Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: House of Suns

House of Suns is Alastair Reynolds' latest science fiction novel, not set in any of his other universes. The book itself is written from three perspectives. The first, introduced right from the start, by Abigail Gentian, a girl born far in the novel's past, who is the progenitor of one of the great lines, the Gentians, who are composed of multiple cloned individuals (called Shatterlings) who explore and trade throughout the galaxy over eons, with only occasional gatherings to sync-up and exchange information with each other.

The other two perspectives are provided by Gentian shatterlings: Campion and Purslane, two companions and lovers who are on what seems to be a routine mission en route to one of the gatherings. Despite the shatterlings being clones, each seem to be individuated enough to have a distinct identity, and throughout the story we have no problem conceptualizing each shatterling as a distinct person and personality --- as the plot progresses, we get the distinct impression that Campion is impulsive and flighty, while Purslane is considered and pragmatic.

The universe that Reynolds' builds is intriguing. For one thing, almost all the sentient races encountered were once human, so his vision is one of humanity splitting itself (and experimenting on itself), rather than the multi-species cultural visions so prevalent in other science fiction. Another theme (common in many of Reynolds' novels) is that FTL travel does not exist in this milleu, and everything on a galactic scale takes a long time. I really enjoy this theme in particular, because the sense of scale it provides is immense --- Reynolds' really shows that the common theme of FTL travel is just a crutch for novelists who can't plot around it (we currently live in a relatively small world, but it used to be that voyages in sailing ships took a long time, and historical novelists like C.S. Forester had no problems building plots around that).

As the plot unfolds, we learn of one secret after another, including a mysterious line known as the House of Suns. Eventually, when the big reveal happen, we know enough about the universe to be surprised, but the logic behind the reveal is also sound --- Reynolds has left enough clues for the reader not to feel cheated. What I really like about the novel, however, is that even after the reveal, lots more happen, including a relativisitic chase and battles (and nothing that reprises anything else of Reynolds' I've read), as well as an AI/Robot war which I found readable and fascinating.

Unfortunately, Reynolds does write himself into a corner with this novel, and can only extricate himself through an almost literal Deux Ex Machina. I found the ending strangely unsatisfying, but perhaps if you liked the ending of 2001 (the movie, not the novel), you would also enjoy this ending.

Despite the disappointing (to me) ending, I still recommend House of Suns as an entertaining novel full of interesting ideas.
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