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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.


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 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.
  • Screw Yourself: Campion and Purslane. Kind of - it's hard to articulate precisely. As 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.
  • 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).
  • 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: Used at the end, via a Prior artifact. Otherwise, all travel is by slower-than-light ships.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • The Fog of Ages: The long-lived protagonists, considering they've lived through six million years (though, admittedly, only a couple tens of thousands of those concious). They 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.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Becomes a major plot point. See also The Fog of Ages entry above.
  • 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.
  • 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[1] 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.
  • Reactionless Drive: The starships in this setting use "pseudo-thrust" to attain near-light speeds.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The Shatterlings are about 6.4 million years old, though "only" a couple hundred thousand of those are spent awake.
  • Send in the Clones: The shatterlings are all clones of Abigail Gentian; however, they've all been slightly modified, and some are male, so there's some variation. Better to think of them all as siblings who remember being the same child.
  • 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.
  • 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 shatterling's reunion world is destroyed by the entities trying to wipe out the Gentian Line.
  • 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.
  • 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 Sun's 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 mysteriously during a voyage, 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.


Example of: