House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
12 May 2008
A few years ago, Alastair Reynolds wrote a short story about a man named John. The story was called "Understanding Space and Time", first appeared in the 2005 Novacon booklet, and was later reprinted in several Year's Bests. In the course of its pages, John sought to, well, understand space and time. To do so, and with the help of benevolent sentients from a godlike culture named the Kind, he became a crystalline entity, a galaxy-spanning intellect, and a large piano. His quest was measured in millennia. But ultimately Reynolds revealed that John really only wanted to understand himself, or at least wanted to do so just as much as he wanted to understand space and time. "I think it all makes sense," he says, to which his hyperadvanced benefactors respond: "That's the best you're going to give?"
Their disappointment, though palpable, is seen by Reynolds to be misplaced. Playfully, he references Elton John: "All this science I don't understand / It's just my job five days a week." There's a sense in Reynolds's work—"Zima Blue" would be another example—that, however much he has thought about the hard SF cores of his stories, they are not the be-all or the end-all for the characters that are subject to them. There's something human in these short stories and novellas that defies their Stapledonian scales.
If the joy of Reynolds's short work has been that eloquent focus, for this reader his novels have seemed fuzzier. Even his Revelation Space series has seemed to me unable to capture that heady buzz. House of Suns, his latest novel, is his third to be set outside that "franchise" universe, and follows on from a future first glimpsed in the novella "Thousandth Night" (2005). It features characters trying to discover knowledge of galaxy-shattering importance. But ultimately they are trying to discover themselves.
The first thing to note about House of Suns is that it is almost prototypical Reynolds: huge timespans, vast spatial distances, and no faster than light travel jostle with biological tinkering, a multistrand narrative, and creatively rigorous science. Immediately this opens the novel up to the usual criticisms made of Reynolds's particular brand of space opera: it is ponderous, portentous, and too far divorced from the empathetic. If Reynolds's focus has always been his characters, there are undoubtedly points when it becomes either absurd or dishonest to promote our empathy for immortal information gatherers the size of planetoids, golden robots with human arms, or genius-explorer clones operating on personal timelines so extended that they have witnessed thousands of cultures and societies rise and fall like Ferris wheels.
It is this latter group on which the novel focuses. We learn, through laudably gentle exposition, that the galaxy is home to a series of clone lines, each the legacy of a particular visionary of the distant period known as the Golden Hour. Each house has a particular talent and focus, their ships travelling through the galaxy whilst their occupants sleep in a variety of forms of stasis, never settling but instead remaining a space-bound culture. As such, they are above the fray of the continually shifting politics and existences of the various planetary societies—all ultimately human, though for the most part removed in one way or another from the baseline framework. Each is subject to what the clones call "turnover"—the inexorable process of one culture replacing another. Many planets are on their fourth, fifth, or sixth society, and the galaxy has seen many would-be superpowers dominate, decline, and then decay.
Against this rich backdrop, Reynolds sets his main story, which focuses on two clones of the Gentian line, offspring of Abigail Gentian's desire to seed the galaxy with her own line of long-lived explorers. The Gentians specialise in the containment of energies from unstable stars, a scientific secret that enables the line, also known as the House of Flowers, to prolong indefinitely the ability of a given system to support life. Campion and Purslane are conducting a romantic relationship against the rules of their house, and are both barely tolerated by the line's hierarchy. Each gets a chance to narrate, as does the original Abigail Gentian, whose experiences in childhood and early adolescence are interspersed with the main story, predating them by six million years. These segments in truth add little to the novel, other than chopping up the narrative so as to keep it tensely structured. At times, they even veer into the fairy-tale game she plays with a childhood friend. Thematically they perhaps also add some seasoning to the main narrative, but too little for us to think the effect could not have been achieved with less distraction elsewhere.
This structural weakness leads us to the troubled heart of Reynolds's novel. There is much to be said of it, but all must be said in the light of this simple truth: he does not handle multiple narratives well. That eloquent focus I wrote about earlier is his strength, the poetic unravelling of a single perspective or idea that is so suited to the short story form. In House of Suns, where more variety is called for, Abigail's voice sounds like Campion's sounds like Purslane's sounds like the dialogue of any other character. The only way to keep track of who is speaking, particularly in the often consecutive chapters narrated by the two clones, is to pick up clues in the text. As the action heats up to a point requiring a more graceful segue between perspectives, this ambiguity of voice gravely weakens the book.
"If you suppress a memory, it seems to me that two things can happen. The memory may stay repressed, absolutely closed to both conscious and unconscious recall. Or—and this is surely the more likely outcome—the memory finds expression elsewhere" (p. 452). Reynolds explores the ways in which information suppression twists the world and the personae of the people living in it, finding the flip-side expression of the joy of investigation for its own sake on show in John Renfrew's earlier search for a unifying theory. Campion and Purslane barrel through an engaging narrative featuring spaceships and laser guns that at times reads like a Star Wars spin-off, and as they do so they try to reveal to us how what we remember may not be what we should think.
They are let down by Reynolds's prose. It is only possible to talk about an individual's place in a big picture if one can write both. Unfortunately, Reynolds shows himself through the course of House of Suns to be a painter of panoramas par excellence, but at best a confused writer of people. In shorter stories, this problem of perspective is less noticeable—indeed, is less relevant. But in the novel, the ability to hold two characters apart from each other with language is a fundamentally necessary skill. Reynolds does not quite possess it if the switches in House of Suns are used as evidence. Merely changing the name of the narrator using the first person pronoun cannot count in the novel as an exploration of identity. It deflates any sense of personal psychology.
That game played by Abigail Gentian and her young friend is given to them after it is refitted from the immersive military training programme it once was. The first prototype was a little too immersive, Abigail is told. "The soldiers kept forgetting who they were in the real world, getting stuck inside the game" (p. 163). It may be that Reynolds is aiming at how interchangeable identities can be in a system that does not encourage independent thought, and that Campion and Purslane are deliberate echoes of themselves. But Reynolds's clones are seen to have differing personalities, appearances, and even genders. Indeed, it is the clones' multiplicity that causes many of their troubles. When he is waxing lyrical about the importance of individualism, then, Reynolds fails to make that of his characters sufficiently dynamic. In any novel, but particularly one founded on the discovery of selves, this is a critical and ultimately fatal weakness.
Still, Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce. In common with other writers taking their cue from the 1990s revival of space opera as a serious (even dominant) brand of science fiction, Reynolds leaves us uncomfortable with the costs of humanity surviving into and thriving in the far future. This is of course a trend dating back at least to the 1970s, but in particular Reynolds's multistring humanity is redolent of more recent writers from Dan Simmons (Hyperion, 1989) to M. John Harrison (Light, 2002), who reduce the triumph of humanity inherent in space opera to a sort of adaptation exercise, twisting baseline humanity into such unrecognisable shapes that the effort barely seems worth it. In this brand of space opera, humans have survived, but at a cost, and with little beyond that mere survival to show for it. Reynolds is particularly effective in establishing this sense of a universe far removed from our own, rescuing his at times melodramatic and fast-paced work from the pulpy traps into which many lesser writers still regularly fall.
Reynolds's interest in this new universe rests, then, in the ways in which it functions: the ways in which baseline humanity has reached out first from Earth and finally across the Milky Way, but also the many varieties of human life that might be spawned by the process. There is no Galactic Federation here, no sense of a wider human unity—merely nation states and empires writ large, struggling in the same old ways as ever, but against a broader canvas. Beyond them are the rare cultures that transcend turnover, from the indomitable Vigilance to the shadowy Rebirthers and Scapers. Parallel to these cultures lie the lines, who through their spacebound existence and endless travelling have "found an extension clause" (p. 180) to the inevitable mortality of almost all other societies.
To give away no more of the plot than the book's own blurb, House of Suns wreaks this mortality upon the Gentian line, leaving it by the end of the book with just 50 of its 800-plus members. Inevitably, at the heart of this destruction is a terrible secret on which rests the fate of the galaxy. Indeed, there are several layers of secrets at work, most of which take the form of an absence of some sort: Campion and Purslane tamper with their memories to hide their romance; their robot companion Hesperus has had his memory wiped; the houses are locked together in some form of collective amnesia, at a loss to explain the rumours of the House of Suns; and in the stars lies a capitalised Absence, the total darkness in the sky where Alpha Centauri was but is no longer.
House of Suns is thus a novel of exploration—of discovery and inquiry. Where John Renfew in "Understanding Space and Time" transformed his biological structures to discover the truth, the characters in Reynolds' latest work must burrow to the sacred centres of their ancient cultures and oldest assumptions. This is ultimately seen to be a personalising process: "There are people that matter more to me than the Gentian line," Campion at one point admits. "If I didn't realise that before, I realise it now" (p. 316). In short, the reclaiming of memory—of knowledge on whatever scale—is a sort of duty to the self, and the only healthy choice. Reynolds shows that any other option—any repression of truth—can only end in violence of one kind or another.
Problematising this simplistic reading is one of Reynolds's favourite issues, and here one of his most interestingly drawn—the impossibility of faster-than-light travel. He has gone on record as believing that FTL velocities are simply impossible, and, true to his "medium hard" science-fictional approach, refuses to allow it into his works, barring some rule-bending McGuffin such as wormholes. Several characters—particularly Abigail Gentian—agonise about this physical rule, finding it limiting and unfair. But, six million years after Gentian dies, humanity is still travelling the galaxy at sub-FTL speeds. The rule cannot be beat, by any level of exploration or inquiry. It can only be stretched, circumvented, or cheated. What this produces is a structured universe in which individuals may only wiggle for their room. But wiggle they must. The Machine Person Hesperus renounces his allegiance to his nation in the search for a higher principle, for instance, whilst Purslane and Campion's existences seem to be ones of constant rule-bending (the reader does begin to wonder how they might ever have survived this long in so rigorous an environment as a clone line).
There is no doubt that Reynolds is a writer with a talent for creation—several of the cultures on show in House of Suns, particularly the Vigilance and the clone lines themselves, are memorable and fascinating. But in failing to create differentiated people to populate them, Reynolds is unable to clear the final hurdle he sets himself. "Surprises are always good," Campion is told at the close of the novel. "It's what we live for, sentients like you and me."
The greatest surprise in House of Suns is that, for all his proselytizing of the personal, Reynolds, unlike his John Renfrew, fails to understand what exactly it is.