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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.


How's about that then?

Damned If I Do by Percival Everett

Where I should be recovering from a particularly nasty stomach bug, rather I appear to be on a Percival Everett trip today - first Strom, now Damned - but he really is that good. Good as in read-everything-he's-written-now good. Good as in I'm writing this on my iPad never more than two meters from the nearest toilet good. That's good. 

Damned If I Do is short stories, yes. That I have a curious relationship with short fiction is undisputed, but there are some like Breece D'J Pancake and Haruki Murakami that just have to be read, objections or no. Thankfully, it appears Everett has inherited some of their ability to write convincing, understated and ultimately addictive snippets of prose. And snippets they are. Somewhere I read once a quote from China Mielville where he says he just loves it when writers don't show the reader the monster in its entirety, that leaving something of the horror to the imagination of his audience adds a level of engagement and makes the …

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes fo…

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective/ˈmetə/
(of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referentialInterestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, t…