As Douglas Adams once wrote, space is really big. Really, really big. The distance between stars can be expressed in quantifiable terms, but it can’t really be internalized. Few science-fiction writers manage to convey that emptiness in a way that connects with readers, but Welsh author Alastair Reynolds has the knack in spades. In his newest novel, House Of Suns, the vast distances the main characters travel are described largely through the time it takes to traverse them at close to the speed of light. Thousands of years pass between points, civilizations die and new ones take their place, and through it all is the inky blackness of the void, rendering even the most momentous actions a small light in a big dark.
Campion and Purslane are “shatterlings,” members of a group of one thousand clones of a woman who sent copies of herself out to explore the galaxy. The Gentian Line, as they’re called, is one of many, and outsiders afford each group tremendous respect and prestige; this isn’t surprising, given that information is the universal currency, and the shatterlings have spent millennia acquiring it. The Gentians have rules against consorting, which leaves Campion and Purslane, lovers for centuries, somewhat concerned about the upcoming family reunion. They most likely face censure from their peers for their romance, and it doesn’t help that they’ll be half a century late to the gathering. But that delay saves their lives when the line is devastated by a surprise assault. Now they have to figure out who wants their people dead, and why.
House is classic hard science fiction, which means lots of high-concept theories, but that shouldn’t put off anyone who doesn’t immediately grasp the inherent possibilities of quantum mechanics. Reynolds has a knack for sharp, compulsively readable plotting, and even the book’s driest concepts don’t ever slow down the momentum. Characters are drawn quickly and efficiently, and the backstory is parceled out smoothly; the story starts without explaining much, but it’s immersive, not confusing. Heir to writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Reynolds keeps up the tradition of forward thinking while improving on the genre’s traditionally flat prose and clumsily drawn women. An immensely thrilling, mind-bending piece of work, House looks to the center of all that emptiness and finds its beating heart.