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Minireview: House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

Reynolds is a weird writer. Not in what he writes – it’s fairly straightforward modern huge-scale “space opera”, in the style of Iain M. Banks and others. Weird in that he seems to polarize opinions a lot, without any (to me) clear reason as to why that is. I love his books, as do many others. However, I know many people who more or less can’t stand his books. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but it’s something to do with his characters I think. Now, he has always been an “ideas writer” (and oh boy, what ideas), while his characterization has been at best “ok”. Like early Arthur C. Clarke, his characters tend to be fairly two-dimensional, and when he does try to make them more interesting the results can be mixed. Now, I’m ok with that, his ideas are just so good that I’m willing to forgive some bland characters – but maybe some other people are much more sensitive to that. Dunno.

In any case, Alastair Reynolds is one of the few modern-day writers who can elicit a true sense-of-wonder feeling in me. He writes in the large (huge!) scale, and is fascinated by concepts like Deep Time (what happens to civilizations and sometimes individuals when the time scales examined stretch to millions of years). A lot of his books go in the “transhumanist” genre, i.e. how much can humans adapt and change while still being “human” on some scale. It’s heady stuff. Well, to me at least.

His latest novel, House of Suns, is a worthy addition to his line of books. In fact, I’d rate it among his best works, if not quite the best. It’s set in its own universe, distinct from the “Revelation Space” books… probably. It could be argued that it might be set in the same universe, but due to the viewpoint in the book that does not really matter.

The story concerns an “illegitimate” couple, Campion and Purslane, who are decendants… or actually, clones of one Abigail Gentian. You see, way back when Abigail decided to clone herself into 1,000 copies and start wandering the universe at a spread-out “cloud” of “identical” people. She wasn’t the only one to do so, and these “Lines” form a galactic power block at the time the story takes place (which is millions of years after the first cloning). Millions in absolute terms anyway, though for the clones it has “only” been some tens of thousands of years of relativistic time. They are not immortal, but it’s close. Campion and Purslane are breaking one of Abigail’s original edicts by sleeping together, a taboo of sorts… and one they expect to get punished for, soon.

Every once in a long while, the whole Gentian Line meets up and exchanges memories and other things. The next meet is approaching. Campion and Purslane hurry to make the rendezvous but are sidetracked by… an event, which leaves them host to Hesperus, one of the Machine People. After that, they get a message, one that makes it clear that someone is trying to kill off the whole Gentian Line… and they are next.

After that, things get complicated. The story is interspesed here and there by Abigail’s memories, recounting hes childhood and events that made her make the leap into infinity.

It’s a great book, featuring Reynolds trademark immense time spans and lots of musing on what it may tak e for a civilization to survive in the long run. Modern-day humanity may imagine it’s been on the planet and “civilized” for ages now, but really, that time is a gnat’s eyeblink in galactic (or even “geological”) terms. How does one survive as a coherent civilization for 100,000 years? A million years? Ten million? Can you engineer a society for that? Must you?

The very end is maybe a tiny bit anticlimactic compared to the buildup, but at the same time it’s very fitting… so I can’t complain about it much.

People who already like Reynolds should love this. People who dislike his books won’t find anything here to change their minds, I suspect.

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