Books: House of Suns

In Brief:  Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.

Pros:   Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies.  His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality.  The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).

Cons:  Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist.  The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.

Review:  Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade.  He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books.  I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.

As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement.  We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization.  The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region.  Cool concept, expertly described here.

It immediately gives you and idea of what some branches of humanity can achieve in Reynolds’ universe, but at the same time we quickly realize that in this book there’s no faster-than-light travel.  No hyperspace, warp drives, or stargates.  So time –  hundreds of thousands, even millions of years – becomes a key feature.

Pursulane and Campion are shatterlings (clones) of Abigail Gentian, who six million years earlier cloned herself 1,000 times and sent them all out into the galaxy in 1,000 ships to explore and observe.  Through suspended animation and very smart spaceships, these shatterlings span space at (relatively) slow speeds, stopping off to record anomalies, sometimes help other less developed civilizations, and as we soon learn, plot and scheme.

The Gentian Line is just one of numerous Line civilizations engaged in exploration.  The survivors of the Line meet ever few hundred thousand years in a single system at a grand reunion to exchange memories and information and decide what general areas they will explore next.

Pursulane and Campion, we learn, are running late for one of these reunions as the novel begins (even though it won’t begin for thousands of years in relative time…  you get used to it).  Their star-dam project is behind schedule, and then there’s the awkward detail that they are, in fact, lovers and consorts – something the Gentian Line discourages.  While manipulating their data and coming up with an approach to minimize their transgression, the pair runs afoul of a space-hording baddie who attempts to take one of their ships.  They overcome him and discover he has, among his prisoners, one of the Machine People – who constitute another highly advanced civilization.

This delays them further, but gains them an ally in the Machine Person, Hesperus, who is struggling to recover a large portion of his memories as the result of his confinement.  When Pursulane and Campion arrive at the reunion, they learn that 90% of the rest of their line has been ambushed and killed by weapons thought extinct and outlawed by the other Lines.  As they join the survivors and attempt to discover who has at in for them, we learn this plot has something to do with one of Campion’s prior journeys – even though he can’t recall all the details.

After the first 50-75 pages, which require a little patience as the author sets the stage and does some front-loading, HoS moves crisply from one plot point to the next.  Ideas and concepts fly of the pages as Reynolds provides other glimpses of various branches of human civilization.

Point-of-view shifts between Pursulane, a thoughful and honorable woman, and Campion, a reckless but loyal man.  Yes they’re clones of the same Abigail Gentian, yes, they’re lovers.  We don’t judge advanced post-humans.  The author does well characterizing his two leads differently, so the alternating chapters not only gives you different perspectives, but makes the two leads more approachable.  As they both remark at some point during the story, they are only a million years or so (relatively) removed from apes and must still recognize their limits and foibles.

Most of the characters in the book are portrayed as highly intelligent, thoughtful, and logical.  Reynolds has them interacting (usually without violence) in a sort of elevated manner, where everyone seems to know who might have the upper hand or what the eventual likely outcomes of actions will be.  This makes for interesting discussions, but sometimes leads to a dearth of action.

Still, Pursulane and Campion are at the center of investigating the attack on their line, Campion’s lost memories, as well as Hesperus’ murky mission for the Machine People.  It’s all leading to something called ‘the Absence’ in the Andromeda Galaxy – a longstanding mystery for the lines.  There’s a sense of grand scale, an element of wonder, and with Reynolds’ ability to weave his in-depth understanding of physics into his speculative worlds, it makes for damned fine reading.

Bottom Line:  House of Suns will satisfy those in search of thoughtful space opera steeped in scientific theory.  In this book, Alastair Reynolds has big ideas and approachable interesting characters.  This novel has ensured I will read more of his work sometime soon.

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