Sought escape in the far future and looked to Alastair Reynolds for the means. Was Not Disappointed. “House Of Suns” is yet another barnstorming performance from the man who, over the last 12 months or so, has become my favourite modern SF novelist.
We follow, in alternating chapters, Campion and Purslane, two “shatterlings” – clones of one Abigail Gentian – making their way home to a reunion of their family line. They stop off to upgrade their ship (handy, for what’s to come) and in the process acquire a gleaming, partially amnesiac, Machine Person called Hesperus who rocks a human arm. The Shatterlings are also accompanied by the aquatic Dr Meninx who is disinclined towards Machine People and unforthcoming when asked whether he’s ever heard the phrase “House Of Suns”. Approaching home, news of an atrocity reaches the travellers. Campion and Purslane refuse to run and along with Hesperus look for survivors amid the floating rocks – and lurking Homunculus weapons – of what was once their home system. Questions abound. Who would do this to them? What’s with the “House Of Suns”. Why has the entire galaxy of Andromeda completely disappeared? Has this anything to do with Campion’s wonderfully icky encounter with the Vigilence, the ancient archivists of the galaxy. And what is Alastair Reynolds drinking and can I have some?
Reynolds has a taste for the baroquely grotesque which would give Iain M. Banks a run for his money. In “Suns” there is a terrifying, meticulously described, torture scene involving “sectioning” which is clearly there to seed the idea that these clones might not be as fluffy as might first seem. The clones casual habit of messing with memories is also nicely prefigured by the sequence with the elephantine post-human Ugarit-Panth who, unfortunately, for the Gentian line has an explosive sewn into his stomach and isn’t as slow to work out the details of a scandal as he might seem. There’s certainly less sex and humour than in Banks’ work but Reynolds keeps a tighter hold on plot and, of course, famously, adheres to a no-FTL rule which he has almost single-handedly proved in no way kyboshes space opera. His previous scientific career does his writing no harm either, adding a few extra sprinkles of legitimacy to the mix and making us forgive him when, say, the precise mechanics of “the Absence” go unexplained and therefore coming across as fantastical. Such an idea nevertheless allows Reynolds to posit the “Bootes Void supercivilisation” which is the sort of idea that gets people like me very excited. Also, I can’t not mention the extraordinary tale of Abraham Valmik aka the “Fracto-Coagulation” which is Exhibit A when it comes to Reynolds’ much bally-hooed mind-blowing ideas. I envy 14-year olds coming across this for the first time. This is an author casually making reference to the Bright Efflorescence, the High Benevolence, the Third Phase Nereids, the Plastic, the Providers and the Witnesses and the last fifty pages or so are a bravura crescendo of revelations and storytelling. Plus, there’s this:
“Sometimes you just have to hold on, to keep doing what you’re doing, to have faith that things are going to get better. It’s how we survive. There’ve been a million bottlenecks in history where things would have turned out much worse if we’d all just given up and accepted the inevitable. Some of those bottlenecks would have ended us if a few irrational, doggedly optimistic souls hadn’t clung to a thread of hope”
“House Of Suns” is standalone and thus the perfect introduction to Reynolds’ work if you haven’t already partaken. It’s a tale of a galactic atrocity sparking a frantic diaspora and the perils of putting in place the means for a pre-emptive strike against your current allies, lest they should ever become enemies. It’s also the reason why Alastair Reynolds is front and centre on the shelves of the SF section in Foyles’ flagship London store and, in this reader’s opinion, quite right too. Long may he stay there. “He was talking about something that had happened thousands of years ago. To me it was yesterday’s news.”