In just about a decade, Alastair Reynolds has become one of the preeminent writers in the new British SF/New Space Opera. Many of his novels take place within a shared universe begun with the novel Revelation Space . His novels and stories have won major awards, including the British Science Fiction Award, and been nominated for others, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Reynolds’s fiction is marked by a combination of darkness, big ideas, and society on a galactic scale. House of Suns is no exception, with the far-far future setting more than six million years in the future, which is the same universe as his terrific story Thousandth Night originally published in One Million A.D.
The descendants of humanity, specifically the clones or ‘shatterlings’ (of both sex) of Abigal Gentian, known throughout the universe as both the Gential Line and the House of Flowers are set to meet in one of their 200,000-year reunions when the reunion is sent asunder by a hostile attack. Luckily, two of the clones (Campion and Purslane) who have fallen in love were delayed and are among the very slim number of shatterlings of the Gential line not destroyed. In their delay, they contact a somewhat disreputable broker named Ateshga, who they hope can sell them a ship upgrade in order to arrive at the reunion party with plenty of time to spare in the 1,000 day celebration. This of course does not go according to plan since Atheshga tries to sabatoge Campion and Purslane. However, the two shatterlings turn the tables and get their ship upgraded and secure the freedom of Hesperus, a robot and member of the ‘Machine People.’
By the time Campion, Purslane, and Hesperus get close to the reunion point they receive message of the attack. The three manage to find some remnants of the Gentian line as well as two other members of the Machine People (Cadence and Cascade) and set out to discover the source of their attack. As events play out, the House of Suns, a mysterious sect who holds great power but whose roots are veiled in the great swath of human and pre-human history is revealed to be a powerful group with goals of subterfuge and obfuscating history.
Framing each chapter is another narrative strand, the story of Abigail Gentian herself. Reynolds gives snapshots of her life at various important points in her life, telling of her childhood and the knowledge that eventually brought her out of childhood. While this worked to give the broad sense of history Reynolds showcased in the narrative, it could easily work as a short story. I was also reminded a bit of the framing narrative device Peter F. Hamilton is employing in his Void Trilogy.
Telling two narratives isn’t Reynolds’s only storytelling trick in this engaging novel – each narrative point of view in the Campion and Purslane era of the novel is told in the first person. Some chapters we hear Campion’s thoughts and others Purslane’s. Initially, it is a bit awkward, but it was eventually less jarring to determine which of the two shatterlings was telling the story. As a storytelling experiment it worked very well in the end – it helped to differentiate the two clones and give them a unique personality. The framing story worked pretty well, too.
Since this is an Alastair Reynolds novel, one would expect some big-ideas and one would not be let down. Set millions of years in the future, ample time has passed in the galaxy for humanity to evolve and join the greater universal civilization. And what a civilization it is. Some scenes worked really well to show off a grittiness of the future, that there are still scrupulous creatures willing to make a hazy deal. Conversely, the ideals of love haven’t changed too much – certain love is embraced and other love is shunned and looked down upon. On the other, the great leaps of time that take place in Reynolds human history as well as the characters lives showcases how far humanity has evolved in this novel.
The sheer scale of intelligent civilization in this universe is mind-boggling. Perhaps most fascinating are the Machine People and the Machines who preceded them thousands of years before the events in even Abigail Gentian’s time. On the other hand, that sense of time, that tens of thousands of years can pass so effortlessly in these characters lives really adds to the sense of wonder for which Reynolds is so well known. These themes are handled with an expert’s care in Reynolds’s assured storytelling ability.
The only minor issue I had with the book was the somewhat slow start and jarring narrative switches between Purslane and Campion. The enormous sense of time in which this story takes places and to which its characters refer, as well as Reynolds Gravitas in pulling it off far outweighed those minor problems. House of Suns is a staggering novel of wonder, big ideas, storytelling and awe – what I would point to when somebody asked me to name a book that has everything great Science Fiction has to offer. If this book doesn’t get on the final ballot for the major genre awards it will be a major oversight.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford