Review: House of Suns

Alastair Reynolds has been both one of my favorite, and most hated authors. I tend to enjoy his one-shots more than his series, maybe because he doesn’t have time to write himself into a corner. So too with House of Suns, a book I neglected reading for over a year because I was so put off by Absolution Gap’s meandering nonsense.

Gladly, House of Suns returns to what I love about Reynolds’ writing. It’s told from one of three perspectives throughout, and while it’s a bit jarring between the transitions because it’s all written in the first person, it’s also an interesting technique. Abigail Gentian’s family owns and operates one of the most extensive cloning facilities available, and to follow a pressing sense of responsibility to explore, she clones herself one thousand times, hops on one thousand ships, and sets off. No matter where these ships go, they congregate after every trip around the galaxy to share what they’ve discovered. And like pretty much every single Novel by Reynolds, there is no superluminal transit; it’s all done at sub-light speed, even six million years after Abigail’s departure.

The reason provided is that the universe strives to preserve causality, as light can transmit information, and traveling faster than that, even through utilizing wormholes, would violate that fundamental law. Because Abigail’s offspring are effectively immortal, this doesn’t really present a problem, but it’s still irritating to imagine a future constrained to such relatively slow transportation. Yet partially because of time dilation and frequent bouts of stasis, the Gentian line has outlived effectively every other human civilization, which garners a certain amount of respect.

And at least this time, that’s not enough to save them. They’re under attack, and the tale of their bare survival in the aftermath is what this novel is really about. Purslane and Campion, the two other perspectives that convey the story, spend the first third of the book just getting to their reunion, but afterwards, it’s up to them to discover the source of the attack, and possibly prevent something even worse. All in all, it’s very straight-forward. What’s interesting is that even though I complained incessantly about how pointless Consider Phlebas was, the sense of discovery here disarms a very similar problem.

Presented on a canvas that covers literally millions of years, where one chapter alone advances the clock by sixty-two thousand years, I still didn’t get a sense of how tiny this event was. It was significant because all life in the galaxy was theoretically at risk, but insignificant thanks to the time-scale and the lack of lasting impact by all the transient blooms of human civilization. This tells me Iain M. Banks does something in his novels that Alastair Reynolds does not, and while I can’t quite put my finger on it, the disparity is quite stark.

Perhaps it’s because a narrative actually exists here. The way Hesperus was indispensable and yet incapacitated throughout, was a unique touch. The back-story for Valmik, a man who transformed his merely human existence into something much greater over his six-million years of tweaks. The only thing that really frustrated me was that Reynolds expects us to believe such a being can barely overcome a single Machine Person. It’s also transparent that while Reynolds writes hard sci-fi, he simultaneously disregards technology, treating it as a mere afterthought.

An example of this is the final approach of the Silver Wings, Purslane’s ship. Whether through accumulation of vast technologies or sheer momentum, it callously swats away attempts to stop its advance, obliterating entire fleets. The Gentian line is apparently only susceptible to nebulously foreboding Homunculus weapons—another creation he never justifies. Reynolds is all about mass, energy, speed, time dilation, and basically anything involving known physics, and tends to gloss over his own magical devices. It’s somewhat disappointing, but understandable considering his chosen genre.

In any case, I consider this novel a vindication of my faith in his work. It’s not much, but I like this kind of quiet, feasible storytelling on occasion.