The Hydrogen Sonata


By Iain M. Banks

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The New York Times bestselling Culture novel. . .

The Scavenger species are circling. It is, truly, provably, the End Days for the Gzilt civilization.

An ancient people, organized on military principles and yet almost perversely peaceful, the Gzilt helped set up the Culture ten thousand years earlier and were very nearly one of its founding societies, deciding not to join only at the last moment. Now they've made the collective decision to follow the well-trodden path of millions of other civilizations; they are going to Sublime, elevating themselves to a new and almost infinitely more rich and complex existence.

Amid preparations though, the Regimental High Command is destroyed. Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont appears to have been involved, and she is now wanted — dead, not alive. Aided only by an ancient, reconditioned android and a suspicious Culture avatar, Cossont must complete her last mission given to her by the High Command. She must find the oldest person in the Culture, a man over nine thousand years old, who might have some idea what really happened all that time ago.

It seems that the final days of the Gzilt civilization are likely to prove its most perilous.

The Culture Series
Consider Phlebas
The Player of Games
Use of Weapons
The State of the Art
Look to Windward
Surface Detail
The Hydrogen Sonata


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Consider Phlebas

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With thanks to Adèle, Tim, Les, Joanna and Nick


(S -24)

In the dying days of the Gzilt civilisation, before its long-prepared-for elevation to something better and the celebrations to mark this momentous but joyful occasion, one of its last surviving ships encountered an alien vessel whose sole task was to deliver a very special party-goer to the festivities.

The two craft met within the blast-shadow of the planetary fragment called Ablate, a narrow twisted scrue of rock three thousand kilometres long and shaped like the hole in a tornado. Ablate was all that was left of a planet destroyed deliberately two millennia earlier, shortly before it would have been destroyed naturally, by the supernova within whose out-rushing sphere of debris, gasses and radiation it remained, like an arrowhead plunging ever downwards into the rising, roiling heat and sparks of a great fire.

Ablate itself was anything but natural. Roughly hewn as though sliced from some spherical cake, its tip and the first few hundred kilometres of its narrow end had, originally, been made up of the metallic material which had formed the very centre of the now-defunct small planet while its wider end – a rough circle a couple of hundred kilometres across – looked like a gently curved dome and had been part of the barren globe's rocky surface. Kept pointed – aimed – into the supernova's blast front by engines keeled within hyperspace, all of that original tip and most of those next few hundred kilometres of layered metallic ores had abraded away over the last nineteen hundred years, boiled and scoured into oblivion by the still-expanding fires of the exploded star's nebula.

The multi-coloured skies around Ablate, filled with the vast glowing clouds of stellar debris and the gasses and dusts resulting from its own slow wearing-away, were some of the most calculatedly spectacular in the civilised galaxy, and that was why Ablate was a place of special significance to the people who called themselves the Gzilt. The Gzilt had rescued this portion of world from the annihilation of the supernova and they had anchored within it the star drives and field projectors which kept it respectively stable and – just, in the centre of that rough circle of what had been the planet's dusty surface – habitable.

The alien ship was an irregular, fuzzy-looking bubble of dark spheres, measuring barely a hundred metres along its principal axis. It was lit from around and above by the spectrum of colours radiating from the clouds of the supernova, and from below by the gentle blue glow of the world-fragment's only obvious non-natural feature: a scooped, domed bowl a handful of kilometres across that lay on that fractured, unshadowed surface like a slightly too perfect crater. The bowl was an oasis of warmth, moisture and atmosphere on that cold, dry, airless surface; within its gauzy layers of containment it held the sort of parks, lakes, carefully proportioned buildings and lush but managed tracts of vegetation favoured by many types of humanoids.

The Gzilt ship dwarfed the alien one; it looked like a thousand dark broadswords gathered into a god's fist and brandished at the skies. It crossed the boundary of glowing, outflowing dusts and swirling gasses at the periphery of Ablate's circular outer surface – allowing its own fields to create a series of brief, tearing, billowing folds within the curtains of light there – then moved slowly towards and over the glowing bowl and the collection of dark bubbles that was the alien ship, until its spiny bulk hung directly above both, occluding a large part of the supernova clouds and draping its bristled shadow over the ship and the dome below.

