The novel is fairly fast-paced, with large parts reading like a particularly hectic Consider Phlebas-style wild goose chase, but as usual Banks frequently slams on the breaks for lengthy descriptions of the technological marvels to be found in his fictional universe. It’s kind of astonishing that, 10 books and 25 years later when we all know what GSV’s and orbitals are and what sort of insane marvels the more advanced races in the galaxy came up with in the far past, there are still moments of good old-fashioned sensawunda to be had here. There are one or two other current writers who can make me feel like I’m 12 years old and reading SF for the first time again, but for me Banks is by far the best in that respect.
And that’s why a new Culture novel is always one of the most anticipated releases of the year for me. In the case of The Hydrogen Sonata, I wouldn’t call it one of the very best novels in the series—especially coming on the heels of Surface Detail, which blew me away—but it more than delivers everything I always hope to find in a Culture novel. It’s a solid middle-of-the-pack Culture story, which as far as I’m concerned still puts it head and shoulders above 99% of the rest of the genre. I mean, there’s a GSV called Just The Washing Instruction Chip In Life's Rich Tapestry in this book. When it all comes down to it, what else do you really need?