House of Suns

The Quiet War coverOn the one hand, coming to a novel this late, when numerous people have pretty much reviewed the heck out of it, makes life easier, in that I can point at what they’ve said; on the other hand, in the case of House of Suns, there isn’t much left that hasn’t been said, which you can take as an indication of the kind of genial, transparent book it is. (This may seem ironic, given the evident length this post has grown to, but really, it’s all just my variations on themes already identified.) In particular, Adam Roberts’ review says almost everything I would, give or take some differences in emphasis, and his summary judgment gets to the heart of the matter for me:

if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you’re not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

On the Asimov thing: Jonathan Wright also notes an Asimovian flavour to the proceedings and, though it doesn’t seem to have been deliberate, it was there for me, too. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing; specifically, there were times when I felt that House of Suns was doing salvage work on some of the more satisfactory aspects of Asimov’s late novels — even more specifically, Foundation and Earth (1986). The future history in House of Suns features a galaxy in which the only forms of intelligence are human or human-derived; the central characters are members of an organization that sets itself above or beyond the immediate, squabbling concerns of planetary and interplanetary civilizations; and there are some radically divergent posthumans wandering around, but the story’s ultimate focus is the relationship between humanity and robots, known here as Machine People. One of the main characters, Hesperus, is a Machine Person with some similarities of attitude to some incarnations of R. Daneel Olivaw (updated for the noughties, of course). If you squint a little, I think you can even see a deformed magus-figure shadow of Hari Seldon behind Abigail Gentian, the woman who establishes the primary clone Line with which House of Suns concerns itself, in the way she establishes rules, a preservational Plan that her “shatterlings” follow down the deep well of centuries.

Incongruously enough, my other touchstone while reading this book was Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who. Dan Hartland mentions Star Wars as a reference point, which captures the curious innocence of House of Suns; there is less New in this Space Opera than in the others that I have read by Reynolds. (Also, one of the Machine People looks like a slightly more sculpted C-3PO.) But Who has some of that innocence to it as well, and for all its inanities, I think it’s a better match, and not just because one of Reynolds’ posthuman races are called the Sycorax. First, what Reynolds brings to Asimov’s framework is colour, gleeful splashes of the stuff. In a science fiction novel like this, which essentially takes an infinite empty void as its backdrop, there is particular skill needed in choosing which bits to sketch in; Reynolds makes good choices, and goes about his sketchings with gusto. So although a fair portion of the book takes place in deep space, depicting voyages or chases (Reynolds does like his chase sequences, particularly interstellar ones that go on for tens of pages; fortunately the one that closes this book is rather better paced than the one that closed Century Rain [2004]), there are marvels at every waystation, from giants with faces to dwarf even the Face of Bo, to sleeping beauty awaking in a techno-forest of gold and silver cables. Sometimes these settings are handled off-handedly:

Ashtega’s world — shown beneath the map of the galaxy — was 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. We were crossing the ecliptic, so the rings were slowly tilting to a steeper angle, revealing more of their loveliness. There was no doubt that it was one of the most glorious worlds I had ever seen, and I had seen quite a few.

But we had not come here to gawp at a picturesque planet, even if it was a spectacular exemplar of the form. (21)

Sometimes more attention is lavished on them:

Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the twoers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower. (161)

This is not elegant writing; it is even a bit laboured (“… on the surface of the fingers … around the middle portions of the fingers”). But it’s trying to get us excited about something extraordinary. So my second comparison point is that, as in Doctor Who, the characters are not immune to wonder; dialogue like this, for example, would I think be entirely at home in that show:

“Sand grains start sliding downhill, just beneath the outer membrane of the dunes [...] The membrane vibrates even more strongly and sets up excitations in the surrounding airmass. You get something like music.” After a pause, he said, “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Wonderful and a little spooky.”

“Like all the best things in the universe.” (172-3)

Comparisons with Who can only go so far, though. There is, for example, that whitebread heteronormativity that Adam mentions — not something Who can be accused of too strongly these days — which is for most of the novel a nagging annoyance, and a couple of times something more than that. [EDIT: Although there are also the orgies during the thousand nights, which suggest a certain degree of flexibility ...] The projection of particular standards of beauty got me, too: the descriptions of how beautiful the Machine People were, in particular, felt very culturally specific, and while I’m fine with the shatterlings having retained the standards of beauty they started with (see below), I’m a little disappointed that the standards of beauty in Abigail’s time, which is already some way in the future from us, apparently hadn’t changed at all. What most irritated me, however, was the abuse of bioscience. Reynolds is scrupulous about stressing the physical constraints of the universe — say, the speed of light — yet is, bizarrely, happy to construct a scenario in which a female progenitor gives rise to a clone line containing both male and female individuals. If there’s a reason for this beyond Reynolds wanting to include more male characters, I missed it. If there’s an explanation given for how this miracle is achieved, I missed that, too; [EDIT: It could be, for example, that Abigail has a rare variant of Klinefelter's syndrome, though I don't recall such an explanation being offered in the text (though see discussion later regarding the flashbacks) and so] I’m left imagining that they imported a Y chromosome from somewhere else, which makes any male shatterlings less than an exact clone. (Indeed, I found myself defaulting to imagining the shatterlings as female until otherwise specified for just this reason, which led to a couple of interestingly disconcerting moments.)

A more global difference to Who (but a similarity with Asimov) is that Reynolds is in earnest. House of Suns never indulges in the sort of ironic nudging that Who — or a writer like, say, Ken MacLeod, in a novel like Newton’s Wake; or Banks in any Culture novel– so often enjoys. Dan Hartland put it this way: “Reynolds manages space opera that does not read like farce.” I will go a little further: one of the novel’s strengths is that Reynolds manages to keep a straight face almost all of the time. There are no knowing winks. There is some — not that much — snappy dialogue, but when Reynolds has one of his characters report that “The next three minutes passed like an age as I watched Hesperus streak forward and then slam past Mezereon’s position, missing her by barely half a million kilometres” (123), the deadpan delivery is essential, because on the face of it that “barely” looks absurd.

It’s this earnestness, also, that makes it possible to believe in characters driven by the search for wonder: a perhaps childish impulse (see Who, again; and Charlie Anders touches on this in a piece at io9 about childhood and sense of wonder that I’ve only just seen; and also see below) but one that, as the ending makes clear, is a function of civilizational youth as much as individual organism youth. The shatterlings are flung outwards by her at the close of humanity’s dawn age, explicitly in search of knowledge and experience. In each Line, each of a thousand clones is given a ship; each is then set on a different course, with instructions to rendezvous after completing a “circuit”, a trip around the galaxy. At the rendezvous they share experiences; then they do it all again. For the Gentian Line, these circuits now take two hundred thousand years each (the shatterlings spend much of their time in suspended animation, “tunnelling through history” as one character puts it), during which time they may interact with civilizations caught in “the endless, grinding procession of empires” (15) that the shatterlings call “turnover”. It is, at any rate, no surprise that Abigail’s rules have, by the time of the novel, some thirty-odd circuits down the line, hardened into commandments; no real surprise that maintenance of continuity is one of the book’s main themes.

Here is where I diverge slightly from most other reviewers of this book. House of Suns is narrated by two Shatterlings of Abigail’s line, Campion and Purslane, in alternating chapters. (At the start of each of the book’s eight sections, there is also a flashback chapter to Abigail’s youth; but all the Shatterlings share these memories — both Campion and Purslane refer to events that take place in the flashbacks as theirs, as happening to “me” — so there is no way of knowing which is narrating them.) And they do sound frightfully similar. As Adam puts it:

all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

Or Paul Kincaid:

House of Suns is a novel with three narrative voices: Campion and Purslane narrate alternative chapters, while each section of the novel is introduced with a passage narrated by Abigail Gentian, the founder of the line (I will come back to her shortly). This is a technique that has a number of problems. For a start, Campion and Purslane spend most of the novel together, so that until the climax the alternating chapters don’t actually show us anything different. More seriously, the voices of male Campion and female Purslane are indistinguishable, and both are indistinguishable from Abigail Gentian. Is Reynolds making the subtle point that, as clones, these are all the same person anyway? If so, he actually does nothing with the idea, and the point could have been made as well without the exchange of narrative duties. I suspect, rather, that Reynolds has got hooked on multiple narrative strands, a technique he has used repeatedly before, and has followed it regardless of the fact that in some instances, as here, it can be more harmful than helpful to the novel.

I actually think the technical issue Paul identifies, that for most of the novel Campion and Purslane are sharing the same experiences (and thus that it’s sometimes only possible to tell which is narrating a chapter when they refer to the other), does the more harm. On the other hand, I can make an argument that the similarity of identity is deliberate; or at least, I feel I can construct a satisfactory rationale for embracing the confusion it causes based on what’s in the text, which is actually the more important thing. I’ve already mentioned that both Campion and Purslane claim Abigail’s memories as their own, but it’s also the case that they share their own memories with each other, and share memories with other shatterlings; indeed, at one point Purslane misremembers something that happened to Campion as having happened to her. So I don’t think they have been developing separate personalities for millions of years — I think, in fact, that they have been developing parallel personalities for millions of years. The point is repeatedly made that the differences between members of the Line are much less significant than the similarities, and I don’t think that is just clan loyalty.

At the time we meet them, just before a reunion, after hundreds of thousands of years apart, the shatterlings are as divergent as they will ever be; the point of the thousand-nights reunion is to celebrate sharing that experience. Before it can take place, the assembled Gentian Line is ambushed, and most of them are killed, so; yet they are still remarkably similar individuals. (One shatterling’s taste for torture, for instance, is merely out at the end of the bell curve compared to the rest of them; even those who object to the torture most are prepared to embrace its use in other circumstances, later in the book.) The differences between Line members — in particular, between Campion and Purslane, the former pruning regularly, the latter sentimentally hoarding — seem to arise in large part from differing choices about which memories to delete than they do from differing individual experiences. It is the presumed similarity between the shatterlings that makes Campion and Purslane’s romantic liaison anathema to the rest of their Line — it is rather worse than incest — and it is the need to maintain continuity that makes Campion’s decision to delete his “strand” (the archive of his memories) a transgression beyond the pale. Both actions threaten the stability of the Line.

This obsession with continuity has, I think you can argue, resulted in a kind of arrested development on the part of the shatterlings; it is emphasized more than once that near-baseline humans such as they are not perceptually suited to experiencing long stretches of “raw time”, and that their pride in their longevity is, in important ways, a delusion. But it’s interesting to think of them specifically as children, of a kind, who have not yet become full individuals; as Purslane says, shortly after the ambush, “now we are growing up” (99). You can even gloss the overall shape of the novel as being about humans learning exactly how young they really are in comparison to the depth and breadth of the universe. Coming to terms with being, in a sense, spoiled children. The Gentian Line is incredibly conscious of its fragility; for some of them, the worst consequence of the ambush is not that eight-hundred-odd unique individuals have been killed, but that as a consequence the Line may cease to exist. They take pride in their status as one of humanity’s strategies to maintain continuity over deep time, one way to rise above the churn of turnover (they would probably say, the most human such strategy). As Ludmilla Marcellin, creator of the first line, puts it:

“If [Faster-than-light travel] is developed, it will clearly be of significance to us. We’ll embrace it wholeheartedly, have no fear. But it won’t change the nature of what we are, or the reason for our existence. The galaxy will still be too big, too complex, for any one person to apprehend. Shattering, turning yourself into multiple points of view, will still be the only way to eat that cake.” (225)

If Ludmilla Marcellin’s shatterlings cease to be her, the whole point of the endeavour is lost; and as with Ludmilla, so with Abigail.

This doesn’t do away with the problems Paul and others have noted; but I think it suggests a way to reframe them as part of a more satisfactory reading of the novel. (I actually think more points of view — probably other shatterlings, though someone outside the Line would also work — would make the point more clearly.) Similarly, I think the flashbacks work better than many have given them credit for. They are there, in part, to emphasize the shared lineage of the line, but their real trick is that they turn out to be false memories, indicators of both a cargo of damage that must be common to all Gentian shatterlings, and of displacement of a specific, repressed act that stains the history of the Line. And perhaps more than that. Note that in the memories Abigail’s development is arrested in childhood for thirty years; this could perhaps represent a displaced consciousness of the thirty circuits the Gentian Line undergo before the ambush, before they start growing up; or perhaps is just a parallel to note as something that shapes the Line. [Equally, is the fact that Abigail's guardian is "Madam Klinefelter" significant, a nod to Abigail's genetic heritage? It's rather a coincidence if it's not.]

Certainly, though, my qualms didn’t bother me much during the actual reading. Back to Adam:

Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

This is, clearly, not enough to make a truly good novel; but it’s not nothing, either. House of Suns is by some way the most satisfying of Reynolds’ novels that I’ve read (i.e. of those since Century Rain). I did sometimes feel that it became a touch genteel, a touch domesticating; although again, a concern with rules, the value of them as well as their limitations, whether set by Abigail or the universe, is a concern of the novel, and to manifest this as a kind of formality makes a certain amount of sense. Reynolds also falls foul of a personal bugbear, in that he fails to explain how or why his first-person narrators are relating their story. But as I was reading, only rarely were the problems severe enough to pull me up short; for the most part I barely paused for breath. I blasted through House of Suns in a little over a day and, while I wouldn’t give it this year’s Clarke Award, and am not even really sure it belongs on the shortlist, I don’t begrudge the time I spent with it one jot. A guilty pleasure is still a pleasure.

22 Responses to “House of Suns”

  1. Farah Says:

    Thank you for noting the heteronormativity, but given–as you say-the degree he went to to engineer it, I think that is rather restrained.

  2. Stormstrike Says:

    I couldn’t get the feeling, while reading this review, that your gripes (and the gripes of the other reviewer you linked) are just the complaints of two jealous people looking to nitpick and make themselves appear more clever than they actually are.

    First, the use of heteronormativity: I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for the better part of a decade, and while I was able to work out the meaning of the word for myself, I had to look it up just to be sure. This is not the type of word normal people use. I’m sure it’s big at LBGT conferences and such, but I don’t think it has a place in a review of a mainstream SF work.

    It’s also nitpicking. How you can make this claim is beyond me, when AR’s other works are peppered with characters who switch genders as easily as his Ultras make bodily modifications. If AR was intentionally practicing what you call “bourgeois heteronormativity” (what a maddeningly pretentious term) then why would (SPOILERS) he have Sky Haussmann, in his role as Tanner Mirabel, make advances toward — and have sex with — Zebra, a former man in an altered body? In fact, in Chasm City, Zebra specifically says she was originally a man just a few paragraphs before Haussmann/Mirabel has sex with her, and AR makes it clear Haussmann/Mirabel does not care. Likewise with the shatterlings (more SPOILERS) — since we know that Abigail Gentian is among their number, and it is revealed that her gender was randomized in the “growth vats” along with the other shatterlings, there are any number of gender permutations in the coupling of Campion and Purlane — Campion could be Abigail Gentian herself, but at the very least he’s a clone of a woman, instilled with her childhood and young-adult memories. Purslane is clearly a woman, but again, she is a clone of Abigail Gentian, her gender was also randomized in the vats, and it is possible she is Abigail Gentian. We don’t know. How is it a stretch of science when a far-future cloning operation has the ability to randomize gender, when stardams, stasis bubbles, FTL travel through wormholes and biological immortality are not?

    The one thing I can agree wholeheartedly with in your review is the opinion that the split-narrative (or tri-narrative) format doesn’t really work in this book. One could make the claim that Reynolds was just trying to be clever by writing the narratives so similarly — they are, of course, clones. But we are not talking about David Mitchell, and no one in their right mind could make the claim that AR has anywhere near the talent for ventriloquism that a writer like David Mitchell does. I tend to think it was laziness — the split narratives only serve a purpose later in the book, during the (page-wise) brief period of time Campion and Purslane are apart. But it’s not far-fetched to think AR would have made their voices different if it was within his abilities. After all, as reprehensible as they are, characters like Dan Sylveste, Ilia Volyova and Richard Swift don’t think or express themselves differently than Campion of Purslane.

    Lastly, I find it strange that such a lengthy review could be so devoid of exploring the two most interesting characters — Hesperus and Abraham Valmik. It’s true that neither were narrators, and Valmik’s backstory is brief, but ultimately these two characters are just as significant — and arguably far more interesting than — Campion and Purslane.

    But hey, what do I know? I’m just a reader, and not the author of a pretentious literary blog that lingers on things like bourgeois heteronormativity. Perhaps we ought to forward this post to GLAAD, so that they might take Mr. Reynolds to task for daring to write stories in which men and women have sex with each other.

  3. Niall Says:

    OK, a few responses.

    1) I’m talking about heteronormativity as an emergent characteristic of this book. Taking Reynolds’ body of work as a whole, yes, there’s more diversity there. So why does it matter to me in this instance? Because the male-and-female default is not something that falls naturally out of the book’s premises — it is something that has to be established by contravening a basic scientific truth, namely that you can’t get a genotypic male from a genotypic female. He could have explained it but, as I said in the review, if he did I missed it (and if it was the Klinefelter’s thing, I think it was under-emphasized). It’s the difference between a magic black box FTL drive, and FTL via wormholes — that is, the lack of explanation of the shatterling tech stands out because of Reynolds’ fidelity to what is scientifically plausible in other areas. It sabotages the feel of plausibility that most of the book (in my view) aims for. Now, it’s true to say that I know more biology than I do physics, so it may stand out for me more than it does for other people. On the other hand, it’s pretty fundamental biology.

    2) On the voices — as with the heteronormativity, I’m trying to take intentionality out of the equation here, and consider the book as it presents itself. So it may have been laziness on Reynolds’ part, but frankly I don’t care; I care whether I can construct a satisfactory reading of the result and, as argued in the review, I think I can. Not many other readers seem to agree with me on that point, but that’s OK.

    3) “Arguably far more interesting than” — well, go on then, argue it! Neither particularly fascinated me — Hesperus appealed, but I said what I wanted to say about him in the review already. But if you want to argue for a reading more based around those two characters, then don’t let me stop you…

  4. Adam Roberts Says:

    …your gripes (and the gripes of the other reviewer you linked) are just the complaints of two jealous people looking to nitpick and make themselves appear more clever than they actually are.

    I am the other reviewer linked, and can confirm that I do indeed frame my complaints to make myself appear more clever than I actually am. Of course, I actually am already very clever indeed, so I’m aiming high. Certainly, speaking for myself, I’d go a long way to avoid framing the sorts of snippy, Daily-Mail-y, passiive-aggressive borderline homophobic comments of the kind that blot ‘Stormstrike’s comment. As, for example,

    …heteronormativity … is not the type of word normal people use. I’m sure it’s big at LBGT conferences and such, but I don’t think it has a place in a review of a mainstream SF work…

    with its sly insinuation that gay experience, and the people who talk about it, are not ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream'; or

    … a pretentious literary blog that lingers on things like bourgeois heteronormativity. Perhaps we ought to forward this post to GLAAD, so that they might take Mr. Reynolds to task for daring to write stories in which men and women have sex with each other.

    with its faux-aggrieved imputation that straight people are the ones subject to prejudice and censorship.

  5. Stormstrike Says:

    I don’t understand why, if you recognize that Reynolds has portrayed non-heterosexual relationships in his other work, you would gripe about one story where a man — who was cloned from a woman and might very well have been that woman in a past life — has a relationship with a woman. Seriously, what’s the gripe here? Because it just looks like you’re complaining that Reynolds has the gall to portray a heterosexual relationship in the first place.

    “Certainly, speaking for myself, I’d go a long way to avoid framing the sorts of snippy, Daily-Mail-y, passiive-aggressive borderline homophobic comments of the kind that blot ‘Stormstrike’s comment. As, for example, … with its sly insinuation that gay experience, and the people who talk about it, are not ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’;”

    Yes, you’re right Adam. As an American, I can choose from any number of trashy stateside newspapers to emulate, but I’ve chosen to piss off British bloggers by aping the Daily Mail. How observant of you.

    But here we go again, with your contention that my post was a “sly insinuation that [the] gay experience” is not “mainstream.” That’s not what I was saying, and I’m sure you know that, but apparently you ignored that fact for the sake of argument. I’m an advocate of communicating in plain language, and phrases like “bourgeois heteronormativity” stink of the kind of self-satisfied writing produced by people who think their choice of phrasing signals their intelligence. It doesn’t. I mean, for fuck’s sake — “faux-aggrieved imputation”? Drop the dictionary and write like a human being, man.

    You sound like William Donohue of the Catholic League, or Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, watching like a hawk for any turn of phrase that could be slightly construed as offensive toward your point of view and allow you to blow steam.

    Niall, if you’re trying to look at the book “as it presents itself,” why such a focus on the absurd claim of “heteronormativity”? On your overall point, I can agree with you. While the book had its faults — the massive info dumps, the bad dialogue, the (for the most part) poorly sketched characters — overall it was a very satisfying read, and it’s up to par with what I’ve come to expect from Reynolds. You admit “Hesperus appealed,” and I think that’s a step forward for Reynolds as well. Many people who read Revelation Space would agree most, if not all, of the characters were reprehensible and it was very difficult for readers to empathize with any of them. Reynolds has gone from offering us characters like Sylveste, Volyova and Sajaki, to Hesperus, Purslane and Campion. Even if we all agree the latter aren’t the most well-developed characters, at least it’s something to say we enjoyed spending time with them. I can’t say the same about Sylveste of Volyova — I finished the RS series in spite of those characters, not because of them.

    As much as I find the “bourgeois heteronormativity” argument ridiculous, credit to both of you for responding, even if Adam had one eye on the dictionary while he typed.

  6. Adam Roberts Says:

    … the kind of self-satisfied writing produced by people who think their choice of phrasing signals their intelligence. It doesn’t. I mean, for fuck’s sake … Drop the dictionary and write like a human being, man.

    So your contention is that people who use polysyllabic words (a) are self-satisfied, (b) are not really human beings, in terms of their writing and (c) must have a dictionary open on the desk in front of them as they type? Because nobody actually walks around with polysyllabic words in their heads, right? Oh, except

    … you sound like William Donohue of the Catholic League, or Bill O’Reilly of Fox News …

    Those two Nabokovs de nos jours; those two stalwart critics of bourgeois heteronormativity wherever they see it.

    But here we go again, with your contention that my post was a “sly insinuation that [the] gay experience” is not “mainstream.” That’s not what I was saying.

    What were you saying? You were saying that there’s a way of speaking ‘big at LBGT conferences and such’ or on ‘GLAAD’, but that this way of speaking ‘has no place in a review of a mainstream SF work.’ You were saying that is not how ‘normal people’ speak. Now, you could have said ‘normal, mainstream people don’t use polysyllabic words'; but you didn’t say that. What you said is that people at LGBT conferences and on GLAAD use these sorts of words, and normal, mainstream people don’t. I wonder if you can see what you’ve said, by saying this?

    Yes, you’re right Adam. As an American, I can choose from any number of trashy stateside newspapers to emulate, but I’ve chosen to piss off British bloggers by aping the Daily Mail. How observant of you.

    Wait, are you being sarcastic? You got my hopes up with the ‘you’re right Adam’ part, but then by the end of this I actually pretty-much began to get the impression that you were just being sarcastic.

    Al’s book is premised on a group of people living for millions, that’s millions, of years; and travelling literally all over the galaxy. Despite this premise, the characters’ attitudes to desire and sexuality, to ethics and politics, to what constitutes normality and repulsiveness remain completely unchanged: remain, in fact, liberal humanist, white, Western, middle-class. This didn’t ring true for me. Values have changed radically in the last five thousand years; to suggest that, having undergone those changes, they’ll stay this way for millions, that’s millions, of years boggled my mind. It diminished the book’s ability to parse strangeness and the sense-of-wonder. Now, I wrote a review of House of Suns, not the rest of Al’s output. He’s a writer I admire greatly, actually, in lots of ways; and there are certainly lots of things to like about this book. Not that, though.

    I’m an advocate of communicating in plain language.

    So am I. I don’t, though, take ‘plain’ to be synonymous with ‘monosyllabic’, ‘dumbed-down’, ‘sweary’, ‘clumsy’, ‘blokeish’, ‘ideologically blind’ or anything like that.

  7. Niall Says:

    I don’t understand why, if you recognize that Reynolds has portrayed non-heterosexual relationships in his other work

    Because (a) as I’ve already said, the mechanism here is a cheat that I don’t think lives up to the standards Reynolds sets himself elsewhere, and (b) those other works aren’t relevant here. House of Suns is complete in itself and presented to the reader as such — no sequel pending, and set in an independent universe, not connected to those of any of his other books — and so it is valid, and I would suggest necessary, to consider how it stands alone.

    most, if not all, of the characters were reprehensible and it was very difficult for readers to empathize with any of them.

    The notion that characters must be sympathetic to be comprehended, and even empathized with, is another thing I don’t have much patience for.

  8. Nick H. Says:

    God forbid Stormshrike ever reads a review by John Clute.

  9. Stormstrike Says:

    “The notion that characters must be sympathetic to be comprehended, and even empathized with, is another thing I don’t have much patience for.”

    Where did I say characters have to be sympathetic to be comprehended? You’re both excellent at creating straw men, but poor at backing up your arguments. Safe to say if you didn’t have patience for what I wrote, you wouldn’t have responded.

    In regards to the “polysyllabic words” Adam is so proud of, the whole argument is hilarious. Just because a rarer — or more lengthy — word exists does not mean you should use it in writing or in conversation, particularly if that word does nothing to more effectively communicate your point. “Nabokovs de nos jours” … I can’t imagine you speak like that without regularly being laughed at. You’re like Walt Clyde Frazier calling a Knicks game, unconcerned with whether a word or turn of phrase adds something to a description or conversation, as long as using it makes you feel like you’ve impressed your audience.

    The absurdity of your entire argument becomes even clearer when you claim the book’s attitude towards sexuality is “in fact, liberal humanist, white, Western, middle-class.” Aside from sounding like something that would come out of the mouth of an 18-year-old Vassar kid fresh from his first gender studies class, it’s another straw man argument. Spend some time in places like Damascus or Cairo and you’ll be clamoring for that “white, Western, middle-class” point of view you hate so much.

    But back to the main point — you’re both sitting here, insisting that because one book featured one heterosexual romance, some sort of grave offense has been committed against the readers of the book and society as a whole. Shouldn’t you save your indignation for authors or entertainers who are outspoken in their opposition to gay rights, instead of hammering an author who clearly has no gripe against the homosexual community? Or are things in the U.K. so slow these days, you have to invent slights to get your panties in a bunch?

    “Al’s book is premised on a group of people living for millions, that’s millions, of years; and travelling literally all over the galaxy. Despite this premise, the characters’ attitudes to desire and sexuality, to ethics and politics, to what constitutes normality and repulsiveness remain completely unchanged: remain, in fact, liberal humanist, white, Western, middle-class. This didn’t ring true for me. Values have changed radically in the last five thousand years; to suggest that, having undergone those changes, they’ll stay this way for millions, that’s millions, of years boggled my mind.”

    These things are cyclical. Many people today are repulsed by the idea of the Sacred Band of Thebes, or the pederastic mentor-lover relationships common in Greek city-states 2,500 years ago, but to the Greeks of that time, those relationships were the norm and were viewed as beneficial. Some 150 years later, prominent Greek philosophers condemned those relationships as contributing to effeminacy, and less than a century after that, everyone but the Spartiates were following a gay man as he conquered his way toward India. Early in the Roman empire, homosexual relationships were mostly relegated to masters who had sex with their slaves, but again less than a century later, homosexual relationships were publicly sanctioned. Go half a century forward and you can read about Nero marrying a man, who for all intents and purposes had the same status as a female royal consort. Later, while religious leaders in Europe were busy condemning homosexuality and criminalizing anything that wasn’t missionary sex with a woman, Buddhist monks in Asia were carrying out relationships not so different from the pederastic arrangements of ancient Greece.

    So tell me, do you have some sort of device that lets you peer forward deep into our galactic, starfaring future to ascertain the sexual tastes of posthumans? If you do, please share. Otherwise we’re back where we started, with a pair of would-be literary critics manufacturing indignation because a science fiction author had the gall to include a heterosexual relationship in one of his stories.

  10. Abigail Says:

    I’d be wary of tossing around the accusation of straw man arguments, Stormstrike, since you seem to be using so many yourself, and rather familiar ones at that.

    You insist, for example, that there is something inherently dishonest about using ‘big words,’ and that Adam and Niall could only have chosen to use those words as a way of making themselves look clever and superior. It is, of course, always possible to quibble with word choice – a piece can be over- or underwritten – but that’s a far cry from what you seem to be saying. Why you think you have such insight into Niall and Adam’s thought processes as to determine that they made their word choice not in order to more clearly convey their point but in order to condescend to their readers, I have no idea. Contrary to your assertions, I think ‘bourgeois heternormativity’ is a very precise way of expressing Niall and Adam’s problems with the novel, and of distinguishing those problems from “insisting that because one book featured one heterosexual romance, some sort of grave offense has been committed against the readers of the book and society as a whole” or “indignation because a science fiction author had the gall to include a heterosexual relationship in one of his stories.”

    Then there’s ‘how dare you complain about [minor expression of injustice X] when [major expression of injustice X] is ongoing!’ That’s an old shouting down tactic that got a lot of play in the recent RaceFail shenanigans, and despite its pretense of concern, what it actually does is deligitimize the entire argument. In the face of real-world expressions of homophobia, or racism, or the drought in Africa, even your ‘legitimate’ arguments against the novel are insignificant. But the topic of conversation here is House of Suns, about which Niall and Adam have chosen to observe – among other things – its treatment of sexuality. This choice seems to have made you very angry, and I simply don’t understand why.

    Finally, might I point out that you are commenting on someone else’s blog, which is to say that you are a guest here, and might want to modulate your tone accordingly? It’s one thing to disagree, however vociferously, with someone, and quite another to be angry at them for daring to express an opinion you disagree with. You’re falling rather squarely in the latter category.

  11. Nic Says:

    Just because a rarer — or more lengthy — word exists does not mean you should use it in writing or in conversation,

    Naughty Adam! Put those long words down!

    (If you prefer, replace ‘naughty’ with ‘bad’ in the above, for the properly monosyllabic experience. After all, why use ‘naughty’ when a perfectly functional three-letter word exists?)

    “Nabokovs de nos jours” … I can’t imagine you speak like that without regularly being laughed at.

    Yes. You know, it’s always possible – just possible, mind you – that this (albeit ‘with’ rather than ‘at’) was the effect he was aiming for. Just a thought.

    Spend some time in places like Damascus or Cairo and you’ll be clamoring for that “white, Western, middle-class” point of view you hate so much.

    Um. What on earth does this have to do with House of Suns?

    I confess, I can’t keep a straight face for long enough to argue with you. A number of readers found it implausible and odd that a bunch of clones millions of years in the future still speak and act and think very much like people do in many parts of the world today. You don’t. Why does this bother you so much, besides the fact that you’re (it would appear) very easily offended?

  12. Martin Says:

    Spend some time in places like Damascus or Cairo and you’ll be clamoring for that “white, Western, middle-class” point of view you hate so much.

    From homophobia to racism in three comments. Not bad!

  13. Niall Says:

    Where did I say characters have to be sympathetic to be comprehended?

    You criticized characters in Reynolds’ earlier books as being reprehensible and difficult to empathize with (which requires comprehension). Since you earlier described creating appealing characters as a “step up” for Reynolds, it appeared you were implying a link between those two criticisms, that they were difficult to empathize with because they were reprehensible — ie because of Reynolds’ character choices, and not because of any difference in his skill in depicting those choices. I’ll be more straightforward: I don’t think creating appealing over reprehensible characters is inherently a step up to anywhere.

    insisting that because one book featured one heterosexual romance,

    If you still think that this is the fundamental because of my argument, then clearly communication is not occurring here. But at this point I can’t think of a way to state my argument any more clearly than I already have, so at the risk of recursion I’ll just suggest that you read my review and earlier comments again. Per Abigail’s comment, this does seem to have struck a nerve with you.

  14. Stormstrike Says:

    I see you’re trotting out your friends from the SF literary blogosphere. More = right, eh? This is starting to remind me of an AOL chat room circa 1996.

    What sort of respect should be afforded to two men who are griping that the only sexual relationship in one book is indicative of “heteronormativity” despite the fact that the relationship in question is between a woman and a former woman? And then there’s this arbitrary rule set, where somehow it’s unacceptable to take into account previous work by Reynolds, as if it’s fair to insinuate an author is some sort of homophobe or backwards-thinking bigot while declaring everything else he’s written irrelevant. It’s nitpicking, and it’s a dishonest form of criticism that isn’t fair to Reynolds.

    I didn’t realize Adam Roberts was a novelist, and after googling him the irony of being lectured by a 44-year-old white university professor on “white, Western, middle-class” thinking is not lost on me. The original heternormativity claim is so absurd it shouldn’t surprise me that this man is prone to excessive navel-gazing, but I still think someone should call him on his bullshit when it comes to disengenuous attacks on another writer. I wonder how Mr. Roberts — the proud author of several masterpieces that have garnered 2 1/2 and 3-star ratings on Amazon — would respond to snarky blogposts about the most ridiculous minutiae in his books?

    “From homophobia to racism in three comments. Not bad!”

    Pardon? My father immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt, penniless, after being persecuted by the religious majority there. So now I’m being lectured by a 44-year-old white university professor and his white British friends on racism and “white, Western, middle-class” thinking, but I am the racist and homophobe? If you’re trying to say you are the experts on making declarations from the white, middle-class perspective, I’d have to say you’re right. Have you lived in Cairo or Damascus? Has Mr. Roberts? If the answer’s no, then I stand behind the statement that he’d be clamoring for the thinking he despises once he sees a few gay men rounded up by morality police and convicted simply for being gay.

    It’s easy to get indignant over an imaginary slight in a work of fiction when you have never had to worry about real bigotry, but I suppose if you run in London’s academic literary circles, you have that luxury.

    It seems to me this is the reason Reynolds sells books and Roberts doesn’t — one spends his time writing good books, regardless of snarky little critics, and the other spends his time making absurd, jealous claims on blogs. You can bring in every D-list novelist on your blogroll and it still wouldn’t change the fact that you’re a bunch of condescending, navel-gazing would-be literary critics who insist on arcane rules for evaluating writers you have a grudge against. To a squad of out-of-touch academics I’m sure the absurd heteronormativity gripe has some traction, but to those of us who live in the real world it’s petty and ridiculous. Now I suggest you all reflect on the real reasons why you’d make such petty accusations against Reynolds. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that House of Suns has an Amazon sales rank just above 5,000, while Roberts and his three-star wonders linger in the millions behind various diet books, sports profiles, quit-smoking guides and Twilight-inspired vampire porn. What excellent company.

    Blog post from Niall telling me I don’t get it and I’m beneath his intellect in 5…4…3…

  15. Farah Says:

    I’m female, queer, and an academic and the book pissed me off. I’ve been a reader of sf since I was a kid, just like most of us here. We write because we love sf passionately.

    I don’t think Reynolds writes women terribly well. In one book the two women were spiteful, petty and acted like I remember the girls in school doing when they were 14, but even they didn’t keep it up for thirty years.

    We like some books, we don’t like others. You are the only person here suggesting that if we don’t like a book we must have a grudge against the author. The rest of us know we are just enjoying talking about a book.

    As for ‘friends from the literary blogosphere”, well, yes, we are friends, we share interests. Oddly enough, a couple of people here are friends of Al Reynolds. But it doesn’t stop us from saying what we think of each other’s work. I don’t think Adam Roberts will mind if I say that his review of my own book was possibly one of the most intemperate reviews of a book published this year.

    None of this is personal. We read because we love sf. We write about it because we have high expectations. Those of is who write it (not me) want to get better all the time. Thinking about other people’s work is one of the ways we do it.

  16. Nic Says:

    Stormstrike, calm down. We have different views about a book. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s certainly not worth breaking out the bizarre personal attacks over. If you disagree so strongly, why not write your own review?

    Have you lived in Cairo or Damascus?

    I’ve got no illusions about life for gay people in either of these places, to judge from the accounts of friends who have lived there (I’ve only lived in Tunis, which struck me as rather more accepting, or at least blind-eye-turning). But I still don’t see why the fact that gay people are treated abominably in certain areas of the world today, and somewhat better in others, means that there isn’t room for plenty of improvement even in our own liberal society. Or, more pertinently, why it means that we should all withhold our opinions on the book under discussion.

    No-one’s saying that Reynolds is homophobic, no matter how many times you repeat your claim that we are. We’re talking about this book.

    None of this is personal. We read because we love sf. We write about it because we have high expectations.

    I second Farah’s statement. I read and largely enjoyed the book, but my suspension of disbelief tripped over the fact the shatterlings came across more or less like my contemporaries. YMMV, and apparently does. That’s the wonderful thing about reading: everyone responds to books in different ways. I don’t understand why you feel the need to start a fight over it. :-)

  17. Nick H. Says:

    “Blog post from Niall telling me I don’t get it and I’m beneath his intellect in 5…4…3…”

    I’m not sure there’s any need for Niall, or indeed anyone else, to respond to you further, as your arguments speak for themselves.

  18. Adam Roberts Says:

    Well this hasn’t been terribly edifying.

    To sum up (I can’t speak for Niall, of course): I write a review of Al Reynolds’ latest novel calling it ‘impossible to dislike’, though ‘not a novel easy to love with true passion’; a book ‘completely in control of its idiom’, ‘deeply readable’ and superbly plotted (‘not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along’); a book that handles ‘its huge vistas of space and time expressively and convincingly.’ I also talked about aspects of the book that worked less well for me, and two things in particular: a sense of derivativeness I found in some of the conception, and a feeling that the imagined far-future is all a little whitebread.

    On the basis of this review, rather than any personal knowledge of me, Stormstrike makes the following observations: I am ‘pretentious’, ‘jealous’, ‘self-satisfied’, ‘absurd’, ‘bullshit’, ‘condescending’, ‘out-of-touch’, ‘disengenuous’, a ‘would-be literary critic’. I have my ‘panties in a bunch.’ I’m ‘prone to excessive navel-gazing’. I ‘sound like William Donohue of the Catholic League, or Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’, and also ‘like Walt Clyde Frazier calling a Knicks game’, an ‘18-year-old Vassar kid fresh from his first gender studies class.’ I ‘have a grudge against’ Reynolds. I’m a ‘D-list novelist’ whose books’ amazon rankings ‘linger in the millions behind various diet books, sports profiles, quit-smoking guides and Twilight-inspired vampire porn.’

    It seems to me this is the reason Reynolds sells books and Roberts doesn’t — one spends his time writing good books, regardless of snarky little critics, and the other spends his time making absurd, jealous claims on blogs.

    Well, I can’t argue with that. That’s a very persuasive case, right there.

    You seem peeved, Stormstrike. I’d go further, and suggest that you are disproportionately peeved. Do you mind me asking, why? Are you this offensively rude to everybody with whom you disagree?

    Al Reynolds and I share the same publisher; I know him a little, and we get on well. Speaking personally, I’m fine with the fact that he’s a much more significant contemporary British SF writer than I. He deserves his status. There are reasons why he (unlike me) sells so well, has such a large fanbase, wins awards and is widely respected in the genre community. This is because he is an immensely talented writer, and produces the sorts of books that many SF fans love. He can certainly do lots of writerly things much better than I can: amongst them things that most SF fans consider crucial: the science; the sense of wonder; the grandeur; the plotting; the pacing; the colour and detail. None of this, though, puts him in some sacred space beyond negative criticism; and none of it justifies the attempt to browbeat people who dissent from your views with abuse of the sort you have deployed in this thread.

    Now, I can’t dissent from your assessment of my failings as a human being; but it’s worthwhile correcting two factual inaccuracies. (1) I may be a D-list novelist, but Niall didn’t ‘bring me up’ or ‘trot me out’ in order to comment on this thread; we had no communication on the topic. (2) I did not, and nor did anybody else on this thread, call you a racist or a homophobe. I couldn’t call you either thing, because I don’t know anything about you personally. What I suggested (and this is a really, really important distinction) was that some of the things you wrote seemed to me ‘borderline homophobic’. The difference here is important. As wikipedia notes, the argument style called ‘Ad hominem’ or ‘argumentum ad personam’ ‘usually and most notoriously involves insulting or belittling one’s opponent … This tactic is logically fallacious because insults and even true negative facts about the opponent’s personal character have nothing to do with the logical merits of the opponent’s arguments or assertions.’

    One last thing: ‘I wonder how Mr. Roberts … would respond to snarky blogposts about the most ridiculous minutiae in his books?’ I have, I must say, often been negatively reviewed, sometimes swingeingly so, online and in other venues. Perhaps that doesn’t surprise you. But here’s an offer: if you would like to write a snarky blogpost about the ridiculous minutiae in my books, but object to the thought of paying money for stuff I wrote, why not contact me through my website and I’ll send you some review copies?

  19. Al Reynolds Says:

    I’m sorry I missed these comments when they appeared in July. I think it’s bad form to respond to reviews in a public forum, but – for the record – I didn’t feel hard done by with either Niall’s or Adam’s responses to HOS. While I didn’t (obviously) agree with everything they said, and at one point I did feel the urge to corner Adam in a dark alley and hit him over the head with a 2×4, both of them also gave me much to think about. I know Niall slightly, and yes, Adam’s a friend – and I’ve never detected a whiff of jealousy from anyone in British SF circles, let alone Adam. As Farah says, we’re talking about the books here, not the author.

  20. Reading List: Winterstrike « Torque Control Says:

    [...] approach to mythologising science fiction, and on the other with Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns, which also features two first-person narrators drawn from the same clone stock. Williams’ [...]


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