Monday, August 10, 2009

House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds

Just finished this latest SF novel by Alastair Rynolds. Plot synopis below from Wikipedia.

"House of Suns" has two major storylines: the main story arc is set roughly 6.4 million years from now. By this point, humanity has spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy, which appears devoid of any other sentient life. The galaxy is dominated by civilisations of humans and various posthumans of widely varying levels of development. Technologies that are available include anti-gravity, inertialess propulsion, force fields, and stasis fields. Also of note is the "absence"- the mysterious disappearance of the Andromeda Galaxy several million years before. It is originally unknown what caused the absence, although entire civilisations are devoted to collecting information related to the event.

Large-scale human civilisations almost invariably seem to fall within a few millennia (referred to as "turnover"), apparently due to the limits of sub-lightspeed travel making it too difficult to hold interstellar empires together. Consequently, the most powerful entities in the galaxy are the "lines"- organisations that do not inhabit planets, but instead travel through space, meeting at periodic intervals.

House of Suns concerns a group of people called the Gentian Line, also known as the House of Flowers (in fact, every member is named after a different type of flower); 1,000 clones (or ‘shatterlings’), male and female, of an individual named Abigail Gentian. The clones travel the Milky Way Galaxy helping young human civilizations, collecting knowledge and experiencing what the universe has to offer. Every 200,000 years the clones meet up for a 1,000 day-long reunion ceremony before going their separate ways for another 200,000 years or ‘circuit’.

The novel starts slowly but picks up pace at the end where all the threads come together. This is classic SF in the correct use of the adjective - lots of big ideas combined with poor characterisation. Reynolds has certain tropes which recur in his novels: spacecraft chases, the physical melding together of beings and starships, an astrophysical canvas vast in space (intergalactic), time (millions of years) and spacetime architecture (wormholes, stardams, temporal stasis fields).

It is a major defect that all his characters have the same personality to a first approximation: detached, cerebral, droll. The reader doesn't empathise in the alleged emotional involvement of the two main characters, and the murderous intentions expressed towards the 'traitor' also fail to convince.

If I was being really cruel, I guess I would say this is a pretty good novel for an astrophysicist. But as a piece of ideas-and-plot-driven SF it's worth its price and will keep fans reading (but only fans).

A more elaborated review here.

Note: letter to OU sent this morning, supporting my application for the maths MSc course.