House of Suns

Well, I read it, so I may as well blog it. If that sounds unenthusiastic, then yes, I am. It is a book, in case you haven’t realised; inevitably it has a wiki page so I won’t summarise it here or even tell you the author. It gets less and less plausible as it goes along, though is fun enough in a space-opera sort of way. Alas, it shares a problem all too common in sci-fi: raising a sense of mystery, and producing interesting puzzles, is far easier than providing an interesting and satisfying solution to such a puzzle. Anathem fails in that way, though it is a better book.

In fact the only reason I’m writing this is to ask if *anyone* has written a decent sci-fi novel which sticks within the known laws of physics (no FTL, no anti gravity, etc) and manages to get civilisation across the galaxy.


  1. #1 Robert Grumbine

    They’re far away, though still set in the ship, so maybe it doesn count. But Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky has its people well across the galaxy by mundane means.

    Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero is routine physics until late in the book.

    [Yeeesss. Only a single ship though – misses the civilisation. Ditto RH. That is the bit I was interested in. How to make really long time scales work. And the physics is wrong, of course – just cos you are going very fast doesn’t let you go through suns (relativity) -W]

    In general, though, no. As far as that goes, I prefer the SF that recognizes this problem and either doesn’t tangle with it, or dismisses it by magic (er, ‘hyperdrive’, ‘warp drive’, …), rather than doing a long and tedious argument that their magic isn’t magic after all.

  2. #2 jon

    Have you read Reynold’s other books? I haven’t read House of Suns yet, but I’ve always felt that (for the most part) his Revelation Space-universe books, as well as Pushing Ice did this pretty well.

    But apart from Reynolds, I can’t think of anyone that even attempts to stay within current understandings of physics either.

    [But RS doesn’t stay within speed-of-light -W]

  3. #3 Hank Roberts

    A few snippets, because I’ve recently begun looking too; these are as far as I’ve gotten in searching as of now.

    It, erm, appears to have a Wikipedia entry, if I read this right.

    “… a new manifesto for Mundane Sci-Fi. Geoff Ryman, one of the founders of the movement, explains his aims to Kirsty Lang.
    The May edition of InterZone Magazine is dedicated to Mundane Sci-Fi. It is published on 8 May 2008”
    The Difference Between Hard Science Fiction and Mundane Science Fiction

    January 25th, 2008

    Jim Kelly’s essay in Asimov’s this month is about “mundane science fiction.” Mundane science fiction is, according to wiki:

    Mundane Science Fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction. Inspired by an idea of Julian Todd, the Mundane SF movement was founded in 2004 by novelist Geoff Ryman among others.[1] It focuses on stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written…..

    [Nope, that’s not what I want either. Needs to have space travel across the galaxy. Maybe I should have said, you’re allowed long life as long as you deal with memory loss -W]

  4. #4 Hank Roberts

    A thread here might be worth waking up:

    Brotherton (link above) has a lot on his website, good material.

  5. #5 Hank Roberts

    The title story of this one:

    (free at Baen’s Webscription site).

    Baen’s also has ‘Baen’s Bar’ and I tried searching for mention of hard SF, found nothing at all; but it was running very slow and I am convinced there must be something there.

    Baen’s stock runs heavily to unicorns and blaster-guns, not usually in the same book (though watch out for the rats and bats). But they do a good job of what they do and I keep hoping for more hard adult SF from them as time goes by.

  6. #6 patrick

    Check out Vast and its predecessor Deception Well, by Linda Nagata.


    [My recollection of Vast was that it was all set on a single spaceship running away from another one. But that it was almost pointless. I grew very disappointed towards the end – in fact I’m not sure I finished it. I think it also fails the laws-of-physics test, thought I’d have to re-read it to be sure -W]

  7. #7 Eli Rabett

    Much SF on “Space Arks”, usually hollowed out asteroids.

    [You misunderstand. I don’t mean individual ships across the galaxy, which is “easy”. I mean civilisations, which is difficult -W]

  8. #8 Gareth

    I’ll second the nomination for Reynold’s Revelation Space series. They don’t get seriously looney ’til the very end…

  9. #9 P. Lewis

    Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder? No FTL. Human expansion via data streaming into “organic receptacles” or as virtual entities … and “normal” humans, but backed up every so often. Some fictional and nonfictional quantum mech based on spin networks, Planck-scale experiment goes wrong, …

    Difficult and challenging read, especially the first few pages.

  10. #10 Arthur Smith

    Gregory Benford’s “galactic center” series is probably what you’re looking for. I didn’t think it was that great though; some funky black-hole physics toward the end too. Theme is mainly man (generalized) vs machine.

    [Hmmm. I’m sure I read one of those and thought it was utter rubbish. I couldn’t understand how it could be written by the same chap as “ocean of night” -W]

  11. #11 Arthur Smith

    By the way, my favorite of Benford’s “Galactic Center” series was Furious Gulf (link to my review).

    The best novel I’ve read with realistic physics and a galaxy-wide perspective, though, is Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”. Most of the action is centered around one planet, highly interesting in itself, but the context of a realistic (mostly human) part-galactic civilization is explored quite well. It is in principle set in the same universe as Vinge’s “A Fire Upon the Deep”, which split the galaxy into sections with different physics (some FTL, some not), another interesting approach.

    [Ah yes, I liked both. AFUTD relies on FTL, so that is out, though the excuse for why we can’t use it is cute. ADITS doesn’t count for you, though, because while is has a wide perspective it *is* all about one planet… my recollection is that the exploration of how making a galaxy-wide civilisation work is a bit thin -W]

  12. #12 ac

    Banks ‘The Algebraist’ is from memory mostly real physics, and very space opera if that’s your thing.

    Just remembered they do have wormholes – does that count?

  13. #13 Ambitwistor

    “A Deepness in the Sky” does devote a fair bit of backstory to exploring how to make a galaxy-wide civilization work over long periods of time. That was in fact Pham Nuwen’s driving motivation for almost all his life. The question was empire vs. loosely coupled trading clans — how do you hold things together with huge time lags and periodic collapses of planetary civilization? But it wasn’t truly galaxy-wide. Although I don’t think it was ever explicitly stated, the human sphere of colonization in the Slow Zone couldn’t have been more than hundreds to a few thousands of lightyears across.

    [Probably close enough for my purposes, I might need to have another look -W]

  14. #14 Arthur Smith

    W – yes, I’ve found Benford’s writing pretty variable: some is stunning, some is, well, trash (all mixed together in some of his books). “In the Ocean of Night” was the first novel in the series, so there’s some connection with that book throughout (more so towards the end, in fact).

    But it may not really be what you’re thinking of either – basically the only stable galactic civilization in Benford’s series is the one run by the machines (which essentially live forever since they can download themselves to new physical bodies whenever they need to). “Human” civilizations have washed through the galaxy leaving traces all over, but there’s nothing in the way of organized governance present at any point in the novels.

  15. #15 outeast

    I was going to suggest Egan, too… but was going to name Diaspora. Egan uses some invented physics (and lots of imagined tech) but is pretty rigorous with it as far as I can tell. I’m not a physicist, tho, so YMMV.

    To my mind, there’s a basic problem with your demand for ‘a decent sci-fi novel which sticks within the known laws of physics … and manages to get civilisation across the galaxy’ – in that it rather implausibly requires a far-future civilization that has somehow made no new developments in physics. That strikes me as being as unlikely as any FTL drive:)

    [Not necessarily. We may have got stuck. Who knows? There is a book somewhere, but I forget the name, which does look back on the “golden century” of physics – the one just past – and builds something on the idea that that was it, basically. We can do more tech but no more physics (to avoid confusion let me point out that I am not asserting this as a truth, merely a possibility. Presumably someone will come up with a viable alternative to string theory at some point, though from my naive viewpoint GR and QM look as incompatible as they ever did. My money is on GR, for the little its worth) -W]

  16. #16 Dunc

    Another vote for Iain M. Banks’ The Algebraist. Yes, they have wormholes, but for most of the book they are unavailable to most of the in-play civilisations. He actually thinks seriously about things like the logistics of interstellar warfare when it takes hundreds of years to get anywhere, and what the hell the question “How old are you?” means if you spend a large portion of your life travelling at relativistic velocities.

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  18. #18 rob

    how about Haldeman’s “Forever War?”

    sure they have collapsars to get far in space, but he does treat the issue of time dilation. plus i hear they are making a movie out of it.

    [Ah good point. I’d forgotten that one, and I love it (shame about the follow-ups). Slight lack of galaxy-wide civilisation, but does deal with many of the issues -W]

  19. #19 Sam Hec

    O.S.C.’s Ender’s Game, and related novels are up to a point in the series STL travel; not sure if the near-light-speed ‘physics’ disqualifies it though. The ‘Ansible’ instant-anywhere-communications glues the interstellar civilization together, and might end up being a reality …maybe Too many unknowns about physics, and not being galaxy wide civ prevent it from being more than an interesting sidekick.

  20. #20 Hank Roberts

    I have an explanation for the lack of galaxy-wide civilizations in fact, if not in fiction: you know those large voids the deep sky surveys keep turning up?
    They result from discoveries in physics that violate causality/lightspeed in large scale commercial applications expanding civilization rapidly in all directions. They undermine something til they fall out of the universe, taking everything nearby with them.

    The bigger the void, the longer they were able to keep their violation operating and their civilization expanding, before nature made a hole, dropped them in, and pulled it closed.

    It’s dork matter.

  21. #21 Oliver

    Big second for “A deepness in the sky” — far and away the best answer to your question that I know of, and indeed a dramatisation of that question.
    The earlier book to which it is a prequel (though not in ways that need to matter) works in different ways, but fairly.)

  22. #22 guthrie

    Nope, can’t think of any others.
    Benfords books have gotten mroe formulaic in the last decade or so, but yes they do nearly have a galaxy spanning civilisation, only it isnt because they die off as well.

    Using your criteria, there isn’t any story that can do it, because its impossible, or rather the gap to be crossed so that the reader can accept it is too wide.

    I’ve only read “A fire upon the deep”, and it does not fit your criteria because it requires the handwavy slow zones, which I do not recall as being properly explained.

    Vast does not include a galaxy wide civilisation, just the usual machine hunters killing mankind stuff. I got a bit fed up when I realised thats what Reynolds was doing, that and the only book of his I liked was Chasm city, the others I have tried to read were dull and annoying.

  23. #23 Nick Barnes

    Galaxy-spanning civilisations are obviously impossible without at least FTL communications. What sort of civilisation could exist in which the draft academic paper, reporting that those curious apes are now experimenting with agriculture, has not yet arrived at the editor’s desk?

    We’ve had empires which news takes a year to cross. I can just about imagine a culture which news crosses in fifty years. Fifty thousand years? Not really.

    Added to which, you have to rule out strong AI and nanotechnology (because either one speeds up cultural change so much that the interstellar lag becomes absurd), and warfare (because any serious interstellar war ends very quickly in total mutual destruction by relativistic bombardment).

    Interstellar trade is absurd, except in ideas (which would have to be given away for free, or just possibly bartered).

    See also Charlie Stross’s views:

  24. #24 Nick Barnes

    Whereas any species which gets over the home planet’s resource/environment hump we are currently facing will “obviously” go on to colonise as much of the universe as they please, spreading out at some small but measurable fraction of c (from which one can deduce that no such species has yet done so, although I love Hank’s “dork matter” remark).

    The point of my previous comment is just that this diaspora will not be “a civilisation”; it’ll be a loosely-knit and increasingly diverse collection of civilisations, at many points on the technological spectrum. Some parts of it will not even recognise other parts as their cousins. Banksian post-humanity post-scarcity culture seems inevitable (from our perspective), at least for parts of it, once strong AI and nanotech come along. But those technologies (and therefore their corollaries: uploading, indefinite life-extension, better faster cheaper interstellar travel, large-scale space habitation, etc etc) are very very much harder than their advocates (or the children-of-O’Neill space freaks) give them credit.

    As for Hom Sap, we are in a race. I have faith in our inventiveness, and believe that we will win the race, survive this environmental pinch-point with civilisation intact, and will subsequently reach the stars. But it’s stil in the balance.

  25. #25 guthrie

    I think there was a short story from 50 or 60 years ago in which two spaceships run across each other, and after some convoluted discussion/ diplomacy, they eventually realise that despite the differences in physique, brains, language, culture etc, they are actually descended from humans, but its taken hundreds of thousands of years for the waves of colonisaiton to spread around the galaxy and meet other human descendants coming the other way.

    I could just be creating that memory though.

  26. #26 Hank Roberts

    Guthrie, you’re thinking of Murray Leinster’s wonderful story
    “First Contact” — May 1949.

    [Aha. Thank you. I was wondering. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that many years ago -W]

  27. #27 Hank Roberts

    I especially liked a notion someone posted over at Charlie Stross’s diary linked above:

    > use a beam of ‘smart pebbles’, launched from a big
    > accelerator. The pebbles have iron in them, and the
    > starship is a very long and skinny stack of
    > superconducting magnet rings, with some type of energy
    > storage accumulators. Momentum transfer. To slow down,
    > you throw half the spaceship away…..

    I thought, now, there’s a self-centered approach for sure. Nobody aims that kind of thing perfectly.

    I mean — can you imagine being on the _receiving_ end of a visit like that? First you notice a stream of relativistic ball bearings arriving at your solar system from a point source out there? And after you’ve lived with that for a few hundred years, they throw half a spacecraft at you?

    Welcome strangers ….

  28. #28 Hank Roberts

    First Contact has been reprinted hundreds of times, including in the recent “Best Of Murray Leinster” — for anyone who’s missed it.

    For other Leinster, free ebooks, see:

  29. #29 Hank Roberts

    I’m wrong and owe Guthrie an apology, I remembered a good First Contact short story, but didn’t describe the right one to match your description.

    After a good night’s sleep, I do recollect exactly the story you’re talking about.
    I haven’t recalled the author, title, feel or look or smell of the publication I read it in, nor enough keywords to find it.

    But there are quite a few good ‘First Contact’ sites and lists. Someone will recall it.

  30. #30 Hank Roberts

    Brin has some thoughts:

    “… this is not a classic “empire”. No coordinated fleets bearing down on this or that enemy world! ….
    Imagine a diffusion that’s much more like rabbits, spreading through Australia….”

  31. #31 Hank Roberts

    Sigh. Bummer.

    At Pennsylvania State University, two scientists suggest that the key to the paradox is the assumption that civilizations would colonize the universe at an exponential rate. Jacob Haqq-Misra and Seth Baum point out that finite resources preclude exponential expansion. Technology Review offers a look at the problem of exponential growth:

    “The problem is that this kind of growth may not be possible, and they look at Earth as an example. For any expansion to be sustainable, the growth in resource consumption cannot exceed the growth in resource production. And since Earth’s resources are finite, and it has a finite mass and receives solar radiation at a constant rate, human civilization cannot sustain an indefinite, exponential growth.”

    This means that, if we decide to colonize our galaxy, Earth’s civilization will be unable to do so at an exponential rate…. Perhaps there are thousands of alien societies out there, just trying to effectively colonize their moons or settle on planets in their solar systems. It is possible that, if that is the case, the question of existence of intelligent alien life may not be answered in our life times. …

    [Don’t understand. In one unit of time you colonise two nearby stars. Using their resources, you can then in the next unit of time colonise two from each of the new ones. And so on ad infinitum, or rather until the galaxy fills up. Where does the finite resoures problem come in? -W]

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