Sunday, 15 February 2009

Clone love

In my last review, I noted that, unlike my fiction diet, I routinely return to graze in the same authorial pasture when it comes to science fiction. Here we are again. This time with Alastair Reynolds and his latest novel, House of Suns.

Set in a distant future in which humanity has broadened into a multitude of subspecies distributed throughout an otherwise empty Milky Way, the only "fixed stars" in this universe are the Lines. These quasi-trading organisations are composed of clones, shatterlings, who travel the galaxy doing good works and acquiring information, before meeting up at regular periods to share their memories and compile their collected information into a "trove". Because of the size of the galaxy and the immutability of Einstein's universal speed limit, these meetings take place every 200,000 years, essentially geological intervals. This gives the Lines a view of galactic life in which non-Line civilisations rise and fall, then rise and fall again, time after time. They call this "turnover" and it is as natural a process to them as we'd judge the microscopic successions in the plankton. But despite collecting information over geological ages, even the Lines don't know everything - their biggest problem is the "disappearance" of the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy.

Against this galactic-scale backdrop, the novel focuses on two clones of the Gentian Line, Campion and Purslane, who, contrary to the codes that govern their Line, have fallen in love and now travel the galaxy together. A clone reunion is approaching fast, and Campion and Purslane are pondering how their Line will judge their relationship. However, before they can join their fellow shatterlings, a series of chance events brings them into contact with Hesperus, a member of the "machine people", a robotic civilisation. The shatterlings rescue Hesperus from imprisonment, but his memory has been partially wiped and he can no longer recall the mission on which the machine people sent him. Delayed by this encounter, the shatterlings arrive late for their reunion, only to find the event in disarray, with the Line almost totally destroyed by some outside agent. Fleeing this genocide of their Line, Campion and Purslane retreat to the safety of Neume, a distant rendezvous point for the Gentians. Here they meet the remaining fragments of the Line and mull over the disaster that has befallen it. They are assisted by the capture of some enemy agents, members of other Lines, but why would different Lines gang up on the Gentians? And why does the destruction of the Gentian Line appear to be linked to Campion and his trove?

Much like Century Rain and Pushing Ice, House of Suns is separate from Reynolds' Revelation Space books. I've remarked previously that this frees up Reynolds nicely to do a spot of world-building, something he's really good at. However, unlike those earlier titles, Reynolds isn't as sure-footed this time round. The initial set-up of the novel's universe is done well, and the role of the Lines and the nature of the galaxy they orbit are teasingly well-introduced to the reader. The relationship between Campion and Purslane isn't well-drawn or convincing (for much of the novel, I assumed that their coolness was plot-crucial, but it was really just weak writing), but this is a science fiction novel, so I'm prepared to let characterisation slide a bit.

Things start to go more significantly awry when Campion and Purslane wash up on Neume. The pace, which had hitherto been building up nicely, is ramped right down again. A whole host of new characters, mostly unpleasant ones, are introduced, and the novel becomes a bit of a "talkie", as the shatterlings bang on about the loss of their Line. It also takes on, rather unconvincingly, the well-worn and contemporary topic of prisoner torture, as the captured enemies are (unsuccessfully, obviously) pressed for information. Unfortunately, this section of the novel drags on for a significant fraction of the book, and though it's leavened with introduction of an ancient swarm intelligence called the Spirit of the Air and some revelations about pre-human artificial intelligences, Reynolds' editor really dropped the ball here.

Then, suddenly, the novel is off again, and the protagonists depart Neume in a near-light speed dash to a distant part of the galaxy. Although this portion of the novel takes the most time as measured from a rest frame, it passes in relatively few pages and ups the plot revelation-rate somewhat. However, as I was reading this portion, I was conscious that I was running out of pages [*] and, sure enough, Reynolds employs a deus ex machina (quite literally, given the protagonist involved) to explain quite large portions of the backstory in the novel's closing pages. I'm somewhat torn here, since I found these revelations very interesting, but their sudden release in literally a handful of pages is clumsy storytelling.

On the subject of clumsy storytelling, a plotline I've not mentioned above is the shuffled backstory of the Gentian Line which follows the life of the original individual, Abigail, who cloned herself to begin it. This is a good plotline of itself, but it's told gradually in a way that makes it appear much more central to the "current events" than it actually turns out to be. It might actually have made for a good novella in isolation from this novel. Reynolds has made good use of the shorter literary forms to fill in details of his universes before.

Overall, something of a mixed experience. Great set-up and some very interesting ideas throughout the book. But hamstrung by poor pacing and rather unconvincing characterisation. Perhaps a bit of a rush-job? That said, I'll still be clamouring for his next book, his form's been reliable and even this novel does have much to like about it.

[*] This is one way in which novels lose out to films. Unless one has both noted a film's duration and is checking one's watch, it's not obvious how much time a film has left, with the result that it can remain exciting before wrapping itself up in super-quick time. With a novel, one is well aware of how much is left, and if there appears to be a lot of ground still to cover (as there was here) a creeping sense of dread starts to coagulate (at least in this reader).


chimpaction said...

I've just ordered this from Amazon based on your review. Is there any of his books that I'd be better off reading first or would you consider this a good introduction to his work?

Plumbago said...

This one, like several of his books, is set in a completely unique universe, so there's absolutely no need to read anything else first.

As you may have gathered from other blog entries, he's got a big universe going called Revelation Space. That consists of a main sequence of 3 books, which are kind-of OK (diminishing returns apply), plus a number of other books and short stories which are much more successful.

My favourite of his books is one I read ages ago called Pushing Ice. It has flaws, but it tells one of those tantalising science fiction tales where you just want to find out more and more about the world it takes place in.

All that said, Iain Banks is still the name to beat in this game. While his novels aren't always brilliant, they're consistently streets ahead of almost all of his rivals.

chimpaction said...

Finally got round to reading this. It's been a while since I delved into science fiction so it took a while to get into. Overall, a good read. I agree with your comments about the super quick ending. I did like the machine people and the intelligent ships which reminded me a little of my favourite Banks novel - Excession.

Plumbago said...

When I was in Waterstone's the other day I spotted that he has a new book just out, Terminal World. Like House of Suns, it sounds like another of his one-off novels set in a novel universe. It's only in hardback at the moment, but I'm sure I'll get round to it in the not-too-distant future.

Anyway, glad to hear that you enjoyed this one. You've got a lot more quality reads by Reynolds ahead of you!