PETER F. HAMILTON

British author Peter F. Hamilton is known today for his large scale space operas, but his first novel, Mindstar Rising (1993), was considerably less ambitious in scope.  It was the first of three books featuring Greg Mandel, an ex-soldier who had a special gland implanted in his brain that provided psi powers, although the collapse of the government – England was briefly a quasi-communist dictatorship and is now recovering under a Conservative government – leaves him with no job and the animosity of the people in power.  Global warming has also altered England’s climate dramatically.

The first novel is actually structured almost as two shorter novels, though both involve attempts to destroy or damage a company called Event Horizon, run by elderly Philip Evans and his brilliant granddaughter Julia, and ultimately both involve the same villain.  Mandel’s abilities make him a living lie detector and in the second half, he is assisted by a woman with limited precognitive ability, although this is a bit jarring because if he had access to her talents, then much of the work he performed in the first half was unnecessary.  The attacks involve industrial espionage and sabotage, and latterly an attempt to destroy the older Evans, whose body has died but whose personality has been transferred into electronic storage.  Mandel is hardly infallible, however, nor is his associate, and they are both captured by the opposition toward the end of the novel, who turns out to be a kind of front man for the one time dictator, not dead after all.

The novel has some minor structural problems, possibly because of a gap of time between the writing of the two sections.  There are some slight character inconsistencies and Mandel’s lover Eleanor somehow has acquired a new job.  In the opening scene, Mandel shoots down an unarmed prisoner for no apparent reason, which makes his later altruism seem out of place.  This sequence contributes nothing to the novel except to foreshadow the existence of precognition, and it may well have been added as an afterthought.  Throughout the novel, the “good” guys never seem particularly concerned if they hurt or kill innocent people, even unnecessarily, and it was hard to find anyone in the novel whom I actually liked.

The political set up is also less than thrilling.  Hamilton may have been attempting to provide balance between Left and Right, but it doesn't read that way.  His Conservatives may be incompetent at times, but the leftists are always pure evil.  Mandel has no problem with street gangs hunting down and murdering members of the once ruling party even if they have done nothing wrong , and of course they are all portrayed as deserving such a fate because supporting the old regime is clearly evil.  The salvation of England is actually in the hands of industrialists like Philip Evans, who is credited at times with singlehandedly having destabilized and brought down the leftist regime.  This black and white dichotomy detracts from the plausibility of the story and telegraphs the “surprise” ending in which we discover who is really behind the cyberattacks.   And finally, several of Mandel’s brilliant insights seemed to me painfully obvious ones that the other parties should have thought of easily without his help.

The first sequel, A Quantum Murder (1994) opens by apparently trying to convince us once again that Mandel is not at all a nice person, reminding us that he was a brutal vigilante and providing a fresh example by covering up a brutal assault on an innocent man because his assailants thought he was part of the previous repressive government, and running the man and his wife - who was a low level government worker at the time - out of time.  I am at a loss to understand why Hamilton decided to make his protagonist such a despicable person, but he does so. Although the author obviously disapproves of the vigilante committee this time, it is still clear that the Leftists are unforgivably evil. The plot this time involves the murder of a prominent physicist, perhaps at the hands of one of his students, perhaps for other motives.  Since he was working for Event Horizon in a peripheral manner, Julia asks him to look into the matter, which has baffled the police in part because it copies a murder method used by a criminally insane but safely incarcerated serial killer. Initially there appears to be a kind of locked room aspect to the murder, but Mandel points out alternative methods by which the killer could have gotten away, all of them so obvious that even moderately competent police would have considered them. The dead man's computer was wiped as well, and apparently he didn't keep backups, which I also found a bit hard to believe given the importance of the data thereon.

The story proceeds in standard detective format.  The suspects are interviewed and all of them appear to be completely innocent. One of them saw a strange woman briefly but believes it was an hallucination.  Mandel is puzzled that the killer spent so much time on site after the murder was committed, which does not seem to him typical of a technologically enhanced professional hit. He consults the confined serial killer in a bow to The Silence of the Lambs to get insight into the new murder. But then we get a deus ex machina, and an unsatisfying one as well.  There's a drug which apparently allows people to glimpse the past and Greg's wife takes it to look back and discover the identity of the killer, and it is this that the suspect saw on the night in question.  Not only does this development come out of nowhere, but why would the viewer be visible just because she was looking back through time, including her clothing?  And deus ex machina number two - Mandel tracks down a missing criminal from the former regime within hours even though the government has been searching for the same man for two years. The retrospective viewing identifies one of the previously cleared suspects, and other evidence is subsequently found, but the reader - and Mandel - still suspect that it's a frame.

The solution involves revelation of another totally new technology which we were previously told did not exist, which is cheating on a very large scale. Although the novel is more unified than its predecessor, the plot is too dependent on not telling the reader things the reader is entitled to know.  The story is also quite slow moving and could have been told just as well with about a hundred fewer pages.  And the ending, in addition to reinforcing the vigilante theme, is also unconvincing.  Imprinting someone with the desire to kill is not the same thing as imprinting someone with the desire to commit suicide.  Vert disappointing all around.

The third and final Mandel novel was The Nano Flower (1995), and it's the longest by far - rather too long, I thought.  Years have passed and Mandel is now a father and a farmer, but he is prevailed upon to use his talents one more time when Julia Evans' husband disappears, but apparently sends a cryptic message to his wife.  Cryptic because it's a flower made of extraterrestrial DNA.  Mandel assembles his team including a young woman whom we're presumably supposed to like, even though she had no compunctions about tricking an innocent man into drug addiction and theft in order to make money for herself.  Once again I didn't care for any of the characters, which include various selfish business magnates, Welsh separatists, a prostitute who doubles as a secret agent, a spoiled young man, a mysterious religious cult, and various other hangers on.  There's also a subsidiary story about a potentially lucrative business deal involving a new scientific breakthrough that may or may not be practical.  I'm not a biologist, but I was not convinced that an analysis of DNA could tell scientists that life was millions of years further advanced on the alien planet than on ours, and I'm also not convinced that bacteriological contamination from outer space is a serious problem given that the DNA would be inconsistent between said bacteria and terrestrial life.  The science is mostly window dressing though for what is basically a futuristic spy thriller.  And I was a bit dismayed to see that the government and police don't seem to be much of a factor in things.  Essentially Mandel's world is a libertarian sort where the major corporations flaunt the laws and launch violent and illegal assaults on one another without worrying about the authorities. That said, some of the action sequences are quite thrilling and the action ranges from England to Monaco to orbiting habitats. There's an interesting alien and a nice dilemma facing the heroes at the end, but the solution was too obvious.  

The Reality Dysfunction (1998) was so long that the paperback edition was in two volumes, subtitled Emergence and Expansion. The setting is six centuries from now when humanity has spread to the stars, encountered a number of alien races, and split into two separate cultures, the Adamists and the Edenists.  Simply stated the former relies on conventional technology, still has major religions including Satanism, and tends to be hierarchical and repressive.  The Edenists bio-engineer themselves, have a form of telepathy, and their technology is based in large part on biology, including sentient starships melded to their captains.  The civilization is much more plausible than in the Mandel books, and in general the characters are as well, although I had some doubts about the quasi-Utopian aspects of the Edenists. 

There are so many plots intertwined that one cohesive narrative description is impossible.  One story involves a space prospector seeking saleable artifacts in the ruins of an ancient civilization which appears to have destroyed itself for reasons unknown.  He makes a big hit and changes professions, becoming an interplanetary shipping magnate.  Another involves a group of colonists on a recently opened planet, some of whom come into contact with a mysterious alien probe that gives them superhuman powers - and since they're Satanists, it's no surprise that they go on a rampage.  The alien force struck me almost immediately as a likely candidate for the self destruction of the missing alien civilization.  There is also a young woman recently paired with a sentient starship, rivalries between the two branches of humanity, a separate colony dedicated to discovering the secrets of the lost aliens, law enforcement officials trying to discover why some colonists went missing, and a few other threads.  The first volume of the paperback edition stops rather than ends just as things are beginning to come to a head, as the new alien infection spreads across the colony world, gobbling up everyone in its path.  The second volume continues the invasion, with the human characters discovered that the invaders are quite literally the dead, released from limbo to possess human bodies.  They can alter their appearance at will, generate energy weapons, control the weather, convert the unpossessed, and survive a good deal of physical damage. 

Personally I had a problem with the mix of supernatural and scientific elements.  I also felt that the invaders were so powerful that it was not convincing that they could be slowed, let alone stopped.  The novel also feels quite bloated.  Some of the subsidiary story lines add little if anything to the main plot, and they're not interesting enough on their own to hold my interest.  Instead, they just distract attention from the main conflict.  At the same time, there are so many characters that none of them are really described in any depth.  On the other hand, Hamilton's action sequences are generally quite good and there are a few speculative bits that I found genuine intriguing.

The story continues in The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), sometimes published in two volumes as Consolidation and Conflict. This continues the various story lines with a cast of characters so large that it is almost impossible to follow without referring to the character index provided.  I find this to be a serious flaw in any work of fiction.  We now discover that some of the returned dead are not evil so there is conflict within the ranks of the "invaders" as well as the invaded.  The same strong and weak points are repeated here and in fact it is not properly a sequel but just the second part of what would eventually be a three part novel, a quasi-trilogy on the scale of the most ambitious high fantasy.  And in a sense that's appropriate because this felt to me like a fantasy set in space rather than science fiction.  The idea that souls can be "good" or "evil" by their very nature is a reflection of non-rational thought and the mix of rational (scientific) and non-rational (superstitious) elements in the same story rarely if ever works for me.  This was not one of the rare exceptions. 

The series concludes in The Naked God (2000), also broken up into two paperbacks.  The dead have taken over one colony and have set their sights on the rest of the galaxy, but the results isn't what most of them were looking for.  As the unaffected decide whether or not to cut their losses, figures from the past make their presence known, like Al Capone, in what reminded me of the Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer. Some of them are completely nihilistic and want to destroy the universe.  Others are split into factions. So the living have to track down God himself in order to save the day.  As I mentioned, the fusion of supernatural and scientific elements rarely works for me.  Hamilton tells a compelling story when I was able to forget about the background and concentrate on the physical action, but in general I found this series uneven and disappointing.

Although Hamilton does not often write shorter fiction, he has produced some novellas and shorter pieces.  One of the former is Lightstorm (1998), a young adult novel for the multi-author Web series published in the UK.  The premise is that the internet has become virtually another reality.  The protagonist is a young boy confined to a wheel chair who discovers that a marsh restoration project in the real world, financed and managed by a large corporation, has gone dangerously wrong.  There are a few interesting inventive moments in the virtual world, but the plot is neither exciting nor particularly engrossing.

Most of his other short fiction has been gathered in A Second Chance at Eden (1997), the contents of which have been rewritten slightly so that they form a kind of prequel to his trilogy about the dead returning to life.  The common factor is the existence of affinity which allows people to communicate telepathically with each other and with sentience constructs.  The opening story, "Sonnie's Edge", is a fairly clever piece about bio-engineered combat units which are quasi-legally used in clandestine sporting events.  There's a good surprise ending that is marred only because of an unnecessary viewpoint change that telegraphs the revelation and is distracting as well.  The title story is actually a short novel set in orbit around Jupiter involving the murder of a prominent scientist within a habitat that is so completely monitored that murder should be impossible.  The story also establishes the basis of the split of humanity into two distinct cultures, reflected in the related trilogy.  Although entertainingly written, it is also an example of why SF/Mystery crossovers can be frustratingly unfair.  The method of the murder involves a new form of technology about which the reader knows nothing until the detective reveals it, which is a first class major cheat.  The villain, or one of them anyway, is also apprehended by means of a similar deus ex machina.  Although it works reasonably well as SF, the story is absolutely terrible as a mystery story.  The backdrop about the investigator's family problems is also unconvincing. I've been told that people find this very tightly plotted and that simply confirms my opinion that people don't read very closely.The remaining stories are pretty lifeless.  "New Days Old Times" seems to be a comment on racism but there literally isn't any plot or resolution. "Candy Buds" has some of the best drawn characters - an unscrupulous entrepreneur takes advantage of a disabled boy's ability to create vivid recorded images - but I find the delivery lifeless. "Deathday" is okay but minor and predictable and I don;t think the science works but it was fun.  "The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa" has an interesting set up but just goes on for much too long. The best story is the last, "Escape Route," an old fashioned space opera in many ways with a quest, a mystery, and a set of villains.

One of Hamilton's best pieces of fiction is the novella, Watching Trees Grow, published by PS Publishing in 2000. It is essentially a police procedural set in an alternate history where the Romans somehow bred for longevity and became so long lived that the protagonist, an investigator looking into the murder of a college student, lives from the early industrial age to a distant future when true immortality, interstellar travel, and total control of matter are all part of civilization. The story jumps for one era to another, in each of which he tries to use new techniques to solve the crime, and obviously he does so toward the end. It cheats rather badly as a detective story because the key element is not revealed to the reader until the revelation of the murderer's identity, but it does place it in a clever context. I did wonder, however, why a society of very long lived people would turned the world into a nearly universal pacifistic state by 1832.

Fallen Dragon (2001) is a standalone novel. It's the far future and interstellar corporations are essentially pirates, which isn't all that different than the present, actually.  Anyway, our major protagonist in this very long story works for one of the corporations which has a habit of attacking and pillaging colony worlds.  Unfortunately for them, when they try one particularly world, the colonists fight back to protect the alien technology present there. Subsidiary viewpoint characters include an executive among the pirates and various colonists. There is plenty of action but readers have to plod through long lectures that are essentially libertarian in nature, and various sexual encounters, which are not as prevalent as in his previous book, but still somewhat overdone, and not particularly relevant to the plot or illustrative of the characters.  Hamilton appears to be one of those writers who badly need a stern editor, but that's clearly not the way his books are going to be published. There's a bit of the kitchen sink syndrome as well, playing with time as well as space, artificial intelligences, and so forth.  The general setting seems to be patterned after the early period of the British Empire, at least in part, when they exploited their colonies ruthlessly. The overhead in this is particularly unfortunate because it is otherwise one of his best plots, and has some excellent twists, particularly toward the end of the first volume.

Hamilton's next novel was Misspent Youth (2002). It was much different from his earlier work, essentially a character study set in the not too distant future where a consortium conducts rejuvenation experiments on the protagonist, who sheds sixty years and had to readjust to life, while life has to readjust to him as well. With the return of youth comes a return - in fact apparently an exaggeration - of his sexual interests, and a good part of the novel deals with his sexual exploits. That isn't necessarily bad, but it does become rather monotonous after a while, and I had real difficulty believing that the same person was capable of such very different behaviors. The fact that I didn't particularly care for any of the other characters didn't help either. The novel is loosely related to the duology that followed, but other than being technically set in the same future, it really bears no relation to them in terms of plot, theme, or treatment, and seems more like a misguided experiment that anything else.

Pandora's Star (2004) ends with a cliffhanger and resumes in Judas Unchained (2005) so the two books are really one novel. Humans encounter an artificial barrier around a star that is imprisoning an alien race. There is no unanimity among humans about how to respond to the situation, and some of the factions are perfectly willing to resort to violence. The first half is particularly difficult because there is such a large cast of characters, and Hamilton's previously mentioned foibles are repeated - long expository sections that don't advance the story and awkward, sometimes apparently pointless sexual encounters. The pace is also quite ponderous and only improves slightly in the second half. Hamilton seems to get so caught up in developing his setting and background that he sets the story aside. Sometimes these detours are diverting but sometimes they are just irritating. Readers less interested in the plot than the speculation might like this better. This could actually have been a much better book at about half the length. Hamilton poses an interesting core situation, adds elements that heighten the suspense, and has a satisfying solution, but he may well have lost many of his readers before they managed to get that far.

  Hamilton's most recent work at this writing is the trilogy consisting of The Dreaming Void (2007), The Temporal Void (2008), and The Evolutionary Void (2010).  Although quite long, I believe it's shorter than the two volume story; at least it feels like it's shorter. It's set in the same universe, although more than one thousand years later.  The alien menace has been defeated, but there's more than one villain lurking out among the stars. And this time the entire universe is at risk. The Void is a phenomenon at the center of the galaxy which is slowly expanding and consuming entire star systems and civilizations.  No one, human or alien, appears to know anything about its origin or purpose. When one man has vivid visions of people living inside the void, it predictably leads to the establishment of a new religion. So equally predictably a lot of believers decide not to wait but to enter the Void voluntarily. Unfortunately, that very act might change the way the Void functions, to the detriment of everyone else. There are far too many viewpoint characters to keep the story focused and what is otherwise a pretty good set up tends to flounder around quite a bit.

The Temporal Void continues the various story lines and moves us to the crisis. The cultists and the nonbelievers are polarized and on the verge of an interstellar war. Unfortunately, I really hate dream sequences and they're a major, integral part of the story. It has the usual problem of middle books in trilogies - it runs in place, setting the stage for the final book without resolving anything. And frankly, all of the dream sequences could have been left out of the book and the story would be exactly the same. The religious theme continues - the world inside the Void is considered by some to be quite literally Paradise. Most of the protagonists aren't quite so sure and some of them are in danger of losing their lives. The final volume is the longest and most bloated of the three. Hamilton pretty much lost me when the science became essentially magic and there were times when I wished I hadn't started the trilogy at all.  It's a shame because he displays good story telling skills, but intermittently, and surrounded by so much less interesting stuff that I have reservations about every one of his novels.

Review of Great North Road