Science fiction and fantasy                                            

House Of Suns

by Alastair Reynolds


There's a good reason science fiction writers seldom venture further than few millennia from the present. Tens of thousands of years into the future we start to lose our frame of reference. Humans may have evolved to become unrecognisable. It takes a daring author (or a foolish one) to tackle a story that extends millions of years into the future and spanning a vast galaxy. And it takes a brilliant one to make such a story believable.

Unfortunately Alastair Reynolds doesn't seem to be up to the task, at least at first. House of Suns begins with two threads, separated by six million years. Abigail Gentian is the lonely yet rich girl, living through an extended childhood in a vast house. Purslane and Campion are her starfaring clones, exploring the galaxy in the far future.

Within the first few chapters Reynolds introduces a host of oddities, from civilisations of centaurs to an enormous creature who has to swallow Campion in order to communicate better. All of this is told from the point of view of immortals who carry the memories of thousands of others. These imaginative creations, coupled with the staggering timescales involved, make House of Suns quite a disorienting read. A lot of strange things happen to strange beings in strange places. Readers could be forgiven for wondering what any of it has to do with them.

However the writing improves from Part Two onwards, as the basic humanity of the main characters becomes more apparent. Campion and Purslane are waylaid, and they're about to be decades late for Gentian Line's reunion. This is a big deal, because it's when hundreds of their clones, or shatterlings, get together to share memories before departing to tour the galaxy for tens of thousands of years. As if their tardiness wasn't bad enough, the two of them have had the temerity to fall in love. This is considered taboo amongst shatterlings.

In their wanderings they have picked up an amnesiac robot called Hesperus. They hope he will somehow save them from censure. But when they finally arrive at their destination they find a distress signal that changes everything. Then Gentians are under attack.

This is when the story gets interesting, as Campion and Purslane race to discover who wants to destroy Gentian Line, and why. At the same time they're trying to figure out the mystery of Hesperus, and whether or not the robot is benevolent. The pace quickens and House of Suns starts to look more like a conventional space thriller, albeit on a massive timescale.

Abigail Gentian's early life story is told throughout, alternating with Campion and Purslane's narrative. This explains how the Lines began as well as a few things about the way the clones share memories. But it's largely an aside to the main plot, and slightly less gripping.

This novel works well as a mystery, largely because it's quite complex. But it's this same complexity that makes it seem a little too abstract and alien. There comes a point in science fiction when the unusual and the immense stops being a source of wonder and simply becomes background colour, like some kind of weird wallpaper. If a new alien race arrived in Tewkesbury it would be considered shocking, but when a new one is introduced in Star Wars no-one bats and eyelid. In that sense House of Suns is like Star Wars cubed. It's so full of varied civilisations, high technology and the wonders of space that after a while it loses its shine. The characters are overshadowed by all of the interstellar spectacle, and as a result the ending is less moving than the author seems to have intended. If you like a good mystery coupled with fast-paced interstellar freakery this book might suffice, but don't expect much in the way of character development or real-life relevance.

Book Details

Year: 2008

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson