The Hydrogen Sonato is the latest in Scottish writer Ian M. Banks’ ‘Culture Series’. This science-fiction series focuses around ‘The Culture’, a hyper-advance communistic civilization that spans the galaxy. The underlying concept works with many tropes of classic space opera science fiction while standing within the deeper tradition of speculative utopian socialist fiction.
Such other examples from the turn of the last century as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Morris’ News From Nowhere and even Alexandra Kollontai’s short story Soon (In 48 Years Time), were projections of their writers hopes and vision of what a future socialist or anarchist society would be like. They are in this way revolutionary daydreams. More modern examples such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s fabulous The Dispossessed have rooted such politically modern versions of Utopia firmly within the realm of science fiction literature.
In Banks’ series, the Culture is a hyper-advanced, humanoid, communistic, anarchistic, post-scarcity civilization spread across the galaxy on millions of planets, orbitals (giant rotating rings, hundreds of thousands of kilometers in circumference) and space ships larger then most States. The civilization is a total egalitarian symbiosis between humanoids, human level intelligent robots, and hyper intelligent AIs called Minds. “Work” as we would understand it is all but nonexistent, along with ownership, jealously, war like aggression and fixed notions of gender. The process of changing one’s sex from one side to the other and back along the spectrum being as easy as changing haircuts.
As I’ve quoted before, in the novel The Player of Games a Culture citizen is having the structure of another, non-egalitarian humanoid civilization describe to him, this one marked by three main sexes instead of two, and he is absolutely dumfounded;
“The one in the middle is the dominant sex.’
Gurgeh had to think about this. ‘The what?’ he said.
‘The dominant sex,’ Worthil repeated. “Empires are synonymous with centralized – if occasionally schematized – hierarchical power structures in which influence is restricted to an economically privileged class retaining its advantages through – usually – a judicious use of oppression and skilled manipulation of … the society’s information dissemination systems … In short, its all about dominance. The intermediate – or apex – sex you see standing in the middle there controls the society and the empire. Generally, the males are used as soldiers and the females as possessions. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea?’
‘Well.’ Gurgeh shook his head. ‘I don’t understand how it works, but if you say it does, all right.”
I can only hope for the day when our descendants are this befuddled when concepts like money, property and patriarchy are trying to be explained to them in history class.
Many of the books in the series revolve around such questions of the interactions between egalitarian and non-egalitarian civilization, along with more classic themes of science fiction, such as human identity and agency in a universe now dominated by technology.
The Hydrogen Sonata, following in the tradition of books like Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood Ends, focuses around a parallel civilization to the Culture’s in the days before they “sublime.” That being, in this universe, when all the trillions of individuals of the civilization decide to leave the mundane physical reality and essentially become beings of pure energy. In a way it is a utopian apocalyptic novel, a story of a civilization ending, not through destruction but through transcendence.
In truth, though thoroughly entertaining, its not the best in the Culture Series, that honor likely going to Matter or Use of Weapons. Yet there is an interesting level of maturity to the book. There isn’t the same “good guys win, bad guys loose” quality that the other books have had. The ending is far more ambivalent and less satisfying, in a good way. The world doesn’t end with a bang, but a whimper, as things really tend to do.
Now some might ask why I should again have a review for a book like this? I would of course argue as I have before for the place of sci-fi and utopian fiction within the socialist movement. That we have the right to dream of a world, or even a galaxy, not under the yoke of capital and state. That such socialist dreams can give us hope and inspiration about what can really be.
But the impetus for this review is far more sobering. The truth is Ian Banks – this excellent writer and political activist in struggles such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and for Scottish independence – is dying. On April 3rd he announced that he has cancer and would not likely live another year.
At this point I would like to direct this specifically to Mr Banks, in the highly unlikely chance that this article comes by your attention. I just want to thank you. There have been many writers of many types in many genres who have affected me over the years. They have taught me things, helped me grow and gave me the strength to continue. I’ve never gotten a chance to properly thank any of them, and I only wanted to say this to you while I can. My words probably don’t count for much in this important time for you, and there is very little I can really offer in terms of consoling. All I can say is I cherish your work, your novels, your activism, and I’m in debt to you for them. They have meant a lot for me. It is good to dream and we need more dreamers.