Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

Another year, another novel from Alastair Reynolds – which would be a blithe comment without also mentioning that whenever he publishes a new book, I buy the UK hardcover and drop whatever else I’m reading to read it. Yes, he’s that good: Even his weakest novels are packed with evocative settings and cool ideas. House of Suns is one of his better novels.

A framing sequence (of sorts) set hundreds of years in the future sets the backdrop, in which some rich and inquisitive humans cloned themselves a thousand times and set up family “lines” by sending each clone (“shatterling”) out on their own starship, in advance of the rest of humanity reaching the stars. The bulk of the novel takes place millions of years in the future: There’s no faster-than-light travel, but ships can near lightspeed, which combined with life-extension and hibernation technologies means that the members of the lines have lived for centuries (maybe millennia) of personal time, stretched to those millions of years via their travels.

The protagonists of the story are two members of the Gentian Line, Campion and Purslane, who have violated their line’s conventions by travelling together and becoming romantically involved (heterosexual – the clones are not exact). Campion is impulsive while Purslane is more measured and thoughtful. The Gentian Line travels the galaxy gathering information, and meets once every galactic cycle (!) to exchange that data. In between they accumulate wealth by constructing “stardams” – manipulating ringworlds left by the Priors – an extinct earlier civilization – to enclose dangerous objects – like exploding suns – for the protection of others. The backdrop also includes the Vigilance – a computer swarm observing the galaxy on its own – and the Absence – a black spot where the Andromeda Galaxy used to be.

Campion and Purslane are late to the line’s next gathering, which is good for them since someone else decided to come in and obliterate the Gentian Line. The survivors retreat to a world called Neume. Campion and Purslane had taken on a robot companion named Hesperus who had helped them during the disaster, but who was badly damaged. Two other robots, Cadence and Cascade, are also present as guests of the Line, and are doubtful he can be repaired, but Hesperus had left a final request to be given to the Spirit of the Air, a powerful machine entity which lives on Neume.

Their personal considerations aside, Campion and Purslane also get caught up in the Line’s family politics, which have become especially messy in the wake of the disaster, especially with prisoners to interrogate. Their only clues are the name “House of Suns”, a reference to a Line no one’s ever heard of, and the indication that Campion is somehow the catalyst of the attack, though no one can understand how.

As you can see, House of Suns starts out big and just gets bigger from there, with massive technology at the hands of the heroes, but even more massive technology out there to be discovered. Little of this tech is particularly new to a science fiction reader, but Reynolds deploys it in new combinations and in interesting ways; the wonder in the novel is much more about scale than about kind, and a reminder that sheer scale can still be amazing even after all the SF that’s been written before. (Of course, this does beg the question: After using ringworlds as merely materials in a larger project, and making galaxies disappear, can Reynolds come up with an encore in the theme of scale? It might be wiser if he doesn’t try.)

The “framing sequence” which opens each of the book’s parts is eerie but somewhat disappointing. It provides some insight into how the Gentian Line got started, and is also an allegory of sorts for the main story, but I found the connection between the two to be too tenuous to be really satisfying. I’d hoped for something more concrete linking the two stories.

But that sequence is a small part of the whole book, and the main story is much more rewarding. The focus is on political machinations and the mystery and suspense of the attack on the Line rather than on depth of character, but I also felt there was enough characterization to feel realistic. In particular, the loyalty of Campion and Purslane to Hesperus was at times touching, and Campion’s friction with the other shatterlings feels realistic. Although the narration alternates between the two, Campion always feels like the more interesting of the pair, probably because he has more foibles in his personality. The book might have had additional depth had it been written as a rite of passage or growth for Campion’s character, although that would have left out many excellent scenes which are seen only by Purslane.

The world building is excellent, as it usually is in a Reynolds novel: The sense of history and of a myriad of human cultures, and of their comings and goings as perceived by the Shatterlings is all very well portrayed. The Lines naturally feel a little superior to everyone else since they tend to outlive them, but are occasionally reminded that they’re not the only sharks in the sea, and they’re not perfect either. Though it takes a while for the mystery to draw out, there’s plenty of stuff happening and being revealed to keep the reader entertained; although the book is long, it’s rarely dull.

I found the ending to be a satisfying wrapping up of all the various threads, even if the final chapter did end rather abruptly. Reynolds also comes up with a satisfying rationale for the actions of some of the superhuman entities flying around, one which suggests that sometimes our fears are worse than the reality, but that we’re rarely willing to go out on a limb and risk finding out if that’s really true.

Although I didn’t find House of Suns to be quite as good as Chasm City, or its universe to be quite as richly textured as the Revelation Space universe, I still think it lands in the upper echelon of Reynolds’ novels. Although the sheer sense of wonder is its big selling point, it holds together as a story, too.

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