I am preparing to send in my Hugo Award nominating ballot, and am at the moment acutely aware that last year I didn't read all that much current SF. So I am currently trying to make up for lost time by reading books that seem like possible contenders (such as Great North Road and Blue Remembered Earth). That is why I am reading this book at this time.
I probably would have gotten to this novel eventually, I usually try to pick up everything Banks writes. On the other hand, I haven't really got on all that well with his more recent books. In fact, the last one I wholeheartedly enjoyed was Look to Windward, which came out in 2000. It is possible that Banks, like Steve Brust and China Mieville, has disappointed me too many times and will fall off the list of authors I bother to read any more (I'll get to the most recent Brust book some day. Probably. On the other hand, I will not be reading anything else by Mieville). I more or less liked The Algebraist, but it was a bit of a slog. I did not really like Transition or The Steep Approach to Garbadale. I tried and gave up on Matter and Stonemouth. I couldn't be bothered to get past the first few pages of Surface Detail, it just didn't grab me.
And so we come to The Hydrogen Sonata. I had heard that it was more of a classic, fun Culture novel, and it is. It's got alien races and spaceships run by AIs with names like Contents May Differ and Anything Legal Considered. It's got backstabbing politics and explosions and a droid who is convinced that reality is just a simulation. It's got a guy with over forty penises. It's also got a giant MacGuffin plot.
The Gzilt, a race who could have been one of the founding races of The Culture but decided at the last minute not to join, have decided to abandon their physical existence and Sublime. The novel takes place in the last 22 days before the big event is scheduled. In the run up, they are being visited by other races who hope to inherit (or just take) their planets once they're gone, by well-wishers sending messages, and several Culture ships who are there to observe and try to keep the peace.
One of the well-wishers is a ship sent by another race that Sublimed long ago, with a message that sets off the events in the book. It leads to the deaths of thousands, and a quest by they Culture and a Gzilt woman named Cossont, to try to find a man who could confirm or deny the truth of the message. Lots of people die. Stuff explodes. Weird planets and weird people are visited. But in the long run, frankly, none of it really matters, because it's just a MacGuffin.
I started out really enjoying The Hydrogen Sonata. It seemed like a return to form for Banks, and I get the feeling that he was deliberately trying to go for that style, and give his fans the type of book that they have enjoyed in the past. But after a while I started getting kind of restless. The book is too long, and the machinations of the politician behind most of this (I eventually started skimming over those sections) too irritating and unjustified. There is too much senseless violence, for no real stakes. It also doesn't help that Cossont does't actually have a personality. In short, I got bored by the halfway point, disgusted around page 400, and read the last 100 pages at a skim just to see if there was a point to all this. There wasn't.