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Literature / House of Suns

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House of Suns is a novel by Welsh sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds, set in more or less the same universe as the novella Thousandth Night.

Six million years in the future, the entire galaxy is a Used Future. Tens of thousands of human civilizations have risen and fallen. The galaxy's been united under a single banner too many times to count. In the face of deep time, each galactic federation always falls. No one group endures.

Except the Lines. Individually known as "shatterlings", the Gentian Line is composed of slightly under a thousand clones made from a woman who lived in the 31st century. They individually roam the galaxy, traveling from star to star near the speed of light, skipping over the ages via time dilation. Their purpose is to explore and catalogue civilizations. Every quarter-million years they all come together to share their experiences and combine their knowledge. They've existed for the past six million years, witness to the constant grind of civilization.

Campion and Purslane are two shatterlings who are running late to the most recent Line reunion, having been delayed for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, during their travels, they manage to rescue an amnesiac android named Hesperus. Returning him to the Machine People, a society of advanced robots, would put the Gentian Line on very good terms with them, so Campion and Purslane figure that will excuse them for their lateness to the Reunion.

Things aren't quite what they seem. Hesperus is discovered to have a human arm underneath his metal exterior, a fact that even he can't explain due to his amnesia. And another guest of theirs mysteriously dies during the journey to the reunion. But worst of all is that when they get to the Reunion planet, they find it utterly wiped out. Turns out, someone is attempting to wipe out the Line. Someone who has intimate knowledge of the Line's secrets, and who keeps a very long grudge.

No relation to the sci-fi game House Of The Dying Sun. It also has no direct relation to Crying Suns, although the latter operates from a similar premise.

This novel provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Subverted: In the past, a robot culture emerged. Humanity, fearing this trope, created a virus which infected all the robots with a kill-switch, to be used only in case humanity felt it needed to be. The virus malfunctioned and activated anyway, initiating a genocide. The House of Suns erased all references to the event from history and maintain a conspiracy to keep it that way. The plot of the book is primarily driven by the assumption that the First Machines would want revenge for what was done to them. One faction of the Machine People is attempting to prevent that and the other to facilitate it. In the end it turns out that the First Machines have no interest in what they consider to be a vice of biologicals and have moved on thoroughly averting the trope.
  • Alien Sky: The world that the novel starts on has a special atmospheric bubble which, at night, amplifies faint stars and nebulae, creating a very colorful night sky.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The House of Suns is one, being formed by the Line members responsible for the creation of the virus that wiped out the First Machines. They try to erase any evidence and memories of the First Machines from existence to keep the genocide secret, wiping out Lines and civilizations if necessary.
  • Artificial Gravity: Used by the starships to propel themselves and to protect their occupants from the crushing force of their thrust.
  • Baby Planet: The planetoid where Abigail Gentian was raised. While it does not appear to host an atmosphere it does have much stronger gravity than it should due to the black hole in the center of it.
  • Big Dumb Object: The Vigilance, a massive Dyson swarm which archives all human knowledge. May qualify as a Big Smart Object.
  • Body Horror: The far-future torture technique called "sectioning", in which the victim is gradually cut into smaller and smaller pieces while being kept alive (with advanced technology).
  • Chekhov's Gun: There are few mentions about a case of Gentian Stardam failing and the Gentian Line trying to cover it up. This seems to mainly be about how that technology isn't as secure as it should be. Late in the story, it turns out the Stardam didn't fail: it was deliberately opened by a group of Machine People trying to find a Prior wormhole leading to the Andromeda Galaxy.
  • Cool Star Ship : The Silver Wings Of Morning. Basically, the starships from the Revelation Space series turned up to eleven.
  • Creative Sterility: The original Machine People couldn't create art, but were fascinated by it.
  • Deflector Shields: Used throughout the novel. A ubiquitous technology during the time of the novel. Also used for inertial dampening, as a ship's shields can be projected internally around its inhabitants, allowing extremely high-g maneuvers that would normally render everybody inside to jelly.
  • Dyson Sphere: The Gentian Line's stardams, which can contain a supernova.
  • Endangered Species: Though not a "species", per se, this is pretty much what happens to the Gentian Line. They went from 1000 members to only fifty after the initial attack on them, and with someone actively gunning for them, they are in real danger of being wiped out forever.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Humanity never broke the light speed barrier, and all travel has to be done STL, with everything that implies. Causality remains an intractable problem. Until it is revealed at the end that the Priors managed to crack that problem and built a wormhole to Andromeda — and even then, they had to create the Absence that makes Andromeda unobservable from the Milky Way and vice versa in order to preserve causality.
  • Floral Theme Naming: Members of the Gentian Line are named after flowering plants.
  • The Fog of Ages: The shatterlings have lived through six million years (though, admittedly, only a couple tens of thousands of those conscious) and routinely re-arrange/edit their memory. It's implied that they could hold all of their memories at once, if they wanted to, but having that many memories would affect their personality so drastically that most choose not to. Most the long-lived characters tend to hold a rough cliff-notes version of their memories in their heads, but not any of the details; the main character Campion intentionally prioritizes his "recent" memories, which in part drives the main plot. The beings who actually lived through those 6 million years consciously tend to have problems verifying old data or check its significance, like Vigiliance not realizing the importance of their information on the Andromeda and other stuff that would reveal the existence of the First Machines, or Abraham Valmik unable to truly confirm his memories about his interactions with the First Machines until his interaction with Hesperus confirms it.
  • Gentle Giant: The Curators, immortal librarians working and residing within the Vigilance, who are constantly growing due to their particular brand of life extension and eventually become larger than skyscrapers. Despite the resulting intimidating presence, they are nothing but affable and cooperative during Purslane and Campion's visit.
  • Ghost Planet: Implied to be very common throughout the galaxy. Since the various descendants of humanity have been cavorting around the galaxy for the past six million years, there are plenty of planets that once played host to technological civilizations only to leave nothing behind but ruins.
  • Humanity's Wake: Due to the sheer number of civilizations that have come before, it seems you can't go anywhere in the galaxy without bumping into some planet that was colonized, terraformed, rose to prominence, became the center of a galactic civilization, then died out, leaving the ruins to be colonized again by whatever evolved in the three million years that has passed...
  • Human Popsicle: Since all travel has to be done STL, all biological travelers are put in abeyance, stasis field where passage of time inside can be tuned to be significantly slower than the outside. Plain cryostasis also exists, however; Purslane prefers it over abeyance because she doesn’t like the feeling of compressed time.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: The Lines come into contact with a curious, benign robotic civilization spawned from human technology. The Lines develop a virus to disable the robots if they pose a threat to human civilization, triggered remotely. Except the virus suddenly goes off and begins wiping out the civilization, and the Lines desperately cover it up by ignoring the robots, and then cover it up, by wiping out entire human civilizations and individual Lines.
  • Human Subspecies: Humanity fractured into a million daughter species, some of which were scarcely recognisable to each other.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Well, wormholespace anyways.
  • I Cannot Self-Terminate: When Hesperus/Valmik starts to invade Cadence's mind to find out why are they taking the Silver Wings of Morning to one of Gentian Stardam, Valmik told her to not bother trying to self-destruct to escape, since he disabled that function.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: The Prior ringworlds that Gentian Line uses to make stardams. They're made of a material that's nigh-indestructible (though prone to shattering if propelled at high speed) and incredibly reflective, but have to be transported across space in one piece since the means of creating them are wholly beyond human science.
  • Insistent Terminology: "Whisking" for teleportation, and "levator" for any piece of machinery that works against gravity.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Since it's hard to hold massive amount of memories in human brains, one of the Reunion's purpose is to gather information from Line members, catalogue them, and wipe out memories that each individual members don't think is important enough to hold in their brain. See also The Fog of Ages entry above. What Campion chose to remember, and what to wipe becomes an important plot point. Also, Abigail Gentian, at the end of the creation process of the Gentian Line, deliberately wiped her identity from herself when she chose to become the 1000th member of the Line, so that no one in the Gentian Line, not even herself, would realize who's the original.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: The Machine People, a race of human-looking androids with a little bit of clockwork features thrown in for flair. Despite having been around for millions of years, undergoing their own Mechanical Evolution, there's still people who think of them as nothing more than mindless automatons who just ''imitate'' sentience.
  • Mega-Maw Maneuver: Used by a pirate attempting to capture Campion and Purslane's ship.
  • Mile-Long Ship: Common enough that every member of Gentian Line (and likely most, if not all shatterlings in general) seems to own at least one. Purslane's ship, Silver Wings of Morning, is so large that its main cargo bay has its own weather system.
  • No Name Given: Abigail Gentian can no longer remember the name of her childhood friend.
  • Not What It Looks Like: The scene where Hesperus/Valmik Mind Probe Cadencenote  can look disturbingly like the former raping the latter. Even Purslane has a hard time convincing herself that it isn't.
  • Opposite-Sex Clone: Half the members of each of the Lines.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Curators of the Vigilance, who can grow to be as large as starships.
  • Portal Network: The First Machine that Campion meets tells him that there are wormholes throughout the Andromeda galaxy which lead to different galaxies throughout the universe. It also speculates that the 250-million-light-year-wide Boötes void could actually be full of galaxies connected by wormholes, but that each galaxy is otherwise blocked from the rest of the universe so they can use their wormholes for pseudo-FTL travel without violating causality.
  • Precursors: Priors. Arose billions of years ago, scattered impossibly advanced technology across the galaxy, and then vanished: a perfectly textbook example.
  • Reactionless Drive: The starships in this setting use "pseudo-thrust" to attain near-light speeds.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Zig-zagged with the Machine People: all that are seen in the book, including Hesperus, resemble metallic caricatures of incredibly beautiful humans, though Purslane notes that Hesperus is a little too perfect to appear authentically human, thus edging into Uncanny Valley territory. It is also mentioned by Hesperus that the Machine People appear human out of convenience when dealing with biological species, and often assume other forms when in their home territories.
  • Screw Yourself: Campion and Purslane are lovers, and being shatterlings, they were both created with the same initial set of memories from Abigail. They each diverged in the ensuing 6 million years, but there is still a strong taboo against shatterlings associating too closely outside of Celebration.
  • Send in the Clones: The shatterlings in each Line are all clones of one person; however, they've all been slightly modified, and some are Opposite-Sex Clone, so there's some variation. Better to think of them all as siblings who remember being the same child. Also, at least in the case of the Gentian Line, the Line progenitor is one of the Line member, but deliberately got their identity wiped out.
  • Shout-Out: This book is pretty much every single Alan Parson's Project song title smashed into a Space Opera screen play.
  • Space Opera: And how!
  • Stern Chase: Across 60,000 light-years of interstellar space.
  • Sub-Lightspeed Setting: Countless millennia in the future clone-lines traveling the galaxy at near-lightspeed provide some continuity of civilization for the countless human and posthuman colonies across space.
  • That's No Moon: The protagonists stop at a ringed gas giant because they heard about a spaceship salesman who lives there. They enter the atmosphere and find that he only has a few ships to sell. After some coercion, he shows them his entire collection of ships, which were hidden inside and disguised as part of the gas giant's ring system.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: When the shatterlings' reunion world is destroyed by the entities trying to wipe out the Gentian Line: the world is bombarded from orbit and it's atmosphere is boiled off from the sheer energies of the onslaught. Normally that'd be enough to kill anyone, but the aggressors just keep on going, continuing to bombard the planet until the crust melts completely. They still keep on going, pumping so much energy into the planet that it literally just expands from the heat and disintegrates in a slow-motion kaboom.
  • Time Abyss: The Shatterlings are about 6.4 million years old, though "only" a couple hundred thousand of those are spent awake. The Curators of the Vigilance are also this, but have lived through the intevening time by way of their particular brand of immortality, which makes them slower and more ponderous over time.
  • Time Dilation: The main reason the Gentian Line has persisted for so long. Also, an unavoidable consequence of pretty much any kind of space travel, since if you want to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time (read: within a couple thousand years), you pretty much have to crank up the g's until you're near lightspeed.
  • To the Pain: Mezereon is quite graphic in telling Grilse what sectioning is doing to him and what it will do to him.
  • Transhuman Aliens: The current entire population of the Milky Way Galaxy can trace its ultimate ancestry back to Earth.
  • Ungovernable Galaxy: No interstellar society has persisted for more than a few hundred thousand years courtesy of there being no Faster-Than-Light Travel or Subspace Ansible technology; empires have formed then slowly started to unravel and break apart from internal or external pressures and have done so for the past six million years. This process is called “turnover”. Hell, it’s stated that expansionism actually shortens the lifespan of a civilization. The only constant in the galaxy are the Lines such as Gentian Line: one thousand clones of a woman that lived in the 31st century at the start of humanity's interstellar colonization who live exclusively aboard spaceships that jet around at near-lightspeed, and so due to Time Dilation pass millions of years despite experiencing only thousands.
  • Unrobotic Reveal: As described above, Hesperus is discovered to have a human arm. This is because he's an infiltrator unit designed to gain access into Vigilance, who's not interested in interacting with Machine People, in order to gather information about the First Machines.
  • Unusual User Interface: Palatial, a sort-of holodeck. It's a small room, but as you walk in you are immersed in a vibrant, computer-generated world. Your brain is continually scanned while you are in it, so the world constantly adjusts and changes according to your wishes.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: It turns out that Campion is the one starting the chain of events that end up with the near-destruction of the Gentian Line due to the fact that on the circuit prior, he got some information out of Vigilance that, unknowing to him and most others, could be used to infer the existence of the First Machines. Galingale, the House of Suns' spy in the Gentian Line, realized the significance and his colleagues agreed that the Line must be wiped out in order to preserve the secrecy.
  • Used Future: The ships used by the Gentian Line are often millions of years old. There are also millions of planets lying around that have been terraformed, then left forgotten, then rediscovered and colonized, then forgotten, then rediscovered...
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The minor character at the beginning of the novel, Dr. Meninx, who is the unwelcome guest that delays the main characters at first, setting off the whole plot. He dies during a voyage when the water tank he lives in malfunctions suspiciously, after previously acting afraid of Herperus and evasively implying that he had reason to want to kill him. However, it's revealed that Hesperus didn't murder him, so the characters start to trust Hesperus...and the fact that Dr. Meninx died in the first place is never brought up or questioned again. Literally the whole point of his death was to temporarily cast suspicion on Hesperus, in order to further the plot slightly, and the only explanation his death gets is that aquatic species like his regularly go to space with faulty, ramshackle life support for some reason.