Review: House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

house of suns

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-08236-6

(Review first published on the ASIM website, June 2008)

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Alastair Reynolds is a prolific craftsman of stories which are probably best described as a cross between hard SF and space opera. His books have a tendency towards the hard SF rigour that follows from a career as an astrophysics researcher, while tending also to include the grandiose universe-building and intricate plotting which are the preserve of space opera. Most of his books have dealt with imagined events over the next few thousands of years of human history, but House of Suns takes a considerably wider view: it concerns happenings six million years in the future, when humanity has overrun the whole Galaxy.

Campion and Purslane are shatterlings of Gentian line, two of the thousand clone-children of Abigail Gentian who, at the start of humanity’s diaspora into the Galaxy, set in train a tradition. The Gentian shatterlings circumnavigate the Galaxy, each one travelling in his or her own vessel, each one choosing way-stations that appeal to his or her own curiosity. It’s a slow process: even at near-lightspeed, each circuit of the Galaxy takes approximately two hundred thousand years. The Gentian tradition dictates that the shatterlings must rendezvous once in every circuit, at a prearranged planetary destination. It’s essentially the one opportunity for reunion and remembrance in a highly individualistic, powerful, and insulated society; and Campion and Purslane are running late for the reunion. This is bad. But Campion and Purslane are also lovers. This is worse, according to the rules of the Gentian line, which prohibit dalliances of this type. Much worse still is that some unknown enemy has decided that Gentian line must be eliminated, and the reunion offers an excellent opportunity to effect this. Worst of all, however, is that Campion himself appears to have provided the trigger by which this mass assassination is instigated, though the shatterling has no memory of the incident which has apparently provoked the attack on Gentian. And from this point on, the plot only continues to thicken …

House of Suns is a different type of Reynolds book than those I’ve read previously. The difference is not merely in the temporal setting, though the other divergences (in style of characterisation, in the book’s overall structure, in the pacing) may largely devolve from the issue of timescale. The characterisation could be said to be rather bland: characters are portrayed largely as representatives of different far-future societies, largely without the individual quirkiness which might be expected of members of any society. This is true even of the central pair, Campion and Purslane, who alternate as the book’s viewpoint characters but who for much of the book appear virtually interchangeable. The pacing, too, is at times awkward: the middle third of the book, in particular, is somewhat slow-moving (although a sizeable undercurrent of tension persists throughout and beyond this region, and the storyline is never without a sense of wonder). I’d say, though, that the pacing and characterisation difficulties are probably unavoidable in a standalone far-future novel. For the purposes of the plot, there’s a considerable amount of background information which must be made available to the reader, so that events can be placed in their proper Galactic context, and this unveiling of backstory necessarily interrupts the action. The book, in its middle stretch particularly, is strongly reminiscent of the later works of Isaac Asimov. This is a comparison I’ve made previously, largely on the basis of writing style and of portrayal of plot events and ideas through character conversation, in reviewing Reynolds’ The Prefect. In House of Suns there are, if anything, even more points of contact with Asimov: not just the writing style and recourse to ‘talking head’ plot exposition, but also the idea of a human-populated galaxy, and the difficulties associated with human/robot societies. Yet, ultimately, House of Suns isn’t an Asimov novel: Reynolds is undeniably more comfortable than was Asimov with action, and the story finishes up with a protracted and desperate headlong chase, as the various twists in the plot finally straighten themselves out.

It’s intriguing to see Reynolds stretch himself here. I’m not convinced that the book’s hard SF credentials are impeccable: the speed of light is inviolate throughout the book, but there are effects like stasis fields that might offend hard SF purists. But the story certainly functions very well as space opera: the intricacy and self-consistency of the plot, and the evocation of a grandly-scaled and richly detailed Galactic setting, are very impressive. And some of the pieces of invention are marvellous, for example ‘aspic-of-machines’, a kind of intelligent magic goo that can repair or manipulate virtually any kind of object it’s smeared on.

Reynolds’ Revelation Space series has been acclaimed as an action-tinged but scientifically plausible future history. Does his latest work show a realistic extrapolation of humanity’s far-future fate? Perhaps, perhaps not, but I don’t think that really matters. Ultimately, in House of Suns, it’s the big picture which dazzles. This is a sweeping, audacious slice of galactic-scale intrigue and subterfuge; I’ll be very interested to see whether Reynolds returns to this setting, in subsequent works.

 

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(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)

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