House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds, is epic science fiction. In fact, it doesn't get much more epic than this, with a story that encompasses a galaxy and runs over the course of many millions of years, there are few stories that dare to assume the scope of this novel.
The story follows three key protagonists, two are Shatterlings, clones belonging to the Gentian Line and who are millions of years old (thank you technology and relativistic space travel). The third is a machine person, a member of a civilization of machines that have attained consciousness. Circumstance forces them together, and the result of their encounter is a steadily spiraling chain of events that looms to enormous proportions. I won't say more on the plot, as it has many turns, but it is certainly exciting reading.
Many of the encounters, the post-human themes and imagery, and the technology, make for a setting that on one hand feels fantastic, but which manages to maintain a grounding in reality. The quote of Arthur C. Clarke's, that: "Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." is true, but Reynolds manages to found this distant and alien future in a kernel of believability, a quintessence that permits the reader to think that such things are not mere fancy, but reasoned potential. The line between magic and possibility is blurred. The aliens, such as they are, are not aliens in the Hollywood sense, but the result of millions of years of post-human genetic and technological tinkering and evolution. The technology feels well conceived and based in science, as befitting an author who once worked on astronomy and astrophysics for the European Space Agency.
More than anything though, and a big theme in House of Suns, is the fact that while the universe is many of millions of years older, that humanity is a thousand fractured forms beyond what we are today and technology has been stretched to the point of magic (though not quite), we get the sense that our species has still not quite grown up. That we are children playing with fire. That time and an insatiable mix of our curiosities and fears has furnished us with fire of unimaginable power and ferocity, and despite the physics, the maths and technology, we are dominated ultimately by our foibles and too often ruled by our weaknesses. Humanity, for all it's power, inventiveness and technology is still immature and riddled with faults, and that this is both a weakness, and a strength.
House of Suns is not afraid to use the backdrop of a fantastic science fiction universe to pose some interesting and deep questions about the development of a species, about consciousness and about humanity. Reynolds also manages to do so in a rolling, action filled and exciting story.
I thoroughly enjoyed House of Suns. It is an epic science fiction story, with staggering scope, that manages to maintain a strong sense of humanity through gulfs of time, space and technology. All in all a wonderful story.