claim the departing species' technology) arrive, and any other civilisation that has kept anything quiet with regard to the Subliming civilisation customarily reveals it to them before they depart – a setting straight of the record for advanced civilisations.

One such species, called the Zihdren, have quite a large secret. They planted the Book of Truth, which the Gzilt revere as it predicted much of their technological developments with an accuracy not seen in any other civilisations equivalents (due to the Zihdren writing it from the perspective of having developed all those technologies), and it is implied that the religion made the Gzilt refuse to join the Culture in the past due to their feeling of being special and different from all others. However, the Zihdren themselves have long since Sublimed as a species, meaning that the Zihdren-Remnant – apparently a mix of AIs and biological Zihdren that chose not to Sublime – are left to deliver the message. However, a Gzilt warship intercepts and destroys the Zihdren-Remnant envoy ship several weeks before the Sublimation is due to take place, in order to preserve the secret.

Meanwhile, the Culture sends ships to both wish the Gzilt well, as they have always been on good terms with the Gzilt, and to keep an eye on the scavenger species arriving. Two of these, the Liseiden (an eel-like species) and the Ronte (a hive insect-like species) are jockeying in negotiations with the Gzilt for preferred status as to who will be given official permission to pick over the remnants of the Gzilt civilisation once they Sublime. Both have ships if not fleets on the way into Gzilt space. The Liseiden and Ronte are both indicated as being about tech level 5 to 6, as compared to the Culture and Gzilt being about tech level 8. Later fighting suggests the Liseiden are more advanced than the Ronte, at least in ships and combat systems.

The Mistake Not... – a ship whose name, classification and actions in the book suggest it is some sort of military berserker – has been assigned to meet the Liseiden, one such scavenger species, and at the edge of its sensor range picks up the destruction of the Zihdren-Remnanter ship even though it is quite far away.

The Gzilt warship had spyware implanted in it centuries ago, which sent a message to the Gzilt 14th Regiment disclosing what the Home Regiment ship had discovered. As a consequence of this, the 14th Regiment calls Lieutenant Commander Vyr Cossont out of reserve status. She had been residing in the Girdlecity, an Orbital in the Xown system which the Gzilt has themselves inherited from a now Sublimated species, where she had been attempting to master the Hydrogen Sonata, a challenging piece of atonal music, as her life task. Life tasks are suggested as being difficult goals Gzilt have set themselves generally within their lifetimes, perhaps to pass the time until the Sublimation. Cossont had been physically modified with an additional two arms (the Gzilt were a relatively "standard" humanoid similar to those in the Culture, but not enough to cross breed), to allow her to properly play the eleven string instrument developed specifically to play the piece.

The spyware disclosing the secret to the 14th Regiment has been detected, and the Home (or 1st) Regiment of the Gzilt under Marshal Chekwri report this to Banstegeyn, essentially the Prime Minister within the Gzilt civilisation operating under a relatively ceremonial President as head of state, asking for permission to destroy the 14th Regiment to contain the secret, which he gives. Banstegeyn had spearheaded the move for Gzilt civilisation to Sublime, and was concerned the disclosure could stop or delay the Sublimation if it became known at such a late stage.

Cossont is taken to the 14th Regiment's high command, and tasked with finding out if the Book of Truth really is a Zihdren plant. To do this, she must speak to the oldest Culture citizen still alive, one Ngaroe QiRia who had apparently been present at the negotiations setting up the Culture, who she has met 20 years before when on a placement with the Culture. Just before she can depart on this mission, the 14th Regiment high command is attacked by the ship dispatched with the approval of Banstegeyn. The high command is completely destroyed, with survivors mopped up by the ship. Cossont narrowly escapes in a shuttle with a combat android sent with her (which was stuck in simulation mode, and thus believes the events are a test), and is rescued by the Mistake Not.... Unfortunately, the same ship that destroyed the 14 Regiment's high command has also realised that Cossont has escaped, and begins tracking her and the Mistake Not...

A group of ship Minds, including the Mistake Not..., forms to deal with the events, having been requested by the Zihdren-Remanter following the destruction of their ship, although the Culture is given the discretion as to whether to disclose the secret to the Gzilt. The group sets out to establish if the secret is correct, even if it is not disclosed to the Gzilt. It is indicated that the "Interesting Times Gang", the group of Minds (especially from Contact and Special Circumstances) that had dealt with the events of Excession, had not been in operation for some time, as this was the type of scenario that it would have tended to become involved in.

Cossont and the Mistake Not... attempt to locate QiRia themselves, including talking with Ximenyr, a plastic surgeon/body sculptor that had also known QiRia and is hosting a five-year party leading up to the Subliming on an airship travelling through the tunnels beneath the Girdlecity. They then set off to retrieve a memory store device Cossont had received from QiRia when she knew him, hoping it will clarify the events surrounding the creation of the Book of Truth.

The Mind group, based on knowledge from Cossont and their own enquiries, locates QiRia as having retreated to a monastery on a distant world not under the control of the Culture (or Gzilt). They have a Special Circumstances agent, Tefwe, retrieved from Storage in a nearby Ship assisting the group, make contact with Ngaroe Qiria. It turns out that he has wiped his mind of all memory of the events surrounding the Book of Truth, and he is even unsure if the memories are anywhere. It is deduced he had memories coded into his eyes (QiRia has had memories downloaded and stored in various parts of his body, to assist in retaining 10,000 years of memories), which he had removed by Ximenyr of the Last Party. Tefwe is killed by the local military, who object and react strongly to the covert insertion of Tefwe to visit QiRia, before she can be retrieved by the ship that brought her.

Cossont and the Mistake Not... successfully retrieve the memory storage device, but only after being attacked by the 1st Regiment ship in the storage facility. The Mistake Not... rescues Cossont and its avatar by displacing them from the surface of the planet, but the android is in the process of being similarly grabbed by the Gzilt ship after being mostly destroyed and ending up at the bottom of an elevator shaft. The Mistake Not... uses its effector weapons to wipe its mind and memories as it is being displaced to prevent them being retrieved by the Gzilt ship.

Cossont and the Mistake Not... then travel to the Last Party to retrieve QiRia's eyes, in the hope they contain the missing memories. The Colonel aboard the Gzilt warship following them takes a squad of combat robots with him and attacks the Last Party, causing many deaths. During the fighting, the Mistake Not... reveals itself to be far superior in combat capabilities to the Gzilt ship (which believed it was an even match). Cossont manages to recover the eyes, with the Mistake Not... sacrificing its avatar in fighting on the airship to keep her alive, and the real truth about the Book of Truth is confirmed, but only to the Culture (and Cossont by the Mistake Not...).

The Book of Truth is revealed to have been a sociological experiment by a fringe Zihdren scientist that was subsequently forgotten. This had been disclosed to QiRia and other members of the prospective Culture. After finding this out and deciding it would not affect the ability of the Gzilt to join the Culture being formed, their minds had been wiped clean. However, experimental memory storage augmentation that had been carried out on him even at that stage apparently prevented the memories from being properly wiped.

After the Mistake Not... persuades the warship not to attack it, and to help the survivors of the Last Party, it confers with other Minds in the group, and they decide to keep the truth about the Book of Truth secret.

The time of the Gzilt Sublimation then arrives, and some 99.9% of the Gzilt (including Banstegeyn, Chekqri and the Colonel) Sublime. Cossont is one of the few that do not (to Sublime successfully, it must be done with large numbers of one's peers, and within about the same hour; any biological being trying to do so on its own will 'evaporate' into the realm of the Sublime). Cossont manages to finish what she was trying to do all along, which was play the titular Hydrogen Sonata on the now essentially abandoned and looted Girdlecity. Having done so, she leaves behind her elevenstring instrument (which she had had for 20 years since it was made for her by a Ship during the visit to the Culture when she met QiRia) to go back to the Mistake Not... with the apparent intention of visiting QiRia at the planet where he is on retreat.


Stuart Kelly of The Guardian gave the novel a positive review, praising Banks' "gloriously baroque and silly" ideas and the "keen satire and...keener anger" of his political themes.[2]


  1. ^ "New Iain M Banks Culture novel coming out!" 29 February 2012. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  2. ^ a b "The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks - review". The Guardian. 10 October 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2012. 
  3. ^ "Iain M Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata paperback release date unveiled". 22 February 2013. Retrieved 22 February 2013. 
  4. ^ "Iain Banks dies of cancer aged 59". BBC. 9 June 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  5. ^ "Iain M. Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata cover art and plot summary!". 10 April 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "Iain M. Banks - The Hydrogen Sonata final cover art and synopsis!". Retrieved 28 June 2012. 
  7. ^ "Cover Launch: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks". Orbit Books. Retrieved 28 June 2012.