The Hydrogen Sonata

November 3, 2013

My last week in Seattle at McNeel headquarters and I ran out of stuff to read. I found ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ by Iain M. Banks in the local Barnes & Noble and decided to give Mr. Banks one more chance. I’ve read two of his books (Transition and Stonemouth) before and although he is clearly a gifted author it’s not the sort of (science) fiction I enjoy reading.

I haven’t gotten very far into The Hydrogen Sonata yet and I realise I may be missing large parts of the story as it is the tenth book in something called ‘The Culture Series’, but so far it’s —again— not my kind of story. Too many humanoid aliens, intragalactic travel far too easy, and lots of silly names like Gzilt, Eshri, Briper Drodj and Banstegeyn. I understand things need to have a name and you cannot really get around this when writing a story set in a galaxy densely populated with alien civilisations, but it adds a thin patina of ridiculousness to the whole endeavour in my opinion.

I did come across a scene that struck a chord with me, especially in light of the discussions sparked by one of my recent posts ‘Worrisome trends in architecture education‘. In this scene we learn something about the composer of a famous piece of music (long pauses represented by ellipses removed by me):

“I have no idea,” the old man said, smiling. “But the point is the Hydrogen Sonata is an elaborate, contrived attack on the sort of composition it represents. He […] hated clashing, atonal music. He was basically taking the piss, showing how easy it was to write … how difficult to listen to. Now the piece he’s most remembered for.” He shrugged again. “‘Such is fate,’ as they say.” He gazed out to sea for a moment, then added, “One should never mistake pattern for meaning.”

Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata

Sound advice I’d say.

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