"You're a very special young lady, Abigail Gentian," was what my mother told me on one of the many occasions when her ageless face addressed me from one of the house's panes. "You're going to do great things with your life."
She had no idea.
Somewhat belatedly (busy month), here is my final post on this year's Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. (Previous posts are all linked here; the winner, announced at the end of last month, was Ian R. MacLeod's Song of Time.) Last but not least, then - more sort mid-table - comes the widescreen, epoch-spanning space opera House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds.
The considerable scope of the book is signalled right in the (splendid) first line:
I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.
I was a girl then, a single individual called Abigail Gentian.
(Yes, I realise that's two lines, but I like them both!)
The narrative moves back and forth between three first-person points of view: there are chapters that look to the past, exploring memories of Abigail's past in her Gormenghast-esque home, growing from a pampered prolonged childhood into discomforting knowledge of her family's recent history; and chapters that look forward - six million years forward, give or take - to the epic journeys through space and time of Campion and Purslane, whom we gradually learn are two of Abigail's many clones (known by the rather lovely term "shatterlings").
The shatterlings of the Gentian Line, originally 1000 strong, spend their lives - which have been boosted by genetic modifications to something very close to immortality, it seems, although their numbers have suffered some attrition over the millennia through misadventure of various sorts - making great meandering circuits of the galaxy. These last for hundreds of thousands of years at a time, and are a mix of extremely well-equipped tourism, planetary engineering for hire, and occasional bouts of do-gooding/civilisational interference. At intervals (really long intervals), they meet to pool their memories of what they've experienced.
[Appropriately, it's now over a week since I started writing this post. Deep time blogging! Anyway...]
Some minor tweaks to the way their brains deal with memories go some way towards helping the shatterlings adapt to this way of life; but since, as one puts it, "'Our minds just aren't engineered to experience that much time in the raw'", more is needed. Their most important coping mechanism - and a recurring motif in the book - is their sleep technology, which allows them to spend as much or as little of the journey between two points in stasis (which they call "going into abeyance"). They are old, then, but not that old, and they meet other humans - or former humans; most organic life in the galaxy consists of beings that have evolved from humans - who are older:
"You were born that long ago [six million years], but I doubt you have experienced more than a few tens of thousands of years of subjective time. You are a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history. Is that not so?"
The Gentian clones are not identical in the way that, say, twins are; rather, we're told, Abigail has modified each of them during their development, playing up some characteristic (physical, mental, emotional) in certain individuals, and different characteristics in others. They're not even all the same sex, which is a bit disappointing - an all-women space opera would've been something to see - although, given the way the plot works, perhaps not all that surprising. (People who know much more than I do about genetics tell me that this is impossible unless Abigail herself has a rare variant of Kleinfelter's syndrome; however, since Kleinfelter is the name of Abigail's nurse/guardian in the flashback chapters, I assume Reynolds is at least acknowledging the problem, although he never directly addresses it.) Thus, Campion is a man and Purslane a woman.
As the story begins, Campion and Purslane are making their way to a scheduled Gentian meet-up, with two passengers in tow: a robot (or a "Machine Person") named Hesperus, and an irritating aquatic critter called Dr Meninx (another product of evolution from humankind). The party is in no great hurry, and seem to spend much of the time having minor adventures (some of which turn out to be more relevant to the overall plot than others) and getting more and more delayed. But then, Campion, we soon learn (from Purslane), has spent the millennia turning procrastination into an artform:
He did not just put things off until tomorrow; he put them off for tens of kilo-years, until his delays and evasions consumed significant chunks of an entire circuit. His motto might have been Why do today what you can still do in a quarter of a million years?
They have other reasons to drag their feet; the pair not only tend to travel together - frowned upon by Line custom, as each shatterling is supposed to see the world alone - but they are in a relationship. Purslane justifies this in flowery, but revealing, terms:
"I just don't think that an experience is worth anything unless you can remember it afterwards. [...] To see something marvellous with your own eyes - that's wonderful enough. But when two of you see it, two of you together, holding hands, holding each other close, knowing that you'll both have that memory for the rest of your lives, but that each of you will only ever hold an
incomplete half of it, and that it won't ever really exist as a whole until you're together, talking or thinking about that moment ... that's worth more than one plus one."
Within the (suffocating?) communal identity of the Line, individuality and uniqueness are pursued through life as two halves of a pair; ironically, of course, these experiences can only remain uniquely incomplete if Campion and Purslane edit their memories before they share them with the rest of the Line (thus, too, selfishness seeps into the communal self).
One of the aforementioned adventures sees Campion - always looking to trade information, to further the Gentian Line's collective knowledge of the galaxy - swallowed (voluntarily and temporarily) by a sort of giant FutureLibrarian. This produces one of the great out-of-context lines of our time ("The peculiarities of the curator's digestive tract became apparent as I took in more of my surroundings"), although even in context it's entertainingly bizarre. This taste for the random, for the exotically batshit imaginative, is probably the most appealing aspect of the book; early on, we encounter "an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings". Reynolds does some very fun stupidly-giant-canvas description:
Four stiff black fingers reached from the dunes, each an obelisk of the Benevolence, each tilted halfway to the horizontal. The shortest of the fingers must have been four or five kilometres from end to end, while the longest — one of the two middle digits — was at least eight. From a distance, caught in the sparkling light of the lowering sun, it was as if the fingers were encrusted with jewellery of blue stones and precious metal. But the jewellery was Ymir: the Witnesses had constructed their city on the surface of the fingers, with the thickest concentrations of structures around the middle portions of the fingers. A dense mass of azure towers thrust from the sloped foundations of the Benevolence relics, fluted and spiralled like the shells of fabulous sea creatures, agleam with gold and silver gilding. A haze of delicate latticed walkways and bridges wrapped itself around the towers of Ymir, with the longer spans reaching from finger to finger. The air spangled with the bright moving motes of vehicles and airborne people, buzzing from tower to tower.
Indeed, there is little here that does not happen on a Giant Scale; I was particularly taken with the Dyson clouds: the practice of 'damming' stars by surrounding them with "thousands of ringworlds", since "there is nothing shinier [than ringworlds] in the known universe. That mirrored inner surface reflects everything, including neutrinos that would happily sail through fifty light-years of solid lead." The idea of using a wormhole as an enormous flamethrower (by anchoring one end in a star, and taking aim with the other)? Also very cool. Even the inevitable climactic chase sequence, good guys vs. bad guys, takes place over thousands of years, with the help of stasis/sleep technology...
When Campion and Purslane finally, belatedly, reach the gathering, the book shifts abruptly into thriller territory: the Line, they discover, has been attacked by forces unknown. Fewer than a hundred of the shatterlings survive to reconvene - with Campion and Purslane's timely help - on the planet described immediately above. A murder investigation - relatively speedy by the shatterlings' standards - is soon underway, with fingers pointed both within and without the Line.
The mystery's set-up is intriguing; but its resolution is, invariably, rather talky in execution, and almost a month after finishing the book I find it hasn't really stayed with me. A broader problem that I had with the novel, though, is that our two main narrators - Campion and Purslane - aren't nearly individual enough to justify the alternating viewpoints. Yes, I know, they're clones. Very possibly, indeed, this is part of Reynolds' point: the shatterlings aren't nearly as individual and autonomous as they think they are, and the ritual of sharing memories repeatedly draws them back into the fold from any divergence that may have taken place during a circuit. Perhaps this is signalled when, near the end of the book - near the start of the shatterlings' tale - Abigail is advised,
"They're not you, no matter how much you might wish them to be. They're your children. The more you try to force them to be like you, the more they're going to flare off in different directions like wild fireworks, the more they're going to surprise and disappoint you."
Perhaps, in response to this, she deliberately sets out to make them superficially different, so as to give them less apparent cause to rebel and go off like fireworks? Regardless, though, as a reading experience it rather lacks something, and it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the impression that Campion and Purslane get separate narratives simply so that we still know what is happening with both parts of the plot when they are forced apart.
Furthermore, whether or not Campion and Purslane are distinct individuals, they seem curiously wedded to heteronormative gender (here is Purslane under stress: "I pulled myself tighter against [Campion]. He felt fixed and solid, an anchor I could tie myself to"). So does the plot, large parts of which turn on female Gentians being threatened and/or rescued by their male counterparts. (There is one woman who does her own thing - a splendidly, horribly inventive extended torture programme in pursuit of information about the murders - but she is, alas, only a minor character.) This is, as I said above, disappointing, although I suppose it does function as an example of how the Gentians are in some ways hopelessly old-fashioned - if remarkably successful, still - in an otherwise mostly post-human universe. On which Niall has some excellent points: in many ways the shatterlings are still children, sleeping away the millennia while everyone around them experiences life directly, and grows up.
A fascinating scenario, then - I love the idea of the shatterlings as "fugitives from the past, envoys to the future", as one of Abigail's contemporaries puts it - but the story drawn out of it never fully engaged me, or quite did justice to the material. I did enjoy the way that the resolution to the murder mystery tied in with the flashbacks, but it was not enough.
If you want a taster of Reynolds, some of his short stories are available to read online (I really liked "Signal to Noise", from his collections Zima Blue and Other Stories, but unfortunately that isn't online).