Monday, 15 April 2013

House Of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

Oh Campion! Oh Purslane!
Oh do shut up.

To be honest – a disclaimer of such persiflage that it makes me do a little bit of sick in my mouth – I got this book free from Waterstones in 2007 as a give-away promo thingamee and have um-ed and meh-ed over it since. However, as it survived the Great Purge of 2012 I felt it must hold some latent significance so, unhindered by preference I finally picked it from the shelves to peruse.

An epic space opera it is, or is billed as such, and it ticks most if not all of the boxes for the genre – far future communities, massively advanced technologically, staggeringly epic life spans of protagonists, limited empathy for transient cultures etc. The Boy from Barry done good they tell me. Compares favourably to Banks et al I was flattered to read (vicarious gratification from a very tenuous local link). Shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 2011, eh? And yet, when I compare this to something like Marrow by Robert Reed, another doyen of the profession and  winner of a Hugo in 2007 (for A Billion Eves, 2006), there is something lacking, a something which defies me to define it so that I might explain it clearly to you, my reader, although I’ll give it a try. Bold, visionary, accurate (as far as I can tell) House of Suns is a good, if not very good book. 

In the pros column:
  • The plot is coherent; it flows well and is as accessible as a hard science fiction novel can be.
  • The triple narrative, swapping between the perspectives of the two co-habiting shatterlings (clones of an original galactic pioneer, who travel the galaxy individually, collecting space junk and stories to share at their once-a-circuit meetings – approximately every 200,000 years or so) and the Gentian Line founder, Abigail Gentian, is interesting, not too upsetting and sets a sound if prosaic pace for development of said plot.
  • The shatterlings’ big picture overview of the rise and decline of cultures provides an otherworldly quality to the proceedings, a good thing in sci-fi.

Conversely, in the cons column:
  • The plot is not that intricate – or rather is a bit opaque and leaden, paced sluggishly and slightly guilty of the occasional info-dump to fill gaps; it’s not all that persuasive and doesn't really tie in every last little thing into one I-can’t-believe-it-WOW blockbuster of intrigue and suspense. The pace does pick up but it starts slowly and occasionally loses focus.
  • None of the characters (the archivists of The Vigilance aside) convey that menace that a good helping of hubris adds to an ideal far-future de-humanised human. Despite acting like disinterested and benign god-like creatures, the Gentian Line (and the other Houses) really lack a bit of self-interested viciousness, but are also too mundane, worrying about daft little things like being late, not keeping promises and sleeping with each other. The de-familiarization of the familiar, whilst pushing at my suspension of disbelief in terms of temporal scale, is absent from characters like Campion and Purslane, our two shatterling protagonists; they are just too dull and ordinary, despite the fantastical setting. Compare to the artificial intelligences of Banks’ Culture novels of which one can never be sure they’re not planning to instigate genocide just for fun. Compare with Marrow and that feeling that there is an incomprehensible terror lurking in the background just waiting to swallow us all up. The whole thing is missing a Machiavellian mind that even Asher’s Orbus manages.
  • There’s far too much guff and not enough stuff. The good things aren't explored anywhere near fully enough for my liking – inter-House intrigue, the restrictions on relationships – and there are some rather clunky guffy things like synchromesh that just don’t gel, exciting as they might be.

Out of context, perhaps, this book just doesn't cut it for me. I understand it came about as an expansion on a short story, and perhaps this is telling in so far as the ideas are sound, but in the filling-out thereof it has become too woolly. A shorter, more elegant novella may have served as a better vehicle for the ideas herein, but then, I'm a critic, not a writer. I do this because I can’t do that, so what do I know? Only this – House of Suns is good, but it just falls short of the mark of excellence I expect of the lauded company in which Reynolds’ publishers are keen to sit him. I will not be put off trying another though, perhaps his first to get a better idea of where he began and where he is now, and as a local boy, I would feel bad if I didn't support him. You never know – one day this critic may have a book to flog himself and may need a helping hand.

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