For an author with a reputation for writing very long novels it is maybe appropriate that the two longest stories in this short story collection were the best in it.
Watching Trees Grow (which I'd read before many years ago) packs a lot of world-building into 80-odd pages and has an interesting premise (a murder investigation taking centuries with the investigator using newly invented technologies to go back to look at the case), although the characterisation was a bit flat and some aspects of the world-building were a bit under-explained.
Another SF detective story, The Demon Trap, was probably the best story in the collection, re-using some characters from Hamilton's Commonwealth books probably helped with the characterisation compared to Watching Trees Grow and it was probably the most interesting story in terms of the SF elements (although some of the ideas later got reused in his Void trilogy). The other two Commonwealth-set stories were also reasonably good with some nice cameos for characters from the novels, although the title story did feel a bit contrived in its attempt to shoe-horn Paula Myo into a plot that shouldn't really have had anything to do with her and is a bit unsubtle in the historical allegory it is using. Touched by an Angel, the final Commonwealth story, gives some interesting background to some of the events in the Void trilogy and has an interesting portrayal of characters doing horrible things in causes that they believe to be justified.
The remaining stories weren't anything special, If At First in particular was both dull and silly and almost certainly the first SF story to use R.E.M.'s Shiny Happy People as a major plot point.
Footvote is another fairly short story but has an interesting premise - a man opens up a wormhole to colonise a new world but sets a long list of rules about who he'll allow to emigrate, this has some predictably negative consequences and an interesting dilemma for the main character who has to choose between her political principles and what is best for her family.
The Forever Kitten is particularly short at only 1000 words, but shows that Hamilton is still able to describe an interesting SF idea in a very small number of words.
Overall, I'd say Hamilton's strength is mainly in the longer works but he's also a decent writer of short fiction.
Rating : 7 / 10
The second book in the Void trilogy is The Temporal Void. Again, the novel is split into two separate sets of plot threads, one focused on events in the Commonwealth and the other focused on Edeard’s life on Querencia inside the Void.
The Commonwealth-set part of the book begins with two violent events – one a trap set by the psychopathic Higher agent Cat to try to entrap rogue physicist Troblum and dogged investigator Paula Myo, the other a planetary invasion as the military force of the Living Dream movement launch a massive operation to try to track down the elusive Second Dreamer who has just become aware of their ability to communicate with beings inside the Void but continues to shun the Living Dream movement. A race then ensues as three factions – Living Dream, the technology-obsessed Highers and Paula Myo’s agents - all try to track down the Second Dreamer who only wants to keep their quiet life as it was. Meanwhile, another event with potentially much more devastating consequences is occurring as the Void goes through a massive expansion swallowing several surrounding star systems and destroying the Centurion observation station. As most flee the Centurion station, Justine Burnelli bravely takes her spaceship towards the Void on a seemingly suicidal mission, but with the assistance of the Second Dreamer she manages to pass through the Void’s outer barrier and discovers a world both like and unlike the utopia the Living Dream movement predicted. She then sets off to try to communicate with whatever intelligence might be controlling the Void to persuade it to halt the expansion that could potentially destroy the rest of the galaxy. Elsewhere in the galaxy Aaron has completed the first part of his mission and captured the Living Dream founder Inigo who was hiding in self-imposed exile. Now he has an additional challenge as he is forced to escape a dying planet while keeping the recalcitrant Inigo from escaping. At the same time Kazimir, the admiral of the Commonwealth Navy readies his forces to defend against an invasion fleet by the seemingly outmatched aliens of the Ocisen Empire, who believe that the Living Dream’s proposed pilgrimage must be stopped at all costs. The Commonwealth Navy finds that the Ocisens have some unexpected and powerful allies, but the Navy itself has a few secrets up its sleeve.
The Querencia-set part of the story opens with Edeard the toast of Makkathran society after his heroic arrest of a leading gang member – the strong psychic powers he displayed during the arrest having made him an instant celebrity. Despite the distractions of several young noblewoman fascinated by the novelty of a young constable from an obscure rural province who has greater psychic powers than the strongest of Makkathran’s nobility Edeard is determined to stick to his aims of breaking the hold the criminal gangs have on Makkathran life. Backed up by his fellow constables he sets out to defeat the gangs by using a mix of strength and guile combining intensive policing with astute use of some obscure legal measures. However, the gangs are ruthless and not above targeting innocent friends and family members of the constables chasing after them and Edeard comes into increasing resistance as he starts to realise there are many connections between the gangs and Makkathran’s aristocracy who have dominated the city for generations. Along the way he gets embroiled in a political struggle between those who feel breaking the gangs is the most important priority and those who think that Makkathran’s leaders should look at the bigger picture and act against the increasing bloody bandit raids that are devastating the outer provinces (and had previously destroyed Edeard’s home village) by establishing a stronger state where Makkathran would take overall control of the entire continent.
