Wednesday, 29 June 2011

House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

More fantastic and flawed sci-fi from the author I've read more than any other in the past year.

This is another stand-alone novel like Reynold's Century Rain but with the awesome sweep of something like Robert Reed's Sister Alice.

It's set millions of years in the future, and across the galaxy humanity's evolved down countless routes, from furry winged people to whale-sized worms, from underwater slugs covered in barnacles to planet-spanning posthuman gods.  But the characters we follow take a wider view of things.  They're immortal clones and sentient robots, compared to whom the other interstellar civilisations rise and fall in the blink of an eye.  They call it "turnover."

This huge scale is made possible not just by immortality, but space travel.  Reynolds always seems to have a bee in his bonnet about faster than light travel, and good on him I say.  It takes hundreds, even thousands of years to travel from one star to the other, but this becomes integral to the plot and the way the characters interact.

What also works well are the descriptions.  Worlds which feel like they've come from the cover of a Yes album.  Vast spaceships in the shape of headless swans and "art-deco rhombuses."  It feels like how I always thought sci-fi should feel when I was a kid.  And on top of all that you've got brilliant action scenes, engaging characters, and a great plot with big galactic mysteries to solve.  Yet it still doesn't really work.

I'm going to speculate that it comes from a certain slapdash attitude to the plotting.  For instance, one of the most interesting characters is killed off fairly early on in very suspicious circumstances.  It's never mentioned again.  The main story concerns a big massacre, but the reason for it being carried out is deeply unconvincing.  It just seems to be there to move the story along, and I remember a very similar problem in Century Rain.  By the end there are so many loose ends, that you don't care about the big awesome finale.

This is such a pity because for much of the time I was enjoying this book more than any other I've read this year.  Seriously, sort it out Reynolds.

I've already finished another book, Sputnik Caledonia, which I'll review soon.  And I should rattle through a slim volume about great British eccentrics fairly quickly.


Anonymous said...

You are a details guy. I wonder if I would care or notice...?

I'm still trying to decide to curse you for Super Cannes. I'm still reading it but it strikes me that is very similar in style and tone to White Noise. Only 20 years on.


Joe said...

It's more than details - having re-read my review I should've made it clear how it tails off. The ending perhaps could be awesome but nothing much actually happens.

New review - first half great, second half shit.

Supercannes, again, I've never read. But JG Ballard's a pretty good bet, I've always found. Have you enjoyed any book recently?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I have high standards... unlike you. Book whore.


Ed said...

I enjoyed Super-Cannes personally. It is basically a re-run of Cocaine Nights though. And it's essentially the same dystopian blueprint Ballard worked from throughout his career. I don't think he ever topped High Rise really.

Anonymous said...

OK, I finished this on the plane to India. I get what you are saying in this review. The first half is great but what really happened to the Dr...

Also I agree the ending is just plain wank. I think he wrote himself into a corner. The plot seems to ramp up in pace but it just suddenly stops with the past 100 pages proving to be pointless.


PS: Supercannes did pick up towards the end but I never believed any of it. I was never really invested in it.

Joe said...

Currently reading Reynolds new one Terminal World, which is a far future steampunk and airships affair. Interesting!

As usual the plot's kind of stalled in the middle, so it'll either conk out like House of Suns or turn ace like Revolution Space.

That's not you back in blighty yet, is it? Surely they don't have the internet in India?

Check out the howmuchfortheape blog for all the FrightFest action.

Joe said...

Jesus, apologies for the missing possesive apostrophe there, and for getting REVELATION Space wrong

Joe said...

And for misspelling possessive