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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: 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 Paul Kincaid

Let's face it, the delight we take in space opera is atavistic. What we are really looking for is something that overwhelms us, that makes us go "Wow!." It's all about scale, the biggest devices, the biggest bangs, the biggest distances. And no-one does size quite like Alastair Reynolds.

In this, his latest novel, for instance, his (human) heroes are millions of years old and regularly circumnavigate the galaxy, they have the technology to safely enclose a sun that is about to go nova, and they are about to get involved in a conflict whose origins lie eons before and whose resolution will extend to another galaxy.

Yet for all that we are constantly being hit between the eyeballs with some new manifestation of bigness, this is actually a rather small scale story much of it taking place in a restricted planet-bound setting. If Reynolds' previous novel, The Prefect, was a police procedural set in space, House of Suns is a tale of family intrigue and betrayal.

The family concerned is the Gentian clan, otherwise known as the House of Flowers. Six million years before, the founder of the Gentian line had herself cloned, and her offspring were sent out to explore the universe. Effectively immortal, and using a variety of cryogenic and time-dilation technology to get them through the vast emptiness of interstellar time, the members of the House of Flowers go their separate ways but after each circuit of the galaxy they meet up again to share their memories. Though it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that information is the currency of the innumerable human-descended communities that make up this populous galaxy, and what the various members of the family learn, share and pass on has made them wealthy.

In particular, we follow Campion and Purslane (all the members of the House of Flowers are named, inevitably, for plants) who are, if not exactly renegade, then at least lax in their observance of family rules. They are, for example, already fifty years late for the latest family reunion, and, more heinous still, they have fallen in love. It would seem that two family members travelling together rather than going different ways appears to be the biggest crime in the book, though frankly the idea of willingly contemplating millennia without human company makes them distinctly non-human to my mind, and the fact that this does not seem to occur to Reynolds is a clue to the sense of inhumanity generated by so much of his large scale work. Nevertheless, Campion and Purslane are making their way towards the rendezvous with a passenger they have failed to deliver to the Vigilance (a vast but unwelcoming interstellar library and research centre) and, after using the family name to con a new ship out of one being they meet, with a mysterious machine man who appears to have been in stasis for millennia. They hope their passengers will avert the wrath of the family.

There are problems along the way. The first passenger dies in suspicious circumstances, and the finger points at Hesperus, the sapient robot whose mission also seems to involve the Vigilance. But then all this is forgotten when they pick up a distress signal from the rest of their family: the rendezvous has been attacked by unknown enemies, using a huge and outlawed weapon. Campion flies straight into the scene of devastation, triggering an ambush that he only escapes with the aid of Hesperus, who is nearly killed in the process; but along the way they rescue a handful of Gentian survivors, and some of the attackers they managed to capture.

At this point, they travel to the planet where those who escaped the massacre have gathered, and the scale and pace of the novel abruptly comes down to earth. Ever since Pushing Ice, at least, Alastair Reynolds has been working hard to improve characterisation, to explore the human motivation of his players. And he has succeeded; the romance between Campion and Purslane is as believable and at times as affecting as anything else he has written. We like these characters, we enjoy spending time with them, we wish them well. Nevertheless, when the story comes down to the ground, when Reynolds abandons his usual arsenal of vast distances, huge tracks of time, monstrous artefacts, something goes out of the novel.

During the roughly half of the novel that takes place on Neume, we have jockeying for power among the remnants of the Gentian family, we have debates about torturing the enemy prisoners, we have an encounter with a vast dispersed intelligence known as the Spirit of the Air, we have a murder, we have the discovery that the attack was somehow prompted by something that Campion had discovered on his own visit to the Vigilance, and we learn that there is a traitor in the Gentian family. All of this would be more than enough plot for many another novel, but here it feels as if Reynolds is dragging his feet.

Suddenly, two rogue robots kidnap Purslane and Hesperus and we are off on an epic interstellar chase. Just as suddenly the plot kicks free of gravity and flies off towards a resolution that neatly reveals the traitor, raises the spectre of a galaxy-wide war between humans and machine people, and incorporates a stunning journey to Andromeda. In space, Reynolds can be space operatic -- and it's still what he does best.

House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don't actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.

If he had to pursue this device, it might have been more interesting if one of the narrators had been Hesperus, a character who is remade several times during the course of the novel. Such a choice would have emphasised the fact that in an information-rich universe this is a story about what is not known. Hesperus has had his memory of his original mission wiped. Campion and Purslane edit their own memories to try to hide their romance from the Gentian line. Campion has excised his own memories of his visit to the Vigilance, so cannot understand why he is the focus of attack. One of the non-Gentian characters on Neume is being kept in ignorance of the fact that his entire world has been wiped out. The House of Flowers was attacked by the House of Suns, of whose existence no-one was previously aware. Abigail Gentian can never remember the name of her young playmate/rival. And in the end the whole novel turns on events that had been wiped from the collective memory of the Gentian family. Yet because the focus of the novel is so relentlessly on the attractive if often feckless pairing of Campion and Purslane, this fascinating stress on knowledge and ignorance, memory and forgetting, is underplayed.

As for Abigail Gentian, we see her as a young girl back in what is known as the "Golden Hour." She lives alone except for servants on an asteroid that has been almost completely taken over by an ever-changing house that is, like the Winchester Mystery House, being constantly rebuilt at the behest of her now incurably insane mother. Every so often she is visited by a playmate of her own age, but whose name she never remembers. Together they play an immersive fantasy game in which, for a while, she is trapped. Other than introducing us to the founder of the Gentian line, it always feels as if these sections are meant to resonate with what comes later, either counterpoint or in some way explain the events of six million years later. But this resonance never comes. Instead we witness Reynolds straining, rather unconvincingly, with a faux-fantasy tale that is completely divorced from all that goes around it.

In other words, whenever Reynolds narrows the focus, he fumbles. But that's not why we read him. We read him for the wide-screen baroque he carries off with such élan, and in that House of Suns is no disappointment. There's enough here that is big, brash and bold to keep any space opera fan well satisfied.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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