Sister Alice


Robert Reed


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

November 27, 2004

obert Reed is one of the terrific authors writing space opera. I love space opera - galaxy spanning empires, technological wonders, bizarre aliens or altered / evolved humans - great stuff. I put Reed in with Alistair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Vernor Vinge (who doesn't write nearly enough stuff), Dan Simmons, Paul McAuley, Stephen Baxter, Walter Jon Williams, Charles Stross, Iain Banks - I know I am leaving out some other terrific authors, that's just a list off of the top of my head.

Sister Alice is definitely galaxy spanning space opera. Reed imagines a future where a few hundred human families have evolved into god like powers. These families can terraform worlds, they control incredible energies - I found some of Reed's descriptions imaginative and colorful. 10 million years prior to the events in the story, an incredible war rocked humanity, destroying whole worlds. To prevent war's recurrence, a few hundred individual were selected to start families that would be trained in great skills, and awarded great powers. With these skills, the families grow even more powerful.

Despite the title, this is the story of Ord, who is the youngest member of the Chamberlain family. The Chamberlains are especially powerful, even with respect to the other 100 families. The original Chamberlain was a creative, aggressive individual, and thus so are all subsequent Chamberlains (the members are all clones, though the clones are both sexes - I'm not sure I got that right - is that possible?) Sister Alice is one of the earliest /oldest clones of the original Chamberlain. She is thousands of years old, and has had plenty of time of master incredible skills. At the start of the book, Sister Alice comes to Earth, but no one knows why. It is rare visit - most of the time the senior Chamberlains roam the galaxy participating in various world building projects, since terraforming is their special skill.

All the Chamberlains wish to meet with Sister Alice, but she talks only to Ord, the youngest. Alice reveals to Ord that she is fleeing a terrible catastrophe at the heart of the galaxy. The brightest, most powerful members of the families had been working on opening a wormhole to a new universe, but the experiment failed and a rent in space/time had resulted in a "white hole" - a gigantic influx of energy unleashed at the heart of the Milky Way. Thousands of world perish, and trillions of sentient beings are killed. The warp in space has not yet been contained.

I love space opera painted on a giant canvas like this. Reed is excellent at imparting the "sense of wonder" that makes science fiction so enjoyable. Secrets are revealed, Ord goes on galaxy spanning mission and grows in power and maturity himself. Eventually, of course, Ord and his allies and enemies all meet at the core. Terrific stuff.

One thing that I don't quite like is that Sister Alice is apparently assembled from a series of novellas that were previously released as stand alone stories. Reed did this same trick with Marrow, mining ideas from previous stories. I think this tends to disrupt the flow of the novel somewhat, because it jumps from piece to piece, even though the characters and overall plot are consistent throughout. I am not complaining that Reed gets paid twice for his material (I originally discovered him while reading Dozios' Years Best SF stories), I just think the story would be a better if written in one piece. Don't get me wrong, this is still a great book - this isn't anything like that wretched Coyote by Allen Steele, an awful "novel" assembled from previously sold novellas. Read Reed, that's my advice!