Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Hydrogen Sonata

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks was excellent.  Banks has written better, in my opinion, but I really enjoyed this one.  It was a good start to the year.  Sonata captured a lot of the themes I associate with Banks and his Culture novels: god-like ships (containers for AI) with copious amounts of attitude, other cultures that don't necessarily make much sense but are beautiful (and deadly) in their own way, the role of the little person still having an outsized impact despite the machinations of bigger powers (a modified four-armed humanoid with an almost impossible to play instrument in this case, who by chance has met the oldest individual in existence who knows things even the Minds don't know), and the meaningless of humans (and human-like entities) pushing on with politics and petty desires and vices despite the scale of things happening around them (and the sometimes deadly and strange consequences this can lead to, particularly where it intersects religion, and the meaningless when they sublime to another state of being).

Some of my favorite quotes (in addition, I liked the ideas of ships that dance as they move and an accepted table of Recognized Civilsationary Levels):

  • [A ship Mind thinking about the humans that inhabit ships]: “But what babble! What to-ing and fro-ing over such simple operational matters! A bunch of dim-witted, slow-thinking bios swimming in a tube clouded with their own effluent, trying to work out what was going on around them by staring through portholes probably. It was hard for a ship, a Mind, not to feel at least a degree of contempt.” – p. 41
  • “some boring people began talking boringly.” – p. 161
  • “I have managed to avoid learning too many lessons. That may be what keeps me alive.” – p. 211
  • [I think this captures the attitude of the Culture ships well, although below, there's a quote where a ship is taunting another ship, trying to get it to commit to an attack so it's not the aggressor, which is even more apropos : “I’m a fucking razor-arsed starship, you manic! I’m not male, female or anything else except stupendously smart and right now tuned to smite.  I don’t give a fuck about flattering you. The few and frankly not vitally important sentiments I have concerning you I can switch off like flicking a switch.” - p. 434
  •  [I liked this because I haven't seen Banks channel too much in the way of geek references, and popping his characters into this location screams Star Wars]: “We’re in the stern ventral waste disposal semi-solids holding tank.” – p. 461
  •  [What I referred to above - if this was two humans or humanlike characters, it wouldn't be nearly as amusing as two kilometers long ships engaging in the behavior]: "We could start by sort of tussling with fields. I did that out at Bokri, in Ospin, with your pal the Uagren.  That was fun. Not something you get to do every day. Bestial, nearly, like locking horns. Actually, more like naked wrestling, all oiled up. I found it quite erotic, to tell the truth.  Homo-erotic, I suppose, technically, as we’re all just ships together and we’re all the same gender: neutral, or hermaphrodite or whatever, don’t you think?”  (ship being taunted attempts to attack the taunting Culture Mind/ship, “~Not even a nice try, shipfucker”) – p. 483
  • [Bit of a spoiler.  Sometimes ships have names that end in an ellipse.  In this case, the Culture Mind/ship Mistake Not...'s name serves as the punchline and explains its choice to be involved in all the political machinations going on between various AIs and civilizations in Sonata]: Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome and Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas of Ire That Are Themselves The Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans of Wrath  – p. 504

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