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House of Suns - The Ex-Communicator

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October 13th, 2009


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04:13 pm - House of Suns
I just finished House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. I loved it. That's two big modern SF novels in the last few weeks (on audio - the other was Transition by Iain Banks) and both have been terrific fun. I listen to them when I walk home from work in the evening, and I have found myself looking at the clock in eager anticipation of another chapter. In contrast (having finished House of Suns) I have started Oryx and Crake, and it's well-written but I am not thinking right now 'ooh, an hour from now I get the next chapter'.

Therefore, as I have just had a stressful day at work and I need to give myself a treat, here is a big review of the book I have enjoyed so much.
"There is a Golden Hour between life and death. If you are critically injured you have less than 60 minutes to survive. You might not die right then; it may be three days or two weeks later -- but something has happened in your body that is irreparable." (R Adams Cowley)


Think of a nation-state. Does it exist? Yes, but it represents an arbitrary level of granularity. The UK (for example) might break up into small regional bodies, or it might become part of a huge pan-European federation. It might do both. Would the UK still exist? What would be lost if it didn't? The human self is treated in this way in House of Suns. Over the next six million years a single entity might be endlessly replicated, edited, and divided. The processing units of the brain might be scattered across a light year of space, so each thought takes a year to propagate. Two entities might combine. A person might forget who they are. Memory forms the thread which unifies a human personality but memory itself might be diffused, stolen or amended.

House of Suns has two storylines, spanning the genesis and attempted termination of a commonwealth of memory-sharing clones - events six million years apart, spanning the history of human expansion into the home galaxy. The story was exciting, a sense of wonder was delivered, and I didn't feel crapped out by the ending as I have with all other Reynolds novels. It's the best novel by him that I have read.

Some reviewers (see the review here by immortalradical) have felt that Reynolds' characterisation is not strong enough to distinguish the multiple character voices. I could not separate by writing style the inner voices of the various cloned entities (the story swaps between three POVs - the line originator and two late clones - of various genders and ages). This may well be a deliberate stylistic choice.

The progenitor of the clone line spends much of her childhood immersed in a fantasy-type game in an imaginary Castle of the Clouds. The meaning of this experience might be elusive, and I am intolerant of sword and sorcery. However, I think I have an explanation for this story-thread. I think it is a false memory. Just as in psychodynamics, a person who has suppressed a traumatic memory might have nightmares or hallucinations, so I think a metaphor of suppressed events has infected the clone line, and been propagated through all its members like a virus. It's an origin myth, a coded message, and also a childhood dream.

The analogy is not only with the suppression of memories by a single individual, but the suppression of guilt by a whole culture. I think it is good for any modern writer to speak about torture, about the editing of our cultural history, about institutional lying, and forcing people to say what we want them to say. As it is unhealthy for the self to make itself forget, so it is unhealthy for a culture not to face up to what it has done.

I never know whether it's worth mentioning the specifically 'audio' aspects of the experience, but I often find the voice decisions made by the reader illuminate the text for me. In this case the reading had many features in common with the writing: lively, versatile, and a bit scrappy and inconsistent. The reader decided to distinguish the speech of fifty otherwise hard to separate clones by giving each clone a different rather hackneyed ethnic accent (Ulster, Russian, Geordie, South African) which was bizarre, and yet consistent with the surreal and sometimes anachronistic humour of Reynold's writing.

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[User Picture]
From:emeraldsedai
Date:October 13th, 2009 08:56 pm (UTC)
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Sounds like a fascinating novel!

I never know whether it's worth mentioning the specifically 'audio' aspects of the experience

Now that I've begun podficcing, I can see much more clearly how the audiobook is a kind of transformative work in itself, and deserves a separate dimension of review. So thank you for mentioning it.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:October 14th, 2009 08:20 am (UTC)
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Does podficcing mean that people make recordings of themselves reading out their own fanfiction? Or do people read other people's work? It's amazing to me how the voluntary and co-operative genre of fanfiction grows to utilise every mode of personal communication as it becomes available to women (and a some men of coruse).
[User Picture]
From:emeraldsedai
Date:October 14th, 2009 06:21 pm (UTC)
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Both, actually. You do see fic writers creating their own audio versions, but a high proportion of podfics are recorded by fans of the author.

The creative reward in making podfic of someone else's writing are at least equal to those I've found writing stories about someone else's story and, frankly, greater than those I get from trying to be "original".

Fandom has turned out to be a far more remarkable place than I would ever have suspected looking at it from the outside ten or fifteen years ago.

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