On 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 ), 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.