At some unspecified date in the not-near future, Abigail Gentian is a young woman who inherits a rich family business, specializing in human cloning.
She decides on an ambitious project, creating a thousand clones of herself, each imprinted with her own memories in full, to travel out and explore the galaxy in a thousand spaceships. Heedless of the family business that gave her the money to do this, she merges herself among the clones so that it's impossible to tell which one is really her, and goes out voyaging with them.
She's not the only one to take this route, but it's an exercise available only to the very rich, so there are relatively few groups of shatterlings (as they're known) venturing out into the galaxy.
They all have techniques of personal immortality, and also various methods of achieving suspended animation during long journeys. Reynolds respects the laws of physics, and so the spaceships in this book travel at sublight speeds, and journeys around the galaxy are very long indeed.
The shatterlings of Gentian Line travel around the galaxy (once around the galaxy is referred to as a circuit), stopping here and there to sample what's going on. Once per circuit, they all meet at a prearranged time and place, have a party, and exchange memories. I don't just mean that they chat: they have techniques for downloading memories, uploading memories, and managing memories spanning greater lengths of time than we can imagine. So they can all share each other's memories in a literal sense.
The plot of the story is that, for some reason initially unknown, some organization decides to exterminate Gentian Line. The traditional reunion party is ambushed and most of them are killed. The shocked survivors have to determine what happened and how to respond. It turns out that the ambush was not irrational: one of the Gentian shatterlings has unwittingly uncovered a potentially deadly secret, and their attackers believe themselves justified in their action, for reasons of galactic security (no less!).
- Scenario: strong. I haven't seen this one before (extra points for originality), but in the context of the far future it's well imagined and plausible.
- Characters: good. British sf authors are often better than American at characterization, if nothing else,
and here we have some engaging and sometimes likeable characters. (Reynolds is a Welshman born in 1966.)
I particularly like Purslane, the main female character.
Note: Gentian shatterlings are of both sexes. Abigail wasn't inclined to limit herself to one, when two were available.
- Writing style: good. These days sf is aspiring to higher literary standards than in the old days, and this one seems fully competitive to me.
- Plot: perhaps not perfect, but it's interesting and exciting. Up to the standard of the book as a whole.
- Anachronisms: most of the significant characters in this book are shatterlings of Gentian Line. Some six million years have passed since the birth of Abigail Gentian (who may or may not still be alive: as far as the book is concerned, this is unknowable). But the characters still talk and behave very much like the people we know today: they seem completely normal human beings. I doubt that this would really be the case. Six million years or more in the future, they still eat and drink things that would be completely familiar to us today: wine, coffee, croissants. Perhaps this is poetic licence, but I don't really buy it.
- Privileged elite: is what the Gentian shatterlings are. Far richer individually than any normal being, their mode of existence is to joy-ride around the galaxy. They occasionally do good turns to civilizations they find on their way, whose whole lifespans are far less than theirs. Now and then they do some real work: they've somehow become experts on stardams, which are a way of enclosing stars that have gone nova, so that they don't destroy the surrounding area of space. The Gentians can't make stardams, which are relics of a long-dead but superior alien civilization; but they're experts in handling them. Because one stardam can preserve the existence of a whole civilization spanning many solar systems, I suppose they can make a lot of money this way. In whatever form money takes, that far in the future. Now, I'm not inclined to hate rich people: I'd like to be one of them, if I could. Nevertheless, a novel most of whose characters are filthy rich dilettantes leaves me feeling slightly uneasy, slightly alienated.
- Replacement strategy: Despite their well-protected existences, every now and then a shatterling dies. About a hundred have gone by the start of the story (before the ambush). Why aren't they replaced? Surely Gentian Line wouldn't have lost the technology that started it off? Why not just make a new clone and download the stored memories into it? The shatterling is dead, long live the shatterling!
- Subplot: the chapters of the book are interleaved with smaller flashback chapters in which Abigail Gentian, six million years in the past, gets addicted to a virtual reality game called Palatial, and almost loses her mind as she becomes entangled in it. Well, OK, but this seems to have no relevance to the main story, and I don't understand why it was included.
- The rich get richer: is a sub-theme of the book. Gentian Line goes on and on and remains richer than most other groups, except the other similar Lines and a few abnormally persistent civilizations. I don't really buy this. Wealth is made to be squandered. Given sufficient time (six million years!), any family will run into a period of incompetence, be out-competed by upstarts, and sink into the general mass of humanity. Why not the Gentians?
- Sentimentality: is a minor failing of an author who gets too fond of his pet characters. It's a rather endearing fault: there are many worse things that an author could be guilty of. It makes the ending of this book more agreeable but less plausible than it might have been. Take your choice.
- At one point in the book, the Gentians are embarrassed to encounter an ambassador from a distant civilization, because they happen to know that his entire civilization has been wiped out by an astronomical disaster. They don't like to tell him. Well, would you? (Come to think of it, it's not clear why the Gentians have the news but he hasn't. Ordinary radio waves travel at light speed.)
- In the story you can find a spaceship named Fire Witch and two humanoid robots named Cadence and Cascade: clear signs that the author, born in 1966, has recently been listening to King Crimson albums released in 1969 and 1970. There are probably other amusing references that I don't happen to recognize.
Written in May, July 2009