Back when I first started reading Banks' novels twenty five years ago, the proper response were I to mention his name would be "Iain who?" Now, it seems, his works are widely appreciated, and I believe I heard that Hydrogen Sonata is up for a Hugo Award and appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list. By the way, doesn't Hydrogen Sonata sound like a new "green" vehicle from Hyundai?
I begin to remember why I stopped reading Banks, aside from the fact that I just lost track of his releases over time. His books flat out take time to read, to digest, to process. They're filled with rich detail, innovative future technology, cultural extrapolations, delicious sarcasm, glaring irony, and all sorts of distinctive little artistic touches.
A race called the Gzilt are about to Sublime - to give up their physical existence in the Real, and join all the previous races that have gone onwards, after accomplishing everything their race set out to, into another dimension, beyond striving. There's a slight problem, however, when a courier from the remnant of a race that sublimed long ago arrives to deliver a message that may shake the very foundations of the Gzilt's racial history and delay their tightly scheduled and choreographed exit. The courier is destroyed by an element of the Gzilt military before it is allowed to officially convey its message, and the game is on!
An ad hoc group of Culture ships gets wind of the attack and decides to intervene, or investigate, or perhaps instigate...tough to tell, exactly; they seem to function like most committees. A former member of the Gzilt military, Vyr Cossant, is summarily drafted by the security services to use her unique acquaintance with (perhaps) the oldest living member of the Culture to ferret out the nature of the message that was to have been delivered. She has made it her life's work to master the Hydrogen Sonata, a particularly difficult and not particularly lovely composition written for the antagonistic undecagonstring (or elevenstring), and has had herself surgically modified to have four functional arms and hands in order to play it properly. For some reason, known only to Banks, the elevenstring gets dragged along on all of her subsequent adventures and mishaps, much as she'd like to leave it behind, perhaps at the heart of a collapsing star somewhere or when.
I can't begin to describe all of the extremely interesting and inventive things Banks has done in this novel. It is filled with many different types of beings and intelligences, backstabbing conspiracies and explosive space battles, quirky ship Minds and hapless sophonts caught in its plots. Even if you've never read any of Banks' Culture works before, this one will stand quite solidly on its own. Any ties to previous works seemed to me to be quite unnecessary to enjoy it.