Unlike in the previous novel where Edeard’s story was much more interesting than the goings-on in the Commonwealth this time round there is a better balance between the two storylines. The Commonwealth plot is much better paced this time, freed from the necessity of having to spend hundreds of pages introducing the complex array of characters and plot lines there is a much better mix of action throughout the book rather than most of it being concentrated at the end of the novel. There is still a small criticism to be made here, in that even though this is a very long book the Commonwealth storyline does not advance many of the plot threads very much – the storylines surrounding Paula Myo, the Second Dreamer or Aaron and Inigo make some progress but Edeard’s storyline still has a lot more plot advancement (perhaps a benefit of focusing on a single character rather than a dozen or so characters spread out across a galaxy). Edeard’s story continues to be very entertaining with some interesting and complex plotting, some satisfying action scenes and some intriguing hints that while Inigo is dreaming Edeard’s story some information may be going the other way as Edeard comes up with a few rather anachronistic ideas. The fight against the gangs also has a few topical elements, Edeard’s inventive use of the law to fight the gangs is presumably meant in part to be a commentary on modern attempts to fight terrorism and organised crime. The issues raised by this element of the story are thought-provoking, since we see things from Edeard’s viewpoint we are naturally sympathetic to what he is doing, but a lot of readers would probably be opposed if some of the measures he uses were used in real life and bring to mind the age-old question of whether the ends justify the means.
There are occasional problems with Edeard’s plotline, for someone who can be effective and ruthless when fighting the gangs he can be irritatingly naïve at times (perhaps understandable as he is still a young man with very little life experience). A more serious problem is that Edeard’s psychic powers are so strong that at times is seems implausible that he is in any real danger as he starts to turn into Makkathran’s version of a cross between Batman and Jesus. However, Hamilton saves the best until last in that storyline, the penultimate Edeard chapter in the book is possibly the best chapter he’s ever written with some hard-hitting and shocking events and a series of surprising plot twists that both indicate the true power and ruthlessness of the gangs and their allies and also finally explain the previously-mysterious question of why the Living Dream movement is so entranced by Inigo’s dreams of Querencia. It is an excellent conclusion to the second volume of the trilogy and suggests that the concluding volume could be an equally fascinating read.
In summary, after a somewhat mixed first volume, the second book in the Void Trilogy is one of Hamilton’s best novels covering a huge variety of plotlines and settings. The Commonwealth-set part of the series is still not quite Hamilton’s best space opera work but it is still intriguing and entertaining with some audacious plotting and despite occasional flaws Edeard’s storyline is highly entertaining with a stunning conclusion.
Rating : 9 / 10
The first volume in the Void Trilogy, Hamilton’s follow-up to Judas Unchained, returns to the Commonwealth after almost a thousand years have passed since the Starflyer War. In the millennia since the end of the Commonwealth series the human race has expanded and divided into different groups. The old core of the Commonwealth has taken full advantage of technological development to establish the so-called Higher civilisation, a utopian post-scarcity civilisation ruled over by the minds of ANA – essentially a giant computer network running the simulated minds of uploaded humans. Meanwhile, the newer colonies of the External Worlds remain suspicious of the technological obsessions of the Higher civilisation and exist in a state more akin to the Commonwealth in the original books, with a wide and varied range of cultures.
Human starships have explored much of the galaxy and found a number of new and strange things, principal among them the Void that lies at the centre of the galaxy. The novel’s prologue begins with Inigo, a relatively undistinguished External Worlds citizen with a few secrets to hide from, arriving at Centurion Station – a multi-species observatory established over a millions years ago by the alien Raiel to observe the Void. The Void is an impenetrable barrier surrounding the stars at the centre of the galaxy which periodically expands, devouring nearby star systems. The Raiel fear that one day it could engulf the whole galaxy. Shortly after Inigo arrives on the station he begins to dream, but he does not dream ordinary dreams. Instead he dreams of the Waterwalker, a man living in a human civilisation on a planet inside the Void.
The main part of the novel starts a couple of centuries later, when the Living Dream movement who believe Inigo’s dreams show the reality of a potential paradise inside the Void have become one of the biggest political forces in the External Worlds with millions of adherents and the control of several planetary governments. As the story begins they are celebrating the election of Ethan as their movement’s leader – a man who declares that the Living Dream movement will finally make its long-awaited pilgrimage into the Void. This causes great consternation among much of the Commonwealth - while the Living Dream movement is entitled to act on its own beliefs, the Raiel have repeatedly warned that any attempt to enter the Void will trigger another period of expansion.
The Commonwealth-set part of the book is fairly traditional Hamilton space-opera, filled with ideas and with a large cast of characters on different planets all on their own missions that will, inevitably, all end up in the same place. The main characters include Aaron, an agent who doesn’t know who he is working for, who has no memory of his past but possesses an implacable sense of purpose and a huge armament of weaponry. Aaron is on a quest to track down Inigo, who ran away from his movement decades ago with Inigo’s former lover providing reluctant help. A parallel quest follows expert detective Paula Myo (one of the returning characters from the original books) as she recruits unlikely help to track down the so-called Second Dreamer, a successor to Inigo who also dreams of the Void, but without knowing that their dreams are real. Meanwhile, Troblum, an expert physicist with a definite lack of social skills and an obsession with the Starflyer War is recruited to help one of the ANA’s factions develop some secretive new technology. Much of the rest of the book focuses on the feuding between the different political factions inside ANA – particularly between the Conservatives reluctant to let the Living Dream movement spoil the Status Quo and the Accelerators who see an opportunity to speed up the pace of human development.
As well as the Commonwealth-set part of the book, the other half of the book focuses on the world Inigo dreamed of – following the early life of the Waterwalker on the planet Querencia inside the Void. Querencia is a low-technology world that has not developed far beyond the Middle Ages, populated by humans with unique mental powers which allow them to use telepathy and telekinesis. Edeard is a young man with a bright future, an apprentice in the local Eggshapers guild (who use telekinesis to sculpt the embryos of animals to design the adult creature with useful characteristics) in a small farming village on the edge of the Wilderness. After a devastating raid on his village by bandits with unusually advanced technology for the planet he is forced to flee his home, eventually ending up in the planetary capital of Makkatharan. Finding himself lost with no contacts in the city he is forced to give up on his ambitions in the Eggshapers Guild and instead joins the city’s Constables in an attempt to earn a living fighting the seemingly hopeless fight against the city’s powerful criminal gangs who control large parts of the city’s commerce. It could have lead to a fairly undistinguished life, but he gradually becomes aware that he is not just mentally stronger than his colleagues or fellow citizens, but has unprecedented mental abilities.
The novel’s two plots are an unlikely combination of post-Singularity Space Opera and quasi-medieval Epic Fantasy. Surprisingly, given Hamilton’s past record as a writer of Space Opera, it is actually the Epic Fantasy part of the novel that is more compelling. Edeard is an interesting and likeable character and although this part of the novel does use more than a few Epic Fantasy clichés (Edeard is an orphan destined for great things, with a wise mentor figure and a rural upbringing) it features an interesting plot, good characterisation and some fascinating world-building with a fairly traditional pre-industrial human civilisation surviving on an undeniably alien world – the most obvious alien-ness being the city of Makkatharan itself, a city of living rock designed for alien inhabitants. The Space Opera parts of the novel are often interesting, but suffer for being a bit unfocused with a lot of small plot threads, of which only Aaron’s quest builds up any real momentum. Troblum’s thwarted physics projects or Araminta’s attempts at becoming rich through property development are obviously destined to lay the foundations for important developments later on but at this stage in the series those plot threads are frankly a bit dull at times. The Space Opera part of the book also suffers from the fact that not a huge amount seems to have happened until fairly near the end of the book, it may have set up an interesting foundation for the later books in the series, but it is mostly build-up with very little being resolved. In contrast, Inigo’s dreams of the Waterwalker are well-paced and focused, with the novel ending as Edeard takes an irrevocable step to being more than just a simple constable with an unusual upbringing.
As ever with Hamilton there are plenty of interesting Science Fiction concepts and world-building scattered throughout the book, and he does largely manage to stop the post-Singularity civilisation of the Highers being either too incomprehensible or unbelievable. There isn’t much in the way of explanation for the technological developments, but most of it does seem superficially plausible. Although the plot is (so far) largely unconnected to the first Commonwealth series, there are numerous references to the original books, including a large number of cameos from characters from the original duology. Arguably, Hamilton probably overdoes the cameos a bit, while it is nice to find out what happened to many of the main characters from the previous series it does seem a bit contrived that just about every plot threads seems to have some connection to the main players in the Starflyer War. The large number of references to the previous series also means that while the plot itself is fairly stand-alone there are possible too many things that wouldn’t make sense without reading the previous series first.
Overall the characterisation is fairly good, although the characters inside the Void (particularly Edeard) get better character development than most of the characters outside the Void. Araminta is probably the most interesting of the Commonwealth characters (despite her largely dull and predictable plot-line), with a lot of the Commonwealth characters, such as Ethan or the Delivery Man, getting little time to really develop.
In summary, this is another good book from Hamilton, although surprisingly the novel’s entertaining Epic Fantasy plotline is better-written than the reasonably good but slightly underwhelming Space Opera section of the book, the difference being significant enough that this might have worked better as a straightforward Fantasy novel. When finished the Void Trilogy could be one of Hamilton’s best, but so far it has potential but hasn’t realised all of it yet.
Rating : 8 / 10
The sequel to Pandora’s Star continues where Judas Unchained left off, as the Commonwealth struggles as it finds itself under attack from an enemy it is poorly prepared to face. Meanwhile, Paula Myo continues to close in on both the Guardians and the secret behind the mysterious Starflyer and Ozzie continues to wander between different worlds in an entertaining but seemingly slightly unnecessary journey.
There isn’t much to say about this book that hasn’t been said already about Pandora’s Star, one advantage it does have is that there are fewer irrelevant subplots (to be more precise, it is easier to see the relevance of the subplots to the story) and it manages to keep up a more consistent pace, not having such a slow start as the first book in the series. Particularly good is the breathless hundred-pages long action sequence as Paula Myo’s team pursue the Starflyer’s agents back to its ship on Far Away, although the Commonwealth’s desperate defence against alien attack also throws up some equally good action sequences. Thankfully, the ending is largely satisfactory, avoiding the infamous pseudo-deus-ex-machina of the Night’s Dawn’s ending. It can be difficult to write an ending that feels like a fitting way of concluding two-thousand pages of story, but Hamilton manages to produce an ending that is mostly satisfying.
Judas Unchained largely improves on the first book (although since there are fewer unknowns in the plot it lacks the thrill of discovery Pandora’s Star sometimes had) and is another fine piece of Science Fiction that makes a good ending to the two book series.
Rating : 9/10
After the relative disappointments of “Fallen Dragon” and “Misspent Youth” (which I haven’t read yet, but seems to get universally poor or mediocre reviews) Hamilton bounced back to form with a two-book series that saw a return to the epic scale and compelling storytelling of the “Night’s Dawn Trilogy”.
The two books, “Pandora’s Star” and the sequel “Judas Unchained”, are set in another human civilisation covering hundreds of star systems, the Intersolar Commonwealth. The primary difference in world-building compared to the Night’s Dawn Universe is the method of interstellar travel, whereas the Night’s Dawn books used the traditional starships, in the Commonwealth interstellar travel is done through fixed wormholes which allow instantaneous travel between the surfaces of different planets. In a slightly anachronistic (but sensible) touch most of the travel through the wormholes is done by trains, the railways being a more efficient means of getting a lot of people through a wormhole compared to letting individual vehicles go through. The Commonwealth is a fairly peaceful place, the steady colonisation of new planets reduces population pressure and the only alien life so far encountered by humanity has been peaceful. In the late-24th Century setting there have inevitably been plenty of technological developments, most prominently the rejuvenation treatments which can heal bodies to the extent that even elderly people can return to their youth. Even death can be conquered in some cases, electronic devices implanted in people’s bodies record all their experiences and can allow people to be resurrected in clone bodies. There is also the ‘Unisphere’, an interstellar evolution of the Internet and a genuine superhuman artificial intelligence, the ‘Sentient Intelligence’ or SI, a seemingly benevolent presence in human society as well as plenty of other technological wonders mentioned in passing by Hamilton. Politically most of the Commonwealth is an American-style capitalist democracy, although there are some underground rebels and terrorist movements protesting against the domination of the Commonwealth by a small elite of rich families.
Although the novel features a huge number of subplots, there are two primary plots which initially seem unconnected but, unsurprisingly, end up weaving together into a single plotline. The first plot deals with the star of the title, the novel’s first chapter featuring the undistinguished astronomer, Dudley Bose, whose observations of a mysterious stellar anomaly turn him into an instant celebrity and kick off one of humanity’s most ambitious endeavours. Bose is investigating the so-called ‘Dyson Pair’, two neighbouring stars several hundred light years distant from human space. Bose observes first one star and then the other instantaneously disappear from view, no longer emitting light although they continue to emit infra-red radiation. Since stars do not naturally disappear he knows there has to be an artificial explanation and he concludes that both stars must have been enveloped in giant solar-system spanning forcefields cutting them off from the rest of the galaxy. This discovery excites a great deal of interest in the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth’s rulers decide that they must send a mission to the stars to investigate what happened to make them disappear. Enveloping a star in a forcefield would seem to have only two motivations – to keep something out or to keep something in, and the Commonwealