Across the kilo- years under light speed
House of Suns By Alastair Reynolds Gollanz, 480pp, $ 35
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.