Alastair Reynolds' House Of Suns, shortlisted for the Clarke Award, is a novel of ideas, with all that implies. The space-opera epic throws a dizzying blizzard of concepts at the reader, sacrificing character-development. Spoilers below.
House Of Suns is one of those novels that assumes a shape after you're done reading it. All of the elements that seemed purely random fall into place, and you realize quite what an intricate design you've been looking at all this time. During the story, however, you're frequently left wondering if Reynolds was throwing darts at an idea-board. This novel has everything: artificial intelligences that become sentient, post-humans, questions of faster-than-light travel and causality, cloning, virtual worlds, a murder mystery and a group of nigh-immortal people dealing with the burden of history in a more personal way than most of us ever do.
It's probably one of those novels that's more satisfying to re-read than to read, actually. A lot of the cool elements will seem a lot more satisfying the second time around, and when you can see the whole picture, you'll appreciate the flow of the story more. The first time around, though, the novel feels like an endless succession of awesome ideas and neat moments. It probably doesn't help that it has the kind of post-human characters who are common in the new space opera: all of the main characters in the book are six million years old, and have seen galactic civilizations rise and fall, over and over.
In House of Suns, it's six million years in the future, and humans have colonized the entire galaxy. Our heroes are "shatterlings," or a set of clones of a woman named Abigail Gentian, who lived six million years ago. They create "stardams," or artificial spheres around suns that are in danger of going nova, for a living. And there are other sets of "shatterlings," other groups of clones of wealthy people who lived six million years ago. Thanks to travel at relativistic speeds, and various methods of slowing down people's bodily functions, the main characters have only lived through a fraction of those six million years. (They're called "shatterlings" because in some sense, they divide up the identity of their progenitor amongst them.)
Our two main characters are Campion and Purslane, two clones of Abigail Gentian, who are committing a "shatterling" taboo by carrying on a sexual/romantic relationship. Their forbidden love for each other is one of the two relatable things in the book, and it drives a lot of the story forward in the second half. The other major emotional strand in the book is their friendship with Hesperus, a "machine intelligence," or robot, who nearly dies to save them from a horrific massacre.
That massacre turns out to be tied to a crime that the "shatterlings" are complicit in, but have forgotten, millions of years ago. And that historical atrocity, which is both ancient and personal, turns out to be connected to a whole host of other secrets about the nature of the galaxy and our place in the universe. Meanwhile, we learn about another crime, which the clones' progenitor, Abigail Gentian, committed in her youth, inside a virtual world called Palatial. In a universe where we're reminded, over and over, that "nascent" societies rise up out of nothing, only to die off again in a scant half-million years, how much do we owe to the ghosts of the intelligences we've wronged?
In a real sense, House Of Suns is about history, and the fragility of memory. The shatterlings have lived almost as long as humans have had language, but what they've forgotten about the galaxy — and what they never knew — would fill volumes. And it turns out almost everything they believed about themselves, as dispassionate observers, aloof from the barbarism of history, is false. (I'm trying to avoid major spoilers here.)
Another major theme in the book is the prejudices of organic life forms against artificial intelligences. Early on, we meet an aquatic creature named Doctor Meninx, who is a Disavower, an organic who hates A.I.s and doesn't believe they have souls. He's quick to assume the worst of any machine intelligence, even though the main A.I. character in the story, Hesperus, turns out to be the most sympathetic and altruistic character. Of course, later on we meet machines who don't have humans' best interests at heart, but by then we've discovered there's a lot more to the picture than we'd realized.
Besides the somewhat unrelatable characters — even Campion and Purslane, with their star-spanning love, feel a bit empty most of the time — the novel's other big problem is its structure. Reynolds chooses a structure that few novelists could pull off. The novel is divided into eight "books," and each book starts with a first-person section from the point of view of Abigail Gentian, who becomes the progenitor of most of the clones we meet in the book. (Her "shatterlings" are referred to as "Line Gentian.") And then within each book, we alternate chapters from Campion and Purslane's point of view. (This isn't explained, you just have to sort of pick it up.) So the novel has three first-person narrators, two of whom are clones of the third. For understandable reasons, all three narrators have the same narrative voice, and share the same values and attitudes. In other words, the narrative trick is just a way for Reynolds to get across more information, without dipping into third-person narration. But it's a distracting structure, confusing at times and a bit annoying at others.
And the other huge structural problem is that the novel's story actually starts on page 96 or thereabouts. Nearly the first hundred pages are just backstory, introducing us to our main characters and giving us some exposition we'll need later on. Nothing of any real consequence happens in the first 100 pages, other than that Campion and Purslane meet Hesperus.
I found the novel slow going until around page 100, and then it suddenly became a compulsive read that I found myself staying up until three A.M. reading. (In fact, as I write this, I'm a bit sleep-deprived thanks to the crackling narrative intensity of House Of Suns. It really does get amazingly good, and you're kept wondering what happens next. The murder mystery stuff is fun while it lasts, and the space battles are exciting as all get-out.) At the same time, the last chapters of the novel contain massive amounts of infodump, as characters explain the plot to each other.
The novel brims with ideas, many of which deserve their own book. There are the Priors, the mysterious ancient intelligences who left behind a few clues to their super-advanced civilization. There's the Absence, a black void that seems to have swallowed the Andromeda Galaxy. There's the Golden Hour, a kind of ring around a single sun containing a number of worlds that are never more than an hour's communication apart at sub-light speeds. There's Palatial, the virtiual-reality world where young Abigail Gentian spends her time, which seems to become sentient.
I found House Of Suns incredibly clever and sweeping and thought-provoking, and it all pays off in the final chapter with a very cosmic moment where the story's sweep opens up to take in a much larger, and stranger cosmos than we've glimpsed so far. Once you get past the slow begining, it's an exhilerating read that keeps your brain buzzing the whole time. And there's a payoff to the Campion-Purslane-Hesperus relationship that caught me by surprise and made me love those characters much more than I'd been able to during the novel. I'm not sure it's a great novel as a novel, but as an exploration of the myriad possibilities of our far-future descendants in a vast, bizarre cosmos, House Of Suns is a terrific read.
House Of Suns was nominated for a Clarke Award. Read more of io9's coverage of 2009's book award nominees here.