Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
Published: Gollancz, 2008
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“Six million years ago, at the very dawn of the starfaring era, Abigail Gentian fractured herself into a thousand male and female clones: the shatterlings. Sent out into the galaxy, these shatterlings have stood aloof as they document the rise and fall of countless human empires. They meet every two hundred thousand years, to exchange news and memories of their travels with their siblings. Campion and Purslane are not only late for their thirty-second reunion, but they have brought along an amnesiac golden robot for a guest.

But the wayward shatterlings get more than the scolding they expect: they face the discovery that someone has a very serious grudge against the Gentian line, and there is a very real possibility of traitors in their midst. The surviving shatterlings have to dodge exotic weapons while they regroup to try to solve the mystery of who is persecuting them, and why - before their ancient line is wiped out of existence, forever.” ~WWEnd.com

It might be impossible to guess from this blog, but I love Alastair Reynolds’s work.  I’m a huge fan of space opera in general, and it seems like Reynolds’s novels and short fiction always hit the right buttons for me.  Since his debut Revelation Space, I’d been quickly picking up each new release as soon as it came out.  Then, my reading habits were completely derailed by graduate school, and after I started this blog I somehow never had the energy to tackle the growing backlist.  I just finished reading my signed copy of House of Suns, and I have purchased copies of Terminal World and Blue Remembered Earth, so I think I’m finally ready to catch up!

My Thoughts:
House of Suns stretches across a wider canvas--both in time and space--than some of the other works I’ve read by Reynolds.  The shatterling main characters provide a kind of connection to human experience while simultaneously introducing a way of living that is much stranger.  They think nothing of journeys that could take tens of thousands of years, and speak casually about the rise and fall of starfaring civilizations.  With generally little to worry about in terms of resources, the purpose of their lives seems to be to experience and observe as much of the universe as possible.  Luckily, Purslane and Campion make this wide view relatable by giving weight to smaller-scale interpersonal issues: the people they like or dislike among the other shatterlings and their taboo romantic inclinations towards each other.  The ‘amnesiac golden robot’, Hesperus, is another major character that allows for emotional connection in a story set on such a large scale.  Some characters’ distrust of him and the ambiguity about his motives kept me engaged with the early story, and I was surprised by how this tied into the final reveal of the novel’s central mystery.

The story was further grounded by the intermission story of Abigail Gentian’s childhood, which eventually detailed the origins of Gentian line.  I did not pick up on the full purpose of this interlude until after I’d finished the novel, but I appreciated how it tied the identity of the shatterlings back to a more conventional human existence.  In general, I enjoyed how the novel explored the idea of self and consciousness through dramatic changes in state of being.  The shattering of Abigail Gentian’s personality is only one example--other ideas include machine intelligence and the history of the distributed consciousness of the Spirit of the Air. It was interesting to think how people with different capabilities or technology would circumvent mortality, and how they would cope with the increasing burden of memories beyond the span of an ordinary human life.

Past these introspective thoughts, the novel was also full of many big ideas that gave the story a delightful sense of wonder.  From the Vigilance to the idea of stardams, from time-manipulating technologies to chilling interrogation techniques, it seemed like there was always something new to think about.  This creativity helped to keep me interested in the universe while the main plot was progressing slowly. When the central mystery of the story eventually emerged, I thought it was well worth the long build-up. It was refreshing to read a novel where I couldn’t really tell where the story was heading, and I was satisfied with how everything came together. This ranks as one of my favorites from Alastair Reynolds, up near Chasm City.

My Rating: 5/5

It has been too long since I’ve read a novel by Alastair Reynolds, and House of Suns was an excellent first novel back.  It balances a story that spans hundreds of thousands of years and huge distances in space with characters that are easily relatable despite the drastic differences between their existence and ours.  I loved the big ideas, particularly those exploring different forms of consciousness, and the creative future technology. The pace of the story was sometimes a bit slow and meandering, but I really enjoyed the direction it took and the revelations later in the story.  This is one of my favorite of Reynolds’ novels, and I’m looking forward to reading the others I have missed!  

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