Across the kilo- years un­der light speed

House of Suns By Alastair Reynolds Gol­lanz, 480pp, $ 35

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams

NO one could ac­cuse Welsh science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds of think­ing small. While the genre is of­ten set decades or even cen­turies into the fu­ture, House of Suns takes place so far ahead that mem­o­ries of Earth no longer linger and the hu­man species has evolved into at least 13 new forms. Af­ter six mil­lion years, lit­tle is recog­nis­able, mak­ing the book an au­da­cious at­tempt to de­scribe not only the fu­ture but an en­tirely dif­fer­ent con­cep­tion of hu­man ex­is­tence.

House of Suns has an in­trigu­ing premise. What if peo­ple cloned them­selves a thou­sand times and launched their undy­ing copies, or shat­ter­lings, into dis­tant space, only to have them re­unite to share mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences ev­ery few hun­dred thou­sand years?

Cam­pion and Purslane are two of the shat­ter­lings of Abi­gail Gen­tian. Hav­ing em­barked on their latest cir­cuit of the Milky Way galaxy, they ar­rive late to their 32nd re­union, only to find that the Gen­tians have been am­bushed and their en­tire ex­is­tence is un­der threat. Most of the book is about un­rav­el­ling the lay­ers of de­ceit and me­mory to find out why the Gen­tian line is fac­ing ex­tinc­tion.

House of Suns is writ­ten on the grand­est of scales, with Reynolds dis­play­ing a vivid grasp of big con­cept science fiction. The book is set against a back­drop of civil­i­sa­tions ris­ing and fall­ing and the con­stant threat of con­flict with the Ma­chine Peo­ple, a sen­tient race of ro­bots. The events of the novel take place not over years but kilo- years. With the bar­rier to faster- thanlight travel still un­breached, the physics of rel­a­tiv­ity en­ables time to pass quickly as the space­ships of the shat­ter­lings approach close to light speed.

The con­cepts ex­plored in House of Suns are so far re­moved from our time, and even from much of the stan­dard fare of science fiction, that parts of the book border on fan­tasy. The story opens with a meet­ing be­tween the two Gen­tian shat­ter­lings and a hu­man evo­lu­tion­ary off­shoot that re­sem­bles cen­taurs. At an­other point the story in­cludes gar­gan­tuan hu­mans who have be­come the cu­ra­tors of the knowl­edge of the uni­verse. Parts of the book would be sim­ply ridicu­lous ex­cept for the qual­ity of the au­thor’s writ­ing and the in­tegrity of his vi­sion. It also helps that al­most any­thing be­comes be­liev­able af­ter the lapse of six mil­lion years. The book is set so far into the fu­ture that the only lim­its are the au­thor’s imag­i­na­tion and the read­ers’ will­ing­ness to sus­pend their dis­be­lief.

Cam­pion and Purslane travel the uni­verse like gods. They are un­moved by the mun­dane mat­ters of the civil­i­sa­tions they en­counter, and they are mostly mo­ti­vated by cu­rios­ity and a thirst for new knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter six mil­lion years, how­ever, any­thing must get bor­ing, and as our win­dow into this dis­tant fu­ture the two leads are strangely dis­con­nected from their sur­round­ings. Even the fact that Cam­pion and Purslane have bro­ken the ta­boos of the Gen­tian line by fall­ing in love gen­er­ates lit­tle heat. House of Suns works bril­liantly as a fan­tas­tic tour of a dis­tant fu­ture and as a re­mark­able ex­pres­sion of the au­thor’s imag­i­na­tion. The au­thor does carry off a story con­ceived on a scale rarely seen in science fiction.

The weak­nesses of the book re­late to some of the old sta­ples of novel writ­ing. While the pace picks up at the end, it starts too slowly and at times the plot me­an­ders. The novel may be filled with rich ideas, but nei­ther of the two leads com­pels in­ter­est and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them is un­der­de­vel­oped. It is a pity that th­ese as­pects of the book fail to achieve the same heights as the uni­verse in which it is set.

If you are ex­cited by the idea of a well- re­alised vi­sion of hu­man­ity set six mil­lion years into the fu­ture, this is the book for you. Science fiction nov­els are of­ten de­scribed as be­ing epic in scale, but this one takes the cake. Ge­orge Wil­liams is an afi­cionado of sci- fi and fan­tasy who dab­bles in con­sti­tu­tional law in his spare time.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.