I finally managed to buy the latest Alastair Reynolds book. I was foiled back in 2007 while I was trying to get The Prefect in Taiwan. At the time, the book had only been published in the UK and my retailed didn’t managed to get a copy. In hindsight, I don’t know why I just used Amazon. I’ve been a fan of Reynolds ever since I picked up Redemption Ark in 2004. The thing that attracted me to that book was the cover. It had style and the font was really interesting. Funny how superficial things catch your eye.
This is a spoiler-less review of House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. No elements of the ending or specific elements of the main intrigue have been revealed.
I picked up the book on Thursday at about 11:15AM. I finished it at about 5PM on Friday. Strangely enough, I actually took my time reading it, otherwise I would have finished the book on Thursday.
As with other reviews, I agree that the parts of the narrative which center around Abigail Gentian in the Palatial game aren’t that great. But let’s backtrack a bit. The book centers on the Gentian Line, a posthuman race of clones that circle the galaxy and sell information and services to other human empires. The galaxy is devoid of other sentient life. The Gentian Line is part of the Commonality, a loose regrouping of other clone lines. Initially, the Gentian Line came from 999 clones of Abigail Gentian. This is the easy part. As with most of Reynolds other novels, he closely follows the norms of astrophysics, meaning that there is no faster than light travel.
The narrative takes place in the year 6.4 million. This is one of the rare novels that takes place so far in the future that’s it’s strangely liberating. The Milky Way is populated by different posthuman factions. Some choose to remain planetary bound, creating vast empires that rise and fall. These are called turnover civilisations, because they never last very long. Others, like the Gentian Line, took to the stars and made grand circuits of the galaxy, becoming immortal thanks to the large amounts of time that they spend frozen while travelling. All of the Gentian Line were cloned in the 31st century.
The Gentian Line sells its wares and technology to local civilizations. Gentians sell stardams, which are made to stop stars from going nova. They are constructed from ringworlds that were left in the Milky Way by the Priors, the civilization that populated the galaxy billions of years ago who have since left.
A few millions of years ago, the Andromeda galaxy became obscured in the skies. The galaxy is still there, but something is blocking light from it to the Milky Way. The Vigilance is a sort of meta-archive centered around a Dyson Swarm that has examined this mystery in detail for millions of years. A shatterling from the Gentian Line visited the Vigilance for information and this set in motion a series of events that leads to the destruction of the Gentian Line.
On the way to their fallback world, Campion and Purslane, the two protagonists of the novel, save Hesperus, a Machine Person from Machine Space. Machine People rarely mix with biologicals and are considered exotic when met by biologicals. Homonculus-guns were used to blast the Gentian reunion world. A reunion happens every circuit, every 200K years. These types of planet smashers have been outlawed for millions of years and the Marcellin Line was the one who was responsible of disposing of them.
The remnants of the Gentian Line meet at the fallback world of Neume and try to salvage what’s left of their line. They discover a strange house named House of Suns and uncover a strange conspiracy dating back millions of years.
The pace picks up considerably when the action leaves Neume for a stardam a few kilo-years away. Secrets are revealed, surprising ones and unsurprising ones.
I was initially blown away by this book. It’s as good as Pushing Ice. What’s really unique is that the action takes place a long time into the future. We are talking about more than 6 million years into the future. It’s amazing to think about what life would be like at that time.
I really liked this book. I liked the curators of the Vigilance and how they have evolved over a few million years. They experience time differently than baselines and posthumans.
The narrative is split between Campion, Purslane, and Abigail Gentian, the founder of the Gentian Line. The parts on Abigail are a bit dreary because she spent much of her time in a medievil fantasy game. Reynolds shouldn’t be writing fantasy, that’s for sure, because it didn’t really fit with the rest of the story.
Naturally, there are similarities with some of Reynolds’ previous books. The Silver Wings of Morning reminds me of the Nostalgia for Infinity. There is a race to arrive at the stardam, which is also a common element with some of his other novels. However, it’s the first time that Reynolds has tackled robots and machine intelligences in this fashion, and I was pleasantly surprised. It worked out well.
Once again, faster than light travel doesn’t really exist and aliens don’t really exist either. The galaxy is populated by various strains of humans and posthumans. Some have evolved to look like aliens, but in the end, they remain partly human. All of the civilizations are at different technological levels. Interstellar empires tend to fail since it because of the amount of time that it takes to travel between stars at sub-light speeds.
There are twists and turns, surprising revelations and plot details that are only revealed towards the end of the book which are surprising and make this a great read. As with other science-fiction books, it initially takes a few pages before you get familiar with the universe it is set in. Since this book takes places millions of years into the future, this could have been problematic, but Reynolds used the fact that the Lines didn’t evolve much over these years as a constant.
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