House of Suns

Alastair Reynolds was one of those names I kept seeing in the sci-fi section of book shops (Ian Hamilton was another).  I had a sense they were supposed to be worth reading, but I didn’t really know anything about them. Was he space-opera? Was he hard sci-fi? Actually, though, I didn’t really care — all I wanted at the time was big. epic. fantasy. (Bar the odd bit of Iain M. Banks.)

But then (as seems to be the case for so many of these blog entries) I found Chasm City in a second hand bookshop. It was fun,  gritty,  noir, and a delicious mix of hard sci-fi, space opera, and cyberpunk. Later on I read another book set in the same universe — Revelation Space — which was also fun, though without the urban noir feel to it. I enjoyed it, but it said on the back that it involved the most awesome alien artefact since 2001 (the novel, not the year). I finished the book wondering what the artefact could have been, which I don’t think is a good sign…

Anyway. I’ve joined a sci-fi/fantasy book club. I picked up a flier for it at the city library after Ben Aaronovitch’s appearance there (their last book was Rivers of London, which they discussed beforehand). House of Suns is the next book on the agenda, and I am now formally up to speed for the meeting (which is some time late November). I’m writing this to set my thoughts about the book in amber so that my weak memory doesn’t embarrass me when I have to discuss it with other people…

Basic set up: In the far-flung future, humanity has colonised the galaxy (but no further). We’ve diversified a bit, depending on which planet we ended up on, but everyone originated from a common human ancestry. There’s also a race of intelligent robots. Empires rise and fall, but the ‘lines’ seem to be a bit more long lived — to the tune of several millions of years. A line is an incredibly powerful and influential group of immortal clones of a single (wealthy) person. They explore the galaxy, doing good deeds, and meet up every few hundred thousand years to share their memories. There are a number of these lines; there are rivalries, but they’re all loosely affiliated. The two main characters of the novel  are both members of one of these lines.

I’m not sure, but I feel like this one’s a good bit svelter than the previous two I’ve read. The structure, too, is super tight. The book is fairly arbitrarily broken into ‘parts’ (by which I mean there’s no real plot-intrinsic reason [temporal or cliff-hangery] for a break to be in a particular spot, other than that the author’s gotten through another few chapters). The first chapter of each part is a flashback to the life of the line’s progenitor (Abigail Gentian). We learn the circumstances of her life and what led to her starting her own line. In a kind of Banksian move, there’s a fantasy sub-story within the main story. Occurrences within this serve as a semi-elegant allegory for things that go on to occur later on in galactic history.  Each other chapter alternates between the perspective of Campion (m) and that of Purslane (f; not a great name, but I don’t want to quibble), two shatterlings of the Gentian line.

This works fairly well, but could have been used to much greater advantage. Campion’s a bit of a ‘loose-cannon’; he doesn’t play by the rules, etc., etc. But he’s a bit bland. Purslane is…nice? She has an even blander character than Campion. This doesn’t lead to much differentiation from one chapter to the next (though I guess it does let us see a slightly broader range of events when they split up) — I would have liked to have seen the two perceiving the same events from substantially different perspectives, or something like that. So, they’re essentially the same character. Actually, it occurs to me, this may have been done on purpose. The lack of differentiation from one chapter to the next indicates a sort of ‘in synch-ness’, which supports the author’s intention to depict them as having a tightly intertwined, loving relationship. I guess, while each of the characters individually is fairly forgettable, their relationship is quite well sketched out and convincing (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say memorable).

Interstellar travel happens at close to the speed of light. This means that it takes thousands of years to get anywhere. So that they don’t have to experience this passage of time, people go into time microfication stasis (a field is generated within which far less time passes than without), or they take a drug which speeds up their perception of time a millionfold, so that it seems that only a few minutes have passed. The time scales in this book are epic. However, while they’re talked about seriously, the fact that they are experienced as much shorter intervals gives them a kind of irreality or frothiness. It’s hard to really register it when 160,000 years passes in a paragraph, especially when none of the action takes place within cultures that actually experience these spans of time as real. I did like this aspect of the book though. Reynolds put a lot of work into thinking about time and distance, and was rigorous about how these things work within a universe bound by the speed of light.

The plot progresses at a good pace, and it pretty much makes sense (though I could have done with a bit more explaining in places [e.g. the mechanics of the eponymous house]). However, it’s driven primarily by events that are external to the action — a host of dei ex machina (don’t know if that’s right; don’t care) that did their work millenia before the events of the novel. This gives the plot a feeling of randomness; the reader is bounced from one thing to the next, unable to guess what might happen because progression is only partially driven by the choices that characters make. This feeling is compounded by the fact that these precursor events are equally mysterious to the main characters. The most rewarding stream thoughout the novel is the resolution of these mysteries.

The last point I want to make is a definite thumbs up one. There are some bloody awesome things in here. Not events, just…things. There’s a gargantuan array of platonic shape frameworks nested within each other (square within octohedron within dodecahedron, etc…) , the spars of which are wider than suns. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome. The characters of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem would be delighted anyway:)

There’s also a very pleasant scene where Campion visits the Vigilance (another great sci-fi creation), who exist within a dyson swarm, and grow forever, and record everything. To interact, he must be swallowed by a gigantic man (small for his race), fend off the cilia in his stomach, and, later, exit by his rectal portal. This is a very trippy chapter, and one that is permeated by a lovely sense of humour.

Final conclusion: A plot that races along, albeit a little arbitrarily at times, with a strong core of mysteries being gradually uncovered; lovingly depicted hard sci-fi components, and a few super creative races and artefacts; fairly flat, but likeable, characters; and an elegant and strong structure (in what felt like a svelt package, though I’ve just realised it’s 500 pages long).

I liked it.

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One Response to House of Suns

  1. I heartily approve! Reynolds is terrific :-) If you’re looking for more, I recommend Pushing Ice next. It’s one of his best, like Arthur C. Clarke on *crack*. The stories in Galactic North and especially Zima Blue are also well worth your time.

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