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Thursday, May 15, 2008

"House of Suns" by Alastair Reynolds

Order “House of SunsHERE
Read Excerpts HERE + HERE
Read Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist’s Interview with Alastair Reynolds HERE

Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu:

INTRODUCTION: After two brilliant novels at the beginning of his career—Revelation Space and Chasm CityMr. Reynolds' novels became either incomplete or showing flashes of brilliance combined with some forgettable run-of-the-mill action. Those novels were still very good, but I always thought they could be so much better considering the sense of wonder packed into them. His short stories and novellas showed an extraordinary brilliance and I've wondered if he would ever write a novel commensurate with them. “House of Suns” is that novel.

SETTING: Based on the “Thousandth Night” novella published in the
SFBC 1M AD anthology, with the same universe and characters, though different action, the story takes place in a mostly human dominated Galaxy six million years in the future, with everything allowed by our current state of the art science, so no causality busting, meaning no ftl. But we have matter replicators, moving planets out of danger, Dyson spheres, cloning, intelligent robots, immortality, damming stars and much, much more. Almost anything conceivable today that stays within the limits of our physical understanding of the Universe is there.

CLASSIFICATION:House of Suns” is epic space opera on a large scale but with characters you can identify with, hard sf with no short cuts that are not allowed by what we know today, and a touch of fantasy and romance to complete it. There is a princess, a wizard, an evil half-brother, and a medieval setting in a subplot as many current space operas seem to require, but the books still remains hard sf through and through.

FORMAT/INFO:House of Suns” stands at 473 pages divided into eight parts and 41 chapters. Each chapter alternates first person present tense with occasional recollections narrative from one of the two shatterlings / illicit lovers Campion and Purslane. Each part has a small unnumbered introductive chapter in which Abigail, the original Gentian, narrates. These special chapters take place several thousands of years in our future, so millions of years in the novel past, when humanity lived in the Solar System only—in the Golden Hour which is a literal name—and the shatterling project originated. The book is a standalone but there is scope for a sequel.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: Civilizations rise and fall, but towering over them are the Lines, groupings of originally 1000 immortal shatterlings—though in time some are lost to attrition—all clones of a single person to start with, so it was like the original person shattered in 1000 bodies and then were set free in the Galaxy, hence the names. They have the most advanced ships, tech, and go on Circuits around the Galaxy, meeting once every 200k years to mix their memories. Of course travel being sub-light, they spend most of their time in stasis or slow-time—they can and do slow time at will with “syncromesh”—so of those six million years each shatterling may live several tens of thousands, bookworms tunneling through the pages of history as they are called by entities that actually lived through millions of years, though at a slow pace.

The shatterlings appear almost as benevolent gods to the “turnover” civilizations of the Galaxy and they trade and do good works like preventing stars from going supernova or moving planets out of harm's way. Outside of human civilizations, of which we get to see several, there are The Machine People, a robotic race arisen relatively recently—about one million years ago—that is quite respected and somewhat feared as the Lines are for having long memories and no tolerance of attacks on its members.

Our main characters and narrators, Campion and Purslane, are shatterlings of the Gentian Line which is also known as the House of Flowers. Campion is brash and just on the right side of censure for various actions or inactions; Purslane has the best ship of the Gentian line and she is patient and determined, making a good match with Campion though their liaison could lead to censure, and worse if acknowledged since the shatterlings are supposed to go alone on their circuits and not form bonds. Kind of like a future version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy inside the Lines.

Purslane and Campion, on their way to the next Gentian reunion and preparing to falsify their memories to remove the traces of their liaison before dumping them in the common mix, stop by an obscure planet to fix a stardam put in place to prevent a supernova extinction of the local civilization. Being late to the meeting, they detour to fix Campion's ship, and in the process rescue a strange robot of the machine people—Hesperus—who is missing memories. Finally on their way to the reunion, they get a very disturbing message and the adventure begins. Someone is set to eradicate the Gentian Line and it has to do with something that Campion learned on his previous circuit and dumped in the common memory 200k years ago. And there is an unknown and mysterious presumed Line, House of Suns, that is involved in all of this. Historical weapons of enormous power—the Homunculus guns—supposedly destroyed ages ago by their custodial Line, the Marcellin Line, which as we learn from the Abigail story is the first line, the Gentian being the second, are loose in the galaxy again and turned on the Gentian ships. More mundane weapons like star-flame throwers—hook a wormhole to a star and open it light years away in another system, useless for ftl since anything going through is scrambled into constituent parts, but useful for reigniting old stars or for general purpose weapons—are used too.

The Gentian survivors are determined to get to the bottom of the matter and when two more machine people, Cadence and Cascade, become involved, Campion and Purslane are thrust in the main action.

The Abigail interludes are very interesting, providing both backstory and character development as well as the fantasy subplot. They are a bit confusing at first, but they illuminate the story a lot more the further you get into it.

The ending is fulfilling, leaving space for a sequel if the author desires, but completing the story very nicely.

If there is a simple way to describe this book, it is imagination running loose, but keeping a human side with interesting and well delineated characters, and even the best romance in Mr. Reynolds' novels.

Highly, highly recommended…


vanhookc said...

With the last page, I wanted more or perhaps to read it again! It feels as though this book offers a formula for world peace. And to think this story is told through the eyes of an alien! Character emotions and interactions simply blossom and flame, from chapter to chapter. Meyers has the reader feeling like these characters are all family, good and bad, but all accepted for who they are! It was hard to put the book down. What a phenomenal read!


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