Fiction Reviews

House of Suns

(2008) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 502pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08237-3


Just as physics and engineering were enabling the beginnings of interstellar travel, so new biology not only enabled cloning but memory transference. And so individuals from wealthy families exchanged expertise: they constructed fleets of close-to-speed-of-light ships and then crewed these with clones of the family heads. These ships went out into the Galaxy to bravely go . After some time the members (shatterlings) of a (clone) line would rendezvous periodically to exchange memories.

Abigail Gentian was the founder of the Gentian line of a thousand shatterlings. Two of these, Campion and Purslane, had fallen in love, something that was frowned upon by the line. As bad, they were currently late for the next line gathering. However on their way to the rendezvous system they get word that someone is out to eradicate the Gentian line. Could the reason behind this be something of which the giant dyson-cloud-like library called the Vigilance would have knowledge? Or was the Vigilance concerned more with the perplexing darkening of the Andromeda Galaxy? And what is the House of Suns?

Once again Alastair Reynolds has demonstrated that he is among those at the head of the pack, a World leading writer of hard SF space opera. That he has not (yet) won a Clarke, European SF, or a Hugo Award says huge amounts about the partisan nature of these baubles and nothing about them being true indicators of SF excellence. Needless to say House of Suns is a mind-stonking tour de force that is packed with sense of wonder, leaps of scale, and exotic concepts.

Downsides, well there are a few. Yes, this is hard SF but he pushes the science to the limits. Reynolds use of causality breakdown as a limit to FTL is a very specific (narrow) interpretation, as is his view of how things burn up in re-entry. Then there are male clones of females and vice-versa... Aside from the first, these examples of dodgy science are all surmountable with a few lines of explanation would that he had gone the extra yard for his scientist readers. However I can forgive him for this (just am annoyed he was a little sloppy) as the story is so enthralling and the backdrop universe so engaging. Less forgivable, in fact initially downright irritating, is his use of using different characters to occupy the first person driving different chapters' narrative. I presume this is to signify some sort of commonality between clones leading to a commonality of perspective: clearly Alastair does not have an identical twin sibling and in any case it soon becomes clear that the clones have nurture-drifted away from their common-nature origins as they have quite different characters. The problem is that when you come across this change of first-person perspective early on it does make you stop, go back and check that you are reading the novel correctly, and this most certainly gets in the way of enjoying the story's initial chapters.

Yet the vision presented in House of Suns, and the story itself, is totally absorbing. In fact this novel has so much going for it that it seems churlish to gripe at its flaws that really are so minor: other than the change of first-person, a non-scientist will be unaware of the physics and biological liberties, whereas a scientist will quickly work out how to get around most of them (which is exactly why it is irritating the author did not). In the end what we have is a wide-screen, space opera spectacular tale literally of galactic proportions. So if you have not yet cottoned on to Alastair Reynolds, and consider yourself a fan of space opera and hard SF, you are so urged to try him out that I cannot begin to recommend him sufficiently, save perhaps to say that he makes H. G. Wells seem a tad Victorian.

Jonathan Cowie

You can also see Tony's review of The House of Suns.

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