BOOK REVIEW House of Suns
Author: Alastair Reynolds
512 pages • £18.99 (hardback)
There’s long been a fascinating tension at the centre of Al Reynolds’s writing. It goes something like this: Reynolds, a former astronomer with the European Space Agency, is a hard SF novelist whose work has the rigour and science smarts of Stephen Baxter. Yet he’s also a man with considerable flare for the grotesque, a keen admirer of China Miéville.
It’s arguably this combination that made his Revelation Space novels so memorable. This was space opera with – to use a term we usually avoid, if only because nobody can quite decide whether it’s a mickey-taking description – a New Weird sensibility. Or maybe it was cyberpunk-infused space fiction with a postmodern twist. Whatever, it was seriously cool. And maybe it’s this that’s caused Al Reynolds’s inner nerd, the kid who watched Thunderbirds, to rebel so spectacularly this time around.
Well, that’s one way to explain the radical shift in style that Reynolds has embarked upon with House of Suns. Largely gone – with the notable exception of a gruesomely memorable expedition into slice-and-dice torture-cum-interrogation for old time’s sake – are the gothic flourishes. Instead, we’re offered a whole new timeline based around the idea that most civilisations simply can’t survive their space ages. But as different societies rise and fall, there are ways to endure…
Having been born in the Golden Hour, an era when humanity is still in the ascendancy, Abigail Gentian splits herself into a thousand clones. These clones or “shatterlings”, collectively known as the Gentian line, travel the galaxy over the millennia in slower-than-lightspeed starships, meeting every few thousand years for reunion parties of gargantuan proportions, where they share experiences and knowledge. But at the 32nd reunion, the Gentian line is ruthlessly attacked. Why? Two rebellious shatterlings, Campion and Purslane, along with Hesperus the golden robot, may hold the key to discovering why the attack was initiated.
In previous years, Reynolds would have laced such a plot with sentient missiles or some such. Not any more. Instead, he nods back to SF’s rich history. The noble yet slightly scary Hesperus, for example, could be straight out of Asimov’s “Robot” stories. In addition, Reynolds’s debt to Larry Niven has never seemed more obvious, and that’s before you come across the first “Ring World” reference.
Don’t let that fool you into thinking Reynolds is somehow regressing; it’s more that he seems to have jettisoned baggage that was beginning to hold him back. Of course, there’s an obvious danger here: nodding back to SF’s past could be a nostalgic, even conservative move. What’s striking, though, is that after years of reading about anti-heroes who would wear black leather in a vacuum were it a practical spacesuit material, Reynolds’s approach seems new, exciting, vibrant.
On the downside, he tries to pack too much in, leading to some conversations late on in the book that seem solely designed to fill in plotholes. But while that’s moderately disappointing, the book’s final revelations are near-perfectly judged, based around the running theme of how different spacefaring races might learn to communicate and overcome mutual suspicion (always a resonant theme during interesting times, such as those we’re living through now…). Reynolds’s conclusion to this conundrum, one that makes House of Suns a kind of first cousin to Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, is cautiously optimistic. Ultimately it’s this that gives his novel real heart and soul – an infinitely rarer commodity than any amount of self-consciously insouciant cool.