No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, April 05, 2009

#25: House of Suns -- Alastair Reynolds

Perhaps the Lines had it all wrong. We accumulated experience for the sake of it, stretched our lives out across millions of years, but even when things were going well ... there was a neurotic anxiety at the back of all our minds, a shrill voice instructing us to see everything, to look round every corner, to leave no stone unturned. We were like children who had to try every sweet in the shop, even if it made us sick. We knew there was more of the galaxy than we could ever encompass by ourselves, but the voice did not allow us to take that as license to give up. All it said was try harder. (p. 214)

Back in the Golden Hour (a place, not a time) lived a woman named Abigail Gentian, who was greedy for experience: she made a thousand clones of herself and sent them out across an untouched, unexplored galaxy. Six million years later, the Gentian Line -- nearly nine hundred of the original thousand clones, or 'shatterlings' -- is a force to be reckoned with: living almost as gods, the Line specialises in stardams (using multiple ringworlds to swaddle a supernova and prevent the destruction of neighbouring civilisations). The shatterlings -- each travelling, by custom, alone -- are the epitome of galactic tourists, welcome wherever they go for their knowledge, influence and power. Periodically, the shatterlings meet up for the Thousand Nights, a festival of reunion, story-telling, remembrance and celebration.

Campion and Purslane are years late for the present Thousand Nights. As if that's not bad enough, they're travelling together -- 'consorting' -- which is severely frowned upon by the Line. And they have guests: Doctor Meninx, a grossly post-human aquatic academic, and Hesperus, a representative of the Machine People, who they've freed from durance vile. Hesperus has forgotten much, and knows only that he was bound on some vital mission before his capture: Doctor Meninx, prickly and paranoid, discovers one of Hesperus's secrets, and together the four concoct a theory that might explain matters. The Vigilance, a Dyson swarm that single-mindedly collects information, may hold the secret of the Absence -- the disappearance, or occlusion, of the Andromeda galaxy.

Then everything goes terribly, unexpectedly wrong.

House of Suns is narrated by three voices (Campion and Purslane, with brief interludes where Abigail recounts her origins). Those three voices are -- for obvious, though not necessarily accurate, reasons -- fairly similar, but I don't think they're identical: in particular, Campion's voice stands out from the other two. But they're technically all the same person, or they were once the same person. (On a related note, is consorting between shatterlings equivalent to incest? or masturbation? or something we don't yet have a word for?)

House of Suns is partly a tale of treachery and deceit: within the Gentian Line, within Abigail's own mind, between one meta-civilisation and another, perhaps even between galaxies. It's a story about what happens when you suppress a memory: does it stay repressed, or does it find expression elsewhere by warping other memories? And is the same true for societies as individuals? House of Suns is also a story about a vast sweep of time and space: the shatterlings are pretty much immortal (barring accidents and deliberate violence), they've travelled the length and breadth of the Milky Way, and like 'bookworm(s) who [have] tunnelled through the pages of history' (p. 52) they've seen a plethora of 'turnover' civilisations that'll last mere hundreds of thousands of years. They even have a device, a Universal Actuary, which calculates the probability of any visited civilisation being around next time they drop by.

It's also partly the tale of Campion and Purslane and their love affair:
To see something marvellous with your own eyes -- that's wonderful enough. But when two of you see it, two of you together ... knowing that you'll both have that memory for the rest of your lives, but that each of you will only ever hold an incomplete half of it, and that it won't ever really exist as a whole until you're together, talking or thinking about that moment ... that's worth more than one plus one. ... I think I'd rather die than lose those memories. (p. 67)

Another element that I think more important than it initially appears is Palatial -- the virtual environment game, a fantasy world of sorcerers, Ghost Soldiers and ladies-in-waiting, that Abigail and her childhood friend (she's forgotten his name) spend subjective years inside. Palatial, after all, has never been released for general use: it's not wholly safe ...

This is a hard novel to discuss without mentioning specific plot-points and slowly-revealed secrets. But it's not hard to recommend: for sheer sense-of-wonder, for arresting prose (some excellent similes: we began slowdown and dug claws into spacetime like cats sliding down a wall (p.114)), for complex plotting, for marvellously science-fictional images:
Ateshga's world 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. (p. 22)

And there's an optimism, a long view, a sense of celebration of humanity's endless curiosity and creativity, that reminds me of Golden Age science fiction and the assumption that the galaxy's just waiting to be discovered:
I have faith in the human spirit. Faith that says we won't stay here for ever, in this little campfire huddle around an undistinguished yellow star. (p. 234)

There are flaws, trailing threads, perhaps too much ambiguity on certain issues: but it's a thrilling, engaging and well-written read.

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