House of Suns is the most recent book by Alastair Reynolds, best known for the Revalation Space books. Reynolds is a former physicist from CERN and for the most part the universes he creates prohibit faster than light travel. The universe that House of Suns is set in is the best part of the book. Humanity has colonized the galaxy and, through genetic maniupulation, separated into many wildly different sub-species such as those that are adapted to live on water planets who are part dolphin, those that live on planets with higher gravities who are more like elephants. One group of very long lived, if not immortal, clones travels the galaxy compiling a database on each civilization they encounter. It takes them about 200,000 years to make a circuit of the galaxy after which time they meet up and exchange data with each other. They use this information for trade purposes on each circuit, though generally any civilization that they have gathered data on during a circuit has fallen by the time any individuals from the line of clones return to that part of the galaxy. It seems that only groups that are constantly on the move around the galaxy don’t experience the inevitable fall of their civilization, though this could also be due to the time dialation effects of spending most of their extended lives travelling at near the speed of light. The main part of the novel involves an attack on the meeting that occurs once every 200,000 years. This attack wipes out all but a handful of the long lived soujourners and they spend most of the rest of the novel trying to figure out who in this galaxy of constantly rising and falling civilizations has the resources and ability to plan and execute such a long term strategy.
So the setup is great.
The execution of the novel can be a bit confusing, especially at the start as the author doesn’t clearly define which character currently has the point of view (they are all clones and the author swaps in and out). You pick up what is going on eventually, but it is a bit of a speed bump at the start of the book. The other problem, once shared by most novels that rely upon an elaborate conspiracy, is that when the conspiracy is unwound at the end, things fall a bit flat. The conspiracy is always more entertaining than the perpetrators of the conspiracy. The first three quarters of the book is great and the last a bit of a let down. The first three quarters make the book worth reading though and the let down isn’t staggering – its just that you go from reading a five star book to a three and a half star one near the end.
Reynolds “The Prefect” was one of my favourite reads of 2007. It is a stand alone book set in the Revalation Space universe and something that can be easily picked up by someone not willing to commit to a trilogy (or quadrilogy if you count Chasm City – even more if you count the short story collections) and a much better mystery. “The Prefect” was a tough act to follow (just as Anathem will be for Stephenson and River of Gods for McDonald), but would be my recommendation for those new to Reynold’s writing. The reason I haven’t reveiwed it more fully is that I’m trying to concentrate this blog on recently published books that people probably haven’t read, rather than stuff that has been around for a few years that they are more likely to have picked up.