House of Suns: Truly epic time scales, but characters also shine

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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds science fiction book reviewsHouse of Suns by Alastair Reynolds science fiction book reviewsHouse of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

This is the first Alastair Reynolds’ book I’ve read not set in his REVELATION SPACE series, and many of his fans claim House of Suns (2008) is his best book. I’d have to say it is pretty impressive, dealing with deep time scales rarely seen for any but the most epic hard SF books. What’s unique about House of Suns is not simply that the story spans hundreds of thousands of years, but that the characters actually live through these massive cycles as they loop around the Milky Way galaxy, experiencing everything it has to offer. It staggers the imagination to think that humanity has survived over 6 million years into the future without annihilating itself, splintered into myriad post-human civilizations that flower and fade with each galactic cycle. It’s a scale and perspective that has only been topped by the seminal works of Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). This quote conveys it well:

I had already seen dozens of empires come and go, blossoming and fading like lilies on a pond, over and over, seasons without end. Many of those empires were benevolent and welcoming, but others were inimical to all outside influences. It made no difference to their longevity. The kind empires withered and waned as quickly as the hostile ones. 

Yet unlike Olaf Stapledon (whose books literally have no characters), House of Suns is firmly focused on two main timelines and three main characters, which is something some space operas eschew in favor of an barrage of characters and intertwined storylines so dense that no reader can make sense of it.

The earlier timeline is the story of Abigail Gentian, the founder of the Gentian Line of “shatterlings” that are essentially near-immortal clones of her, both male and female. By sending her shatterlings across the galaxy in search of other intelligent life and the mysteries of deep space, she succeeds in creating an enduring collective consciousness that shares its knowledge and experiences each time the shatterlings make a circuit of the galaxy every 200,000 years.

House of Suns by Alastair ReynoldsThe second timeline is set six million years in the future, and centers on the meeting of the Gentian Line after a galactic circuit. There is a grand family reunion planned, but before arriving at it, two shatterlings named Campion and Purslane discover that an ambush by unknown assailants has wiped out most of their Line. They try to rescue any survivors but come under attack themselves. With the help of a machine being named Hesperus, they manage to escape with a few other shatterlings to a world named Neume, but that is just the beginning of their adventures.

House of Suns alternates between the two timelines, slowly revealing how the Gentian Line was formed by Abigail six million years ago, and the current search to understand who has targeted the Gentian Line and why. There are a lot of far-future detective elements, some epic battles, and the longest chase scene since Redemption Ark. By long, I don’t mean in page count, but rather spanning 60,000 light years. That’s a long time to pursue any adversary! The plot is complex but not overly-so, for which I was grateful. In fact, the relationship of Campion and Purslane is surprisingly poignant for a hard SF epic, and I grew to like them and their machine companion Hesperus. There is also a fascinating post-human intelligence known as The Spirit of the Air which plays a big role in the final acts, along with the “disappearance” of the Andromeda Galaxy. The final third of House of Suns is a series of ever-expanding reveals that are pretty mind-blowing, and best of all, the ending actual seemed plausible and was not just a massive battle in space as often happens. It was a more philosophical approach than I had expected, and moving as well.

Overall, I think the tone of House of Suns was much more hopeful and less darkly baroque than the REVELATION SPACE series, and might serve as a better introduction to Reynolds’ work. As always, the audiobook is narrated by the venerable John Lee.

Published in 2008. A spectacular, large-scale space opera – the ultimate galaxy-spanning adventure 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.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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