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Another fine mess

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Ottessa Moshfegh
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James McBride
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House of Suns - Alastair Reynolds I popped on this morning to review this book, to let flower my deep thoughts, to nurture the blossoming wonder that is my wisdom about this novel and science fiction, but I got distracted.

I am probably a 3.5 stars on this, having enjoyed the outsized imagination and the generally vigorous plotting, even if it felt at times a bit long, a bit beholden to Banks (right down to a series of interspersed chapters set in a virtual fantasy game). Reynolds follows a Line of clones who have traveled the galaxy for millenia, who meet intermittently to share troves of their memories--a neat idea for how "one" person could explore the galaxy. (The novel takes the problem of relativity and the hard law of lightspeed very seriously, with remarkable imagination.) And then suddenly someone attacks the reunion, leaving a few stray survivors. And the plot kicks in: conspiracies, space battles, political intrigue, cultural collisions, technological mumbo-jumbo, the hint of an Artifact and the unknowable. Sci-fi (not syfy, you bastards), Space Opera, in a sort of classic vein. Good stuff.

The novel crosses enormous spans of time and space, yet in a nutshell it's a mystery. But nutshell ain't really the point: the point is those enormous spans of time and space. Reynolds has his eye on--and seeks to open up our engagement with--Cosmology. I read science fiction for lots of reasons (see above re space battles, political intrigue, etc.), but I'm persistently and consistently driven by the best of these books and writers toward contemplations that are particularly possible in this genre.

For instance, Alienness is so literal, in science fiction, that the opportunities to estrange us readers from our own limited cultural paradigms can open us up to the complexities of perspective and difference in the world. I think the 12-year-old me, swallowing Bradbury and Le Guin (and later O. Butler), had his politics and his worldview disrupted in ways that almost directly pushed me to study abroad, to interrogate the ways difference gets defined (and often distrusted) in my hometown, my school, my family. I could say the same for the ways science fiction got me to think about the way technology is not just a set of cool tools but fundamentally world-changing. Science fiction gave me an historical consciousness, an itch to understand what social and economic and political and geographic factors lead to Culture X or Event Y. (And marxist literary scholar Freddie Jameson, with far more syllables and a much bigger salary, makes this argument much more broadly and effectively than me.) The genre--however prone to boys' own adventures or various kinds of silliness--has the potential to do things that NO other kind of writing can really do.

And this is where Reynolds does something special, something quite his own: reading House of Suns I grappled with the vastness, the almost ineffable HUGENESS of space and time in ways that are almost impossible to conceive. (Even the characters in this novel, the clones who've lived and journeyed so many millions of years, find themselves aghast at what is untouched and unexamined.) I closed the novel having enjoyed it, definitely, but also having been provoked yet again by this genre into new problems of how I think and conceive my existence, the world. Gotta give some props for that, eh?