House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Others have covered the plotline and central conceits of the novel very well, so I will forbear. The plot is excellent, as are the ideas. What sets House of Suns far apart from other space operas is the sheer scope and scale of the thing and the fact that the immensity of it all does not drown the beautiful humanity displayed by the main characters, Campion and Purslane, two clones of the Gentian line who have been illicitly involved in a forbidden relationship with one another.
When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the game Traveller (I still am . . . a kid and a fan). One of the constraints of the game was that any given planet could have a "technology level" that indicated how far technology had advanced on that planet, whether from native growth or from outside colonists. The entries for very advanced tech levels were rather obtuse and never really given much detail as to how the technology worked or what it enabled. It was all extremely vague.
House of Suns posits, in the beginning, technology beyond many of the most forward thinkers' wildest imaginations. His science is very clear (he is, by training, an astrophysicist) and well-justified, and he clearly articulates concepts and technologies where other writers resort to hand-waving. In the end, though, Reynolds makes it clear that he has only scratched the surface.
I'm also familiar with relativity and am fairly comfortable, as a historian, with the concept of "Longue Duree" history. Time is vast, more vast than we can comprehend. And faced with concepts and events that span long stretches of millennia, the human mind tends to withdraw, to recoil, at the mere thought of too much time.
Reynolds somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how, eases the reader into the comfort zone where years pass in a sentence, and the reader doesn't feel that anything was missed. He also guides the reader to understand the immense timescales that these characters deal with (many of them are millions of years old) without being boring or redundant. Yes, some of this is done with the technology of stasis cabinets and "Synchromesh," a time-altering drug that allows the subject to speed up or slow down their mind and body to match another who is phased out of "real" time. But these technologies are not abused by the writer, and they make perfect sense, given their use in various situations. No, Reynolds, because he is so excellent at pacing the novel, makes it feel perfectly reasonable that, for example, a deep-space chase scene should take thousands of years or that a character can live for millions of years without becoming cosmically bored out of her skull.
Partly, he does this by helping the reader connect to the human feelings that his characters feel, which would be similar regardless of how long one had been around or how far the future extended ahead of them. This conversation between Purslane (the narrator, at this point) and her companion Campion, is telling:
After a silence, Campion said, "You knwo what I keep coming back to? We'd never have visited this world unless something bad had happened to us. Never have heard those singing sands, seen this beautiful city . . .We might have travelled here eventually, I know, but it wouldn't be Neume the way it is now. We'd probably be seeing it half a dozen civilisations down the line, when the Ymirians will just be a memory."
I drank the wine, wantint it to go to my head as quickly as possible. "If you're trying to see good in this, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to make that leap."
"I'm just saying . . . it's a strange universe. It can still surprise us. That's why it's worth carrying on, I suppose. If I felt that all we were doing was reliving a fixed set of experiences in different permutations-"
"That wouldn't be so bad, if those experiences were pleasant ones. Do you ever get tired of sunsets?"
"No," Campion said.
"Do you ever get tired of waterfalls, or beaches?"
"Then there's always hope for us."
This is the kind of human beauty anyone can relate to, in a relativistic way or otherwise.
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