The smaller ship waited for some sort of hail from the larger one, as was only polite, but nothing appeared to be forthcoming. It decided to make the initial approach itself:

~Greetings. I am the Zihdren-Remnanter Ceremonial Representative Carrying Ship Exaltation-Parsimony III. You, I understand, are the Gzilt IR-FWS 8*Churkun. I am honoured to be invited here and to make your acquaintance.

~That is interesting, came the reply. ~A Zihdren-Remnanter Ceremonial Representative Carrying Ship, you say?

~Well, indeed I am. Somewhat obviously.

~Somewhat obviously?

~Indeed. And, if I may so claim, both in outward form and unshielded emissive signature.

~Again, interesting.

~Indeed… May I make an observation?

~You may. We await it.

~You seem – how might one put this? – a little less welcoming and polite – especially formally welcoming and polite, as it were – than, I confess, I was expecting and, indeed, had been led to expect. Am I mistaken, or, if I am not, is there a specific reason for this?… Also, I cannot help but note that the crater facility here at Ablate, which I was led to believe would be at least staffed if not in full ceremonial welcoming mode, does not in fact appear to be so. Indeed, it appears to be effectively empty, both of biological and non-biological sentient presences. There are a few sub-AI substrates running, but no more… Obviously one is aware that these are strange times, even unprecedented times for the Gzilt; times of disruption and, one would both surmise and expect, quiet but purposeful preparation as well as anticipation. Some degree of formality might, therefore, be expected to be dispensed with in the circumstances. However, even so, one—

~As you say, strange times. Times that bring uninvited guests and unwelcome attentions in the shape of those who would exploit our reduced numbers and distracted state.

~… We may have experienced a degree of signal outage there, or at least signal protocol disruption, unlikely though that may seem… However, with regard to what you say regarding the unwelcome attentions from others, that is, sadly, to be expected. The preparations for Sublimation tend to bring such – happily, relatively minor – consequences, as those whose memory I am honoured to represent would be the first to agree. The Zihdren—

~There was no signal outage or protocol disruption then, nor is there now. I interrupted you. I am doing so again.

~Ah. Then I was not mistaken. Might I just check; am I addressing the captain of the 8*Churkun's virtual crew?

~You are.

~Ah. Well, then – Captain – we appear to have started out from positions involving inharmonious premises. That is unfortunate. I would hope that, nevertheless, you might appreciate my disquiet – one might even characterise it as disappointment – at the fact that we appear to have initiated our association here on such an unfortunate tack. Please; tell me what I might do to help bring us back onto a more agreeable course.

~The preparations for our Sublimation have encouraged those of a parasitical nature. Alien presences wishing to profit from our abandonment of the Real, appropriating what treasure we might leave behind. They circle.

~I understand. I am, of course, aware of those you talk of. It was so with those whose memory I am honoured to represent: your flattered mentors and barely required civilisational guides, the Zihdren.

~Whom you claim to represent.

~I do indeed. And indeed I do. Represent them, I mean. This is scarcely a matter for dispute. My provenance and—

~This is a warship.

~Another interruption. I see.

~A warship.

~Patently. I must say that I was in no doubt regarding your ship class and martial status. The eight-star, Indefinite Range, Full Weapon Spectrum Gzilt contemporary ship-type you represent is entirely familiar to us.

~Things have changed, formalities slipped, protocols been relaxed. This vessel is four point six centuries old and yet has never fired a shot in anger. Now, with most of our kind already gone, preparing the way ahead in the Sublime, we find ourselves defending the disparate items of our about-to-be legacy from those who would use the fruits of our genius and labour to cheat their way further along the path to this point, a point that we achieved entirely honourably and without such opportunistic larceny.

~Well, I'm sure that does you credit, too. Wait! Good grief! Do you mistake me for such a vessel? Do you suspect I represent such primitive, aggressive forces? Surely not! I am a Zihdren-Remnanter craft, the Ceremonial Representative Carrying Ship Exaltation-Parsimony III. This must be obvious; I have nothing to hide and am transparent, all but completely unshielded; inspect me as you will. My dear colleague; if you wish for help confronting those who would steal any part of your legacy, you need only ask! I, rather, represent a link with those who only ever wished you well, and who, to the contrary—

~Part of the deception such entities employ is impersonating the vessels and beings of others. I am deeming you to be doing so at this moment. We have scanned you and determined that you are carrying something which is entirely shielded from honest view.

~What? My dear Captain, you cannot just "deem" me to be employing any deception! That is absurd! And as for the only fully shielded substrate within myself, that is my cargo, my complement of precisely one Ceremonial Guest, our single humanoid expression of respect, expected and invited by the Gzilt people specifically to celebrate their upcoming Sublimation! Of course this entity bears a message from the Zihdren-Remnanter to the Gzilt which I am not privy to! There can be nothing strange, unprecedented or worrying about such a thing, can there? The Gzilt have been party to the relevant diplomatic and ambassadorial protocols for millennia, without a flutter of complaint. A tiny scrap of the Real bids farewell to you while at the same time representing those who would most happily welcome you to the Sublime!

~There is deceit here, something hidden. We can see it even if you cannot.

~What are you talking about? I am sorry. I have had enough of this. Your behaviour and demeanour goes beyond even the most cautious and watchful warship-normal and frankly risks slipping into outright paranoia. I am withdrawing; you will have to excuse me. Farewell.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~… Have you put a signal containment around me? Have you any idea of the consequences—?

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~I cannot. Quite apart from anything else, there are diplomatic niceties—

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~I heard you! And I cannot and will not. How dare you! We are your friends. Neutrals would be appalled and insulted at such treatment! That those who have long thought themselves your friends and allies—

~Release in full the information—

~There! You see? Two may interrupt! I refuse to do as you ask. Drop the signal containment around me immediately. And should you make any attempt to block or prevent my moving off under—

~… contained within the shielded substrate. Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~This is outrageous! Do you…? Are you mad? You must know what and who you are choosing to quarrel with here! I represent the Zihdren-Remnant, you lunatic! Fully accepted and accredited heirs to the Sublimed Zihdren, the species many of your people acknowledge as little less than gods; those the Book of Truth itself proclaims to be your spiritual ancestors! I must warn you that although I am, to all intents and purposes, unarmed, still I am not without resources which—

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~Enough. Goodbye. Out.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~… Drop the signal containment around me immediately! And desist from jamming my engine fields at once! I am about to initiate a full-power high-acceleration pull-away manoeuvre irrespective of your current interference, and any damage accrued either by myself or you will be your responsibility, not mine! The Zihdren-Remnanter and the Zihdren themselves will hear of this act of barbarism; do not make it worse for yourself!

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~… That my drive components have not just exploded thanks to your unwarranted barbarism is due more to my ability to finesse than your brutal use of overwhelming power. I am, as is now abundantly clear to both of us, effectively helpless. This is a result and a situation that does you no honour whatsoever, believe me. I must – with utter reluctance and under extreme protest, both personal and formal – ask whether, if I do release in full the information contained inside the shielded substrate within myself, you will then drop the signal containment around me and desist from jamming my engine fields, allowing me both to signal and to depart.

~Release in full the information contained within the shielded substrate.

~And I will be allowed to signal and to depart?

~… Yes.

~Very well. Here.

~Scanned. We present the results.

~… Interesting, as you might put it. I see. That is not a message that I would have anticipated. I now appreciate, as I am sure you do, too, why there was a degree of secrecy regarding the contents. While it would not normally be any part of my responsibility to make comment on such matters, I would, speaking personally, argue that said contents themselves constitute a kind of apology. This is a type of admission, even a confession. I understand that such… accountings are often a part of the business of species and civilisations Subliming; matters are settled, lines are drawn under certain proceedings… However, be that as it may, it was my mission only to deliver this Ceremonial Guest entity while being kept entirely ignorant of the content, substance and import of its message. Accordingly, I consider that I have, albeit in most unexpected and trying circumstances, discharged my duty, and so would ask to be allowed to communicate this bizarre turn of events to those who tasked me so, and to withdraw from Gzilt jurisdictional space to await further instructions. I have held up my end of our bargain and duly released, in full, the information contained inside the shielded substrate within myself. If you'd be so kind, I now require you to fulfil your promise by dropping the signal containment around me and ceasing to jam my engine fields.


The Gzilt ship 8*Churkun – a battleship in all but name – kept the tiny alien vessel effectively crushed underneath it as it directed fire from a pair of its close-range, medium-power plasma chambers into the vessel, and – beneath it, beyond it – into the emptily glowing blue bowl of the crater facility, destroying the ship utterly and blowing the crater facility apart.

The weapon-pulse was so strong it continued into the surface of the planetary fragment to a depth of several kilometres, blasting a brief, livid tunnel a hundred metres across vertically into the rock. A torrent of lava splashed out around the ship's outermost protective fields as the tunnel collapsed, the spattering, cooling rain of molten rock following the pulverised, atomised debris of the Zihdren-Remnanter ship and the centre of the blue-glowing bowl as they too flew into the colour-wild skies above Ablate.

At the boundaries of the world's truncated horizon, some larger parts of the obliterated dome, still whirling away from the initial explosion, burned bright as flame as they plunged into the surrounding curtains of light.

Deep beneath its assaulted surface, automatic systems sensed the blast and the resulting wobble in the tiny world's course, and corrected for it.

Where the little blue oasis of light and life had been there was now a larger, deeper crater, glowing white and yellow and red from its boiling centre to its ragged edge. By the time the crater surface had cooled sufficiently to show how it would look once it had solidified completely, the 8*Churkun was long gone.

Of the other ship, apart from a new set of already fading folds of light in the skies above Ablate, there was no trace whatsoever.


(S -23)

At sunset above the plains of Kwaalon, on a dark, high terrace balanced on a glittering black swirl of architecture forming a relatively microscopic part of the equatorial Girdlecity of Xown, Vyr Cossont – Lieutenant Commander (reserve) Vyr Cossont, to give her her full title – sat, performing part of T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, catalogue number MW 1211, on one of the few surviving examples of the instrument developed specifically to play the piece, the notoriously difficult, temperamental and tonally challenged Antagonistic Undecagonstring – or elevenstring, as it was commonly known.

T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, MW 1211, was more usually known as "The Hydrogen Sonata".

The elevenstring was an acoustic instrument – usually bowed though occasionally plucked – of considerable antiquity and even more notable size. Standing over two metres tall, one metre across and more than one and a half deep, it required its player both to straddle it and to sit within it; poised on the small saddle forming part of the base of the hollow around which the rest of the instrument bulked like a giant deformed ring, the player used both legs to create two-thirds of a supporting tripod for the instrument, the final third being formed by a single spar protruding from its base like an inelegantly substantial walking stick.

The first examples had been made of wood, though later versions had been constructed of plastic, metal, grown shell and artificial bone; the one Vyr Cossont owned and was playing was mostly carbon fibre, which had long been the most common and traditional material.

Cossont reached the end of one particularly taxing section of the piece and took a rest. She stretched her back, flexed her aching feet inside her slippers – the elevenstring required that its player use two small pedals to tamp certain strings, while their heels balanced the weight of both player and instrument – and placed the instrument's two bows across the front of the little saddle she sat on.

Cossont scanned the skies above the terrace, where some streaky pink and orange clouds stood out against the darkening blue of evening. Two kilometres beneath, the Kwaalon plains were already night black, not a light showing between the last canted cliff of the Girdlecity and the far, flat horizon. A cooling wind moved across the terrace, moaning through banister wires, whistling as it curled round Cossont's flier – parked twenty metres away on its own tripod of skinny legs – and making the girl herself shiver once in her thin trews and jacket.

She shifted some wind-loosened hair out of her eyes and kept gazing up and around. A kilometres-distant smudge might be a flock of birds; her familiar, Pyan, was probably flying with them, playing. Her eyes strained, magnifying the view as best they could; she could feel rings of tiny muscles warping the lenses in each eye, while other filaments altered the shape of her foveae. Were those birds – and of the right species? But the distance was too great. There might be a larger dark shape mixed in with the flock, but there might not. Even if there was, it might just be a larger bird being mobbed.

There was probably some local system she could ask to find out and quite possibly one or more of the flock would be augmented or entirely artificial, allowing her, in theory, to interrogate them regarding her familiar's whereabouts, but she had grown used, lately, to such systems either not working at all or not working properly – like pretty much all systems everywhere, throughout the Gzilt civilisation, from what she could gather. And anyway, she found it hard to be sufficiently bothered. She also knew better than to try talking to the creature at such moments unless there was some genuinely dire emergency; Pyan, in the end, was its own being, not her property. Sometimes she wondered if it was even her friend.

She sighed, stretched her arms out and loosely shook all four hands, as though trying to free them from something sticky.

She arched her back again; it had become stiff during the last quarter of an hour or so as she'd tackled the demanding middle section of the work. She stood carefully, holding on to the neck of the elevenstring with one hand, lifting the two bows with another, running a third hand through her hair and picking her nose with her fourth.

The elevenstring ideally required its player to have four hands. It could be played by two people, though this required some serious coordination and sometimes fancy footwork, and almost all the pieces written for it, including the Hydrogen Sonata, could be performed adequately by a string trio plus a couple of suitably tuned basses, but to be played as it was intended to be, Vilabier The Younger's most famous composition really required the bodily acoustic Antagonistic Undecagonstring for four hands, and a single, dextrous instrumentalist.

The instrument, like the work, was near impossible to play acceptably, let alone perfectly, yet one demanded the other and the great Antagonistic Undecagonstringists (only a handful in the near millieon since the piece was written) had, allegedly, played and – even more annoyingly, as far as Cossont was concerned – left recordings of the complete work, to show it could be done.

Cossont was acknowledged as a gifted instrumentalist with a particular feeling for ancient string instruments – she had been one of the top five Volupt players in all Gzilt, and was now the single greatest, though admittedly only because the other four were all Stored, awaiting the Sublime – but she was beginning to despair of accomplishing her self-assumed life-task before her whole civilisation simply ceased to be in the Real and she and everyone she knew and loved took, rejoicing, to the metaphorical skies of the Sublime. Playing the Hydrogen Sonata once, note perfect, straight through, without a break save for the few seconds between individual movements; that was Vyr's chosen life-task. It only sounded easy if you knew nothing of either the Sonata or the elevenstring. As far as she was concerned, the Subliming couldn't come fast enough.

Twenty-three days to the big moment now. Twenty-three days to do all the other things she might want to do before the Ultimate Enfold or whatever people were calling it these days and still get this appallingly long, complicated and player-unfriendly piece nailed to her own satisfaction, never mind anybody else's.

She doubted she'd make it. She had even started thinking of giving up entirely, beginning to agree with those who held that life-tasks weren't really about accomplishing anything beyond the passing of time before all such tasks, ambitions, goals and aspirations became – supposedly – laughably irrelevant and petty.

"Flier," she said, inspecting the end of one finger, flicking it to remove what was on the tip, then rubbing her back with the same hand, "is Pyan with those birds?" She pointed.

The two-seat flier, a chunky little aircraft with stubby wings, made a show of waking up, turning lights on in the hinged-open cockpit. "Yes," it told her, through her earbud. "Do you want me to summon it?"

"Not yet," she said, sighing again. "Can you send up that – you know – your… that little—"

"My minidrone."

"That's the fella. Keep an eye on it. In case it's not listening when we…" Her voice trailed off as she swayed from side to side, stretching. She shook a couple of her hands again, tucked the instrument bows under one arm and started trying to push the loosened strands of her hair back into its band. "Weather?" she asked, as a small hatch opened along the flier's dorsal bulge and a tiny version of the machine buzzed into the air, turning and zipping off towards where she'd seen the distant flock of birds. The minidrone was visible for just a few seconds, illuminated mostly by the hazy light reflecting from the Girdlecity's upper reaches, the nearest few hundred horizontal kilometres of which still shone in the sunlight like some vast tracery of silver and gold wrapped across the sky.

"Cooling at a degree every fifty minutes," the flier told her. "Wind variable but increasing to an average of 18 km/h, gusting twenty-five, backing west-north-west."

Cossont frowned, gazing north-west across the plains to some far, shadow-dark mountains, then looked back at the sloped cliff of Girdlecity behind her. The vast structure was a steep-sided upheaval of semi-exotic metal tubes and facings, curved and sweeping walls of synthetic stone dresswork, swirled patterns of diamond-film windows and whole stretched filigrees of carbon-black cabling, the entire confusion of pierced architectures rising almost straight up to its bright, curved, horizon-to-horizon summit, nearly two hundred kilometres above and arguably, if not technically, in space. She did something she had only taken to doing recently when she was on or in the Girdlecity; she just stood looking, waiting to see some movement. There wasn't any. There rarely was, these days. Sometimes she felt like the only person still alive and un-Stored in the whole world.

Looking between the various local components of the Girdlecity, Cossont could see sky and clouds on the far side of the colossal artefact, perhaps fifty kilometres away; the sky was brighter to the south, the clouds wispier. The degree of Through here – the proportion of architecture to open air – was about fifty per cent, meaning that winds had an unusually good chance of blowing straight through.

"That might work," she muttered.

Cossont rubbed at her back again. The Gzilt conventionally possessed the humanoid-normal complement of arms – two, according to most authorities – and the alterations required to provide Vyr with twice the average while retaining the desired qualities of litheness and flexibility had meant leaving her with a spine that was prone to seizing up if left stressed too long in the one position.

"Mind if I sleep?" the flier asked.

"No; you sleep," Cossont said, flapping one hand at the aircraft as she inspected the elevenstring's tuning keys and machine heads. "Wait till I need you. Going comms down myself," she said, clicking at the earbud that controlled the relevant implants.

The flier switched off its lights, hinged the cockpit closed and went quiet and dark.

Alone again, in a pocket of silence as the wind dropped and all went still, Cossont paused for a moment. She looked up into the blue-black sky with its tinily pointed spray of stars and sat-light, and wondered what it would really be like to be Sublimed, to have gone through with it, to be living on this reputedly fabulously and unarguably real Other Side.

The Gzilt had been living with the idea of Subliming for centuries, generations. At first only a few people had thought it would be a good idea; then, gradually, over time, more and more had. Eventually you had the sort of numbers that would make the whole thing work, because to do it properly required serious numbers – preferably a whole civilisation.


  • "This rich, sweeping panorama of heroism and folly celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Culture, Banks's far-future semi-utopian society.... The action tumbles along at a dizzying pace, bouncing among a fascinating array of characters and locales. It's easy to see why Banks's fertile, cheerfully nihilistic imagination and vivid prose have made the Culture space operas bestsellers and award favorites."—Publishers Weekly
  • "One of Banks' best Culture novels to date."—Booklist on The Hydrogen Sonata
  • "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 sizable shots at unthinking, dogmatic religiosity for good measure."—SciFi Now
  • "Banks's charming prose and the scale of his imagination continue to delight Culture vultures."—SFX
  • "The Culture, the post-scarcity, hedonistic, Machiavellian, libertarian, arse-kicking science-fiction society created by the late Iain M. of the most enduring and endearing visions of the future."—The Guardian
  • "Incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action...sheer delight."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Sep 10, 2013
Page Count
544 pages

Iain M. Banks

About the Author

Iain Banks came to controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now widely acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation.

Learn more about this author