Sunday, January 27, 2013

House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds

A new year so time for an Alastair Reynolds review, albeit a bit later than usual. House of Suns is another one of Alastair Reynolds' standalone novels. There is short fiction loosely related to this universe but the novel reads just fine without having read that. As with just about everything Reynolds wrote he doesn't rule out doing another work in this universe but for now it seems his new Poseidon's Children trilogy and an upcoming Dr. Who novel are keeping him occupied. Like the other novels by Reynolds I've read it is a science fiction on a massive scale. In terms of showing us how large and strange the universe is, he takes his readers to new extremes in this novel and then ends it by showing us he's barely begun. The novel is stuffed with wonder of the galaxy and nearly unbelievable technology. In a way, it proves Arthur C. Clarke's overused statement that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Six million years in the future mankind has spread across the galaxy. Civilizations have risen and fallen and humanity is now a species with a very varied appearance. One of the very few stable factors in this constantly changing universe are the lines. Gentian Line is one of them, founded by Abigail Gentian who sent a thousand clones, or shatterlings, of herself into space to explore the galaxy. One every two hundred thousand years they meet to exchange their experiences. The shatterlings Purslane and Champion are on their way to the next reunion. Late and knowing they will be disciplined for 'consorting', something the Line frowns upon, they try to find a way to limit the damage. When they stop in a solar system no Gentian has visited in aeons, they stumble across Hesperus, one of the Machine People. He might just be their ticket out of this mess but as they approach the reunion system a distress call reaches them that will turn their universe upside down. After six million years, someone has decided to take Gentian Line down a peg.

This novel is not the first in which Reynolds explore the implications of the speed of light as a fundamental constant for human space travel. In the Revelation Space novels for instance, relativistic speeds, time dilation and story lines that stretch across decades are an important part of the plot. Here, he takes it just about as far as things will go. Shatterlings travel the universe just below the speed of light, spending a lot of their time in suspension. They may not have experienced the full six million years of their life, but they are old enough to have seen civilizations rise and fall many times over. They speak of years as we would of days and think nothing of not seeing each other for millennia. It's hard to wrap your head around sometimes.

The time scale of the story isn't the only think epic about it. Reynolds describes technologies to refuel suns running our of hydrogen, stardams capable of containing the energies released by a supernova and space ships capable of accelerations in excess of a thousand gees and still able to keep their human cargo alive. There are clones and artificial intelligences, humans in every conceivable shape and size. Humanity is capable of manipulating the galaxy on a huge scale. If you are a reader looking for that sense of wonder that characterized some of the best of the best of the golden age novels, then this will probably be to your liking. Fans of Reynolds' usually strong scientific underpinnings may find it contains a bit too much handwavium though.

The structure of the story is a bit more straightforward than some of his other novels. There is a limited number of points of view and the plot is focussed on unravelling the reasons behind Gentian Line's misfortune. It contains plenty of twists but nothing that distracts from the business at hand. The book read pretty quickly compared to some of Reynold's denser Revelation Space novels. Surprisingly quickly for a five hundred page novel even. It wasn't quite what I was expecting but it was definitely a fun read. The previous novel I'd read by Reynolds, Pushing Ice, published in 2007, was marred by an unlikely plot and characters that generally made very little sense. This story may be equally unlikely but manages to keep my suspension of disbelief intact.

I do think that Reynolds packed perhaps a bit too much ideas into this volume though. The implications of most things we see are usually only glimpsed at. He simply doesn't have enough space in this book to properly explore them. The pace of the story simply won't allow it. I find myself torn between the sheer enjoyment on being dragged along with the story and the nagging voice telling me Reynolds is glossing over the details. It is a much smoother read than some of his earlier novels but in the process, it has lost some of what I liked about those as well. It is an intriguing novel and a thoroughly absorbing read, but when you get right down to it, there is quite a bit of unfulfilled potential in the book as well. Personally, I can't entirely shake that feeling and completely lose myself in the book. House of Suns is entertaining, thrilling even, but not all it might have been. For the fan of space opera, it is still a very fine read however. One I would definitely recommend to fans of the sub genre.

Book Details
Title: House of Suns
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 502
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08237-3
First published: 2008