Early in Alastair Reynold’s House of Suns, one of the protagonists, Campion, is asked to describe himself. “I was born six million years ago,” he says, “one of a thousand male and female clones of Abigail Gentian.”
That line signals the awesome scale of Reynolds’s latest science fiction extravaganza. Campion is a member of the Gentian Line, a network of clones that is distributed across the galaxy. The clones make long, sub-luminal loops among planetary systems, convening only every couple of thousand years for a grand reunion in which they merge their collective knowledge and set priorities for the next great cycle.
What the Gentians do with so much time at their disposal is build huge, mind-boggling infrastructure. House of Suns begins with a negotiation between Campion and a centaur-like race about the construction of a “stardam” — a massive shell, built around an aging sun, that is strong enough to contain a supernova. At a later point, Purslane, another clone, contemplates how her brothers and sisters could commemorate her demise: “They might etch my face across the surface of a planet, or blow an image of me into the gas of a nebula, or even shape a supernova remnant into my likeness. It had all been done before.”
But Reynolds doesn’t stop there. The Gentian Line is impressive, but they are hardly alone in the universe. Early in the novel, Campion visits the Vigilance, a race of massive barely-humans who have constructed an artificial solar system dedicated to collecting knowledge. Later, Purslane and Campion encounter a member of the Machine People, beautiful constructs with convincingly alien thought patterns and a vicious tendency to react with total war against their enemies.
What is most impressive about House of Suns is the way that its plot — essentially an intergalactic murder mystery — has a scope as vast as its setting. The mystery begins with a genuinely shocking large-scale crime. To solve it, Purslane and Campion must cross light-years, endure endless millennia, and unravel secrets that have resisted discovery even against the collective might of the Vigilance. And the incredible resolution of the mystery makes even these unimaginable times and distances seem as pedestrian as a walk in the park.
House of Suns still suffers from Reynolds’s typical flaws, including emotionally chilly characters (everybody feels like a Machine Person). But as a showcase of Reynolds’s strengths — universe-building, plot, and the all-important sense of wonder — House of Suns is the best book that he has written yet.