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House of Suns
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 512 pages

House of Suns
Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds was born in 1966 in Barry, South Wales. He spent his early years in Cornwall, moved back to Wales and on to university in Newcastle, doing Physics and Astronomy. Then it was on to a PhD in St Andrews, Scotland. In 1991, he moved to Holland, where he met his partner Josette, and worked as ESA Research Fellow before his post-doctoral work at Utrecht University.

Alastair Reynolds Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: House of Suns
SF Site Review: Galactic North
SF Site Review: The Prefect
SF Site Review: Zima Blue and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Pushing Ice
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Century Rain
SF Site Review: Absolution Gap
SF Site Review: Turquoise Days
SF Site Review: Redemption Ark
SF Site Review: Revelation Space
SF Site Review: Chasm City
SF Site Review: Revelation Space

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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This is a book that could perhaps serve as a nearly pure example of the "new" Space Opera in this first decade of the 21st Century. In House of Suns Alastair Reynolds serves up most anything a Space Opera addict could ask for: vast time scales (the book is set several million years in the future), vast distances (the characters traverse thousands of light years, and in fact the state of the Andromeda Galaxy is an important plot point), powerful and exotic tech, from space drives (light speed limited, mind you) to robots to weapons to things like stardams (to keep a supernova from harming nearby systems), and of course space battles and exploding ships. This list by itself does not precisely mark it as "new" -- the same sense-of-wonderful features, more or less, go back to Doc Smith. What makes this "new" other than time of writing would make an essay or five (already has, I think); but the tech and attitudes do clearly derive from our time.

The story is not related to any of Reynolds's previous novels, though it is set in the same future (or perhaps a near variant) of his 2006 novella "Thousandth Night" which features the same two main characters. (I am not sure, however, that the events of "Thousandth Night" fit into the backstory of House of Suns -- at any rate, knowledge of the prior story is not important to the novel.) In this future much of the Galaxy has been colonized by humans, albeit often much altered humans. Human civilizations arise and fall over millennia. One of the very few constants has been the Commonality, composed of a group of Houses or Lines. The Houses seem to be each composed of clones of a single person. The first sets of these clones arose in the Solar System a millennium or so in our future, during a time called the Golden Hour. One woman who chose to be cloned was Abigail Gentian, and her House is the House of Flowers. Its members circle the Galaxy every 200,000 years then meet (at "Thousandth Night") and share memories. (Most of this time is spent in "abeyance" (i.e. either suspended animation or stasis) or at high time dilation, so they skip over much history.)

As the main body of the novel opens, a Gentian "shatterling" (the term for the cloned members of the Houses) named Campion is negotiating for repair of his ship. He and his lover Purslane (the two have long consorted against House rules) are going to be late for the next reunion, which will only get them into more trouble. But in the process they rescue Hesperus, a member of the Machine People, an AI civilization. Hesperus, it turns out, is very interested in the Vigilance, an extremely weird human group that monitors the strange Absence that has replaced the Andromeda Galaxy. And as it happens Campion is something of an expert on the Vigilance. Cooperation seems possible, though the Machine People and humans rarely mix. But all such questions seem moot when Campion, Purslane, and Hesperus reach the reunion site, for they quickly learn that their House has been ambushed and almost destroyed.

The novel then concerns the rescue of a few surviving Gentians, and their attempt to unravel the mystery of the ambush. Clues are few -- a captured attacker hints at a mysterious unknown House, the House of Suns, and also hints that some discovery Campion made was behind the attack. Furthermore, one of their fellow Gentians must be a traitor. And one potential ally, Hesperus, is almost nonfunctional, while two other Machine People want to take him home with them -- against Campion and Purslane's best guess as to his own desires.

It's a long novel, but my interest never flagged. It is told in alternate chapters from the viewpoints of Campion and Purslane, with the occasional interlude set in the Golden Hour, when Abigail Gentian was a child. (These interludes do set up the origination of the Houses, or Lines, but do little else -- much of it strains to set up an analogy between an immersive fantasy Abigail plays and the main action of the novel -- or it seems to want to do so but doesn't sell the parallel.) In classic SF fashion we are always learning a bit more about the history and the setting -- and in classic mystery fashion we are inching towards solving the central "crime." There's plenty of action, too, with the novel culminating in a very long chase indeed. The mystery is eventually solved, and the solution is fairly satisfying, with a pretty cool slingshot to a much changed future.

So, a good example of Space Opera. Big (about 200,000 words), exotic, action-filled. But it shares the weaknesses of much Space Opera as well. The characters are fairly flat, and not very well differentiated. (Of course, in a sense most of them are the same person, but it is clear that they are really different people, both by initial design and by the effects of millions of years of experiences. Yet they speak with too much the same voice.) The prose is serviceable but not in any sense special. And, for all that the story is set millions of years in the future, with the action extended across thousands of light years, there is a certain diminishing of affect. The characters (even the robots) seem very like people of our time. The long distances traveled, time spans elapsed, are pretty cool if you think about them, but as experienced seem a bit too routine, almost domesticated. I don't think this entirely Reynolds's fault -- there is a bit of a translation issue, no doubt -- "translating" such posthuman experiences to our knowledge base is going to be difficult. But it can be done, or has been done, occasionally -- in Olaf Stapledon, perhaps (with a certain loss of direct emotional affect), in a different way in Vernor Vinge, in some Greg Egan (though in, for example, Diaspora, Egan's attempts to be awe-inspiring by the end are simply incomprehensible, which is, I think, what Reynolds's domestication of the far future seeks to avoid). What I'm left with is an impression of a novel that I had a great deal of fun reading, that is packed with pretty cool ideas, and nice action and gadgetry, and a thought provoking conclusion. Which is all good -- but for all that I felt it fell just a bit short of brilliance.

Copyright © 2008 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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