Monday, 6 April 2009

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns (2008)

‘Old fashioned future-fiction’ only looks like an oxymoron. It turns out you can’t say, when it comes to 1950s grand scale galactic space opera, ‘they just don’t write em like that any more.’ Some of they do indeed write em, and pretty much exactly like that. Imagine a painter who’s mastered the style of Ingres in order to paint contemporary pictures in exactly that style. Only instead of Ingres imagine 'Golden Age Space Opera'. And instead of paint imagine 'write'. And instead—look, I think you take my point.

House of Suns is pretty-much impossible to dislike, but not a novel easy to love with true passion. It’s completely in control of its idiom; it's just that its idiom can’t do very much beyond animating a series of Ed Emshwiller and Chris Foss canvases. Narrative, tick. Widescreen visuals, tick. Other stuff, hmm.

But it's certainly a read; and you won't grudge (or, indeed, especially notice the passing of) the time you commit to it. The book opens very well indeed, sketching its huge vistas of space and time expressively and convincingly, and dropping the key foundations of the plot into place in the reader’s mind: the galactic scale, non-FTL interstellar travel, the mysterious disappearance of the Andromeda Galaxy (‘the Absence’), and our two likeable heroes (heroes must be likeable, after all), two of 880 clones of Abigail Gentian sent to do more boldly-going than one single individual could, and gathering at a regular shindig to pool their thoughts. There’s The Vigilance, a several-million-year-old database that takes the form of a dyson swarm around a star, monitoring everything, and that is tended by several-million-year-old curators who achieve immortality by never stopping growing, and who are therefore giants—beings who know everything in the cosmos except the proper use of the subjunctive (‘There could be no point in the Vigilance if it was ephemeral’, 49). There are Machine Intelligences, robots who may or may not be on our side. There are many planets and spaceships.

All deeply readable stuff. Reynolds is rather disgustingly skilled, actually, when it comes to plotting—not only structuring his story so that its build-ups and pay-offs are all in the right places, but pacing the whole, drawing the reader along, with only the occasional longeur. The first 200 pages hurtle by; the next hundred tread narrative water a little, but things pick up again around 300 and the reader is propelled nicely down the flume to the end-pool.

On the downside, the writing is almost universally bland and flavourless, and (setting aside a few deliberately cranky walk-on alien parts) all the characters are pretty much the same character. Of course most of the characters in this novel are the same character, or clones thereof, but I don’t think this excuses it; they’re supposed to have been living separate lives, and developing separate personalities, for millions of years after all. They haven’t done so, though, on the evidence of this text. I was perhaps a quarter of the way into the book before I twigged that the narrative p.o.v. was alternating between the two twin-like deuteragonists (Purslane and Campion), and that’s not a good thing.

The millions of years thing is problematic, actually, because those huge timescales are mediated for us via the characters from the Gentian line—ordinary humans who happened to have lived insanely lengthy lives. Some of that time they’ve been in stasis, it’s true, but nevertheless I could not swallow the idea that an existence so prolonged would leave the individuals and the collective both radically unchanged. Galactic empires rise and fall like lily leaves in a pond, we are repeatedly told; but the Gentian line has somehow managed not only to preserve its own integrity throughout all this time (which I could just about believe) but to preserve its own bourgeois heteronormative do-good-y values as well. The effect, I fear, is to shrink the declared millions of years down to ordinary human life-cycle proportions, which is corrosive of the sort of sense-of-wonder Reynolds usually provides. Baxter's better at billennia.

Too much niceness, too much whiteness (one of the line has dark skin, but in a Lieutenant Uhura sort of way), middle-classness, straightness and un-weirdness in the Gentian line; they’re positioned too closely to a 2009 and too far from a 6,000,209 point of view. Would it really be possible to live for millions (that’s millions) of years, travel literally around the entire galaxy countless times, encounter all manner of bizarre alien life, then come across an elephant-cognate creature with a trunk that seems to you (again, not once but several times) ‘repulsive’? How repulsively unusual can a trunk be, amongst 400 million mostly inhabited stars?

So this is by no means the best book Reynolds has written, although it is by no means a bad or inconsiderable book for all that. It is, fundamentally, a confection: a dash of Doc Smith’s enormous spaceships, a slug of Asimov’s Second Foundation (in the titular organisation—and in the whitebread pangalactic civilisation of the worldbuilding) a flavour of Iain M Banks, a splash of Egan’s syncromesh stasis devices (to facilitate Newtonian sublight interstellar travel) that slow people down to glacial speeds; and an inadvertent whiff of Un chien andalu (‘The wind hardened, cutting into my eyes as if with a razor’ 236). Familiar figures have walk on parts. Here’s Jane(fon)daBar(barella):

She wore a tight-fitting one-piece garment of quilted black plates with something of the texture of leather, cross-webbed across the chest with jointed metal. [163]
(Misheard that—Jindabyne, sorry, not JaneDaBar). And here’s a character whose voice breaks into chunks and can provoke obesity:

‘But we do know their intentions,’ Cyphel says. She had a voice like dark chocolate. [178]
There’s a torture scene in which a villainous somebody is sliced into numerous thin slices and displayed à la Damien Hurst between glass, without killing or especially paining them, which left me a tad confused. But there's also a neat series of narrative bait-and-switches, and it all culminates in a roaring starship chase. I wasn’t quite sold on the final ending, in which the two main characters literally fly out the window (the galactic window, I mean), leaving one of them in a position such that I wasn’t sure how she’d narrated her half of the book. But if it is your contention that the face of SF 2009 is Asimov’s mutton-chops and meaty NHS-style-but-presumably-not-actually-NHS-what-with-him-being-American glasses, and if you're not bothered by bourgeois heteronormativity, then this is most definitely the book for you.

1 comment:

Finlay Ossian said...

I get the feeling you missed a point about how much subjective time that the characters experienced over those 6 million years, around 10k years I think the chaps at the Vigilance said. Most of it was spent at relativistic speeds and suspended animation, the entire chase scene at the end took around 80k years all in all, compressed to a subjective 2-3 days from the characters perspective.

Also there were no aliens in the story at all, the civilisation of Trunked peoples, the Consentience (if I remember the name right) were an offshoot of humanity like all the other races inside it.