As it’s the tenth book in Iain M Banks’ Culture series of far-future space opera, some would have you believe you’re well past the jumping on point, and maybe you should go back to watching The Clone Wars while hungover or whatever it is people who read ‘SF’ think people who watch ‘sci-fi’ are doing with their time.
Don’t be alarmed; the Culture is more of a setting than an ongoing story, and although cause from earlier volumes is well and truly effected, it’s not sequential in any vital way. Nonetheless, The Hydrogen Sonata goes some way to fulfilling that aforementioned philosophy by throwing you into the deep end with some pretty core players and ideas.
A cousin-civilisation of the Culture – basically another bunch of smug, hyper-advanced near-humans – about to ascend from this tired old plane of existence with all the detached dignity and sophistication of a Golden Jubilee street party, scavenging rights are being squabbled over by some bottom feeders, and a cluster of busybody Culture AIs get involved in an obvious conspiracy. There’s a lot to take in, especially compared to Banks’ previous book, Surface Detail, but he’s such a breezy, entertaining voice that you can’t help but be dragged along.
It’s fantastically good fun that throws in some big ideas about life, the universe and everything, and like the unabashed leftie that he is, Banks manages to get in there a few sizeable shots at unthinking, dogmatic religiosity for good measure.