It’s finally happened – I have actually reviewed a full length Alastair Reynolds novel. Why has it taken me this long, seeing as my Twitter profile has gradually (over the last year or so) morphed into an Alastair Reynolds fan account? Simply put, it’s because everything else I’ve read (that wasn’t a novella) has been set in his Revelation Space universe, making much of it difficult – or even impossible – to discuss without extensive spoilers, or contextualising that would take up as much space as the review itself. House of Suns, however, is a standalone, as well as often being touted as Reynolds’ best novel. But what’s it all about, and what did I make of it? Read on to find out!
Campion and Purslane are shatterlings, two of the thousand clones making up an ancient house, their lifespans stretching millions of years from the dawn of the human starfaring era. Facets of Abigail Gentian, they are forbidden from consorting, but consort they most definitely have. What’s more, they are due to be very, very tardy to the next Gentian Line reunion, at which memories and experiences will be shared among their fellows over the course of 1000 nights. Through pure chance, they might just be able to avoid censure thanks to the presence of an esteemed guest – Hesperus, a member of the galaxy’s other great meta-civilization, the Machine People. But Campion and Purslane’s indiscretions will soon pale into insignificance, for someone has decided that Gentian Line must be expunged from the galaxy, prompting a desperate flight across the galaxy in a bid for survival.
Taking place in a future so very distant from our own present allows Reynolds a great deal of leeway when it comes to the science at play. There’s still the same rigorous application of physics that you would expect from his particular brand of hard science fiction, but given that the initial cloning of the various scions that make up the multiple different Lines takes place in our distant future, the following six million years only serve to place the setting even further beyond our normal frames of reference. Post-human intelligences and the Machine People still have their grounding in science, but there’s an almost Golden Age of Science Fiction feeling to elements of the world building – not quite comforting and cosy, but certainly less grim than the Revelation Space sequence and its spin-offs, and slightly less tied down by bothersome reality.
What this does mean is that there is less explanation for certain elements than you might expect. The Machine People, as a species, are already some four million years old by the time we meet Hesperus, and Reynolds is not interested in getting bogged down in explaining how they came to exist, preferring instead to arrange all his pieces on the board and just let them interact with each other rather than expounding on how they all got there. This is an approach that works well, and is obviously quite freeing for Reynolds – he gets to sprinkle the astrophysics liberally across a boundlessly imaginative sandbox, essentially. When I say boundlessly imaginative, I really mean it too. It would be a shame to spoil any of the treats within for those who haven’t read House of Suns, but Campion’s encounter with The Vigilance, the entities that hunger for the universe’s data, is an early highlight, and one of many.
Campion and Purslane themselves are also easily some of the most likeable characters I’ve come across in Reynolds’ body of work so far. Their relationship could be seen as problematic, of course, and certainly would be by their fellow shatterlings (is it incestuous to sleep with a fellow clone, or the ultimate act of narcissism?) but their concern for one another is genuinely heartwarming. They, like all other members of Gentian Line, are distinct too. All remember the upbringing of Abigail, their progenitor, in the mysterious, constantly-under-construction house of her childhood, as well as her time spent within the simulated world of Palatial (snippets of which we see in between parts of the main story). But after this identical starting point, they have their own lives and experiences. They aren’t a massively divergent bunch, but millenia of wildly differing adventures and interactions have clearly left their impressions on every member of the Line. Campion, for example, is very much a seat-of-the-pants type person, much to Purslane’s good natured annoyance. Physically, too, the different members of the Line are varied, sharing what could be mistaken for a family resemblance but not completely identical to one another. Whilst other members of the Line don’t really get the same level of characterisation as Campion, Purslane and Hesperus, this core trio have more than enough charm and personality to get you personally invested in their fates.
Dealing with the epic timescales typical of his work and featuring likeable characters, huge ideas and underpinned with plenty of the nitty gritty science stuff, it’s easy to see why so many call House of Suns Reynolds’ best work. Does it take that lofty position for me? Well, I can’t say yet, I haven’t read everything he’s done (though with nine of his books read since January 2021, I’m making good progress on that goal). It’s certainly up near the top though, and an easy recommendation for anyone looking to get into Reynolds’ work who might be wary of starting with a series.
House of Suns is published by Gollancz.