My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds (I’ll be saying that a lot in the course of these Clarke Award posts, as I haven’t read any novels by four of the other authors on the shortlist, and the sixth author I read such a long time ago that I don’t really remember my opinion of the book), and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.
House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ‘shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation).
We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ‘strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change.
The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty).
Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’.
But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well.
However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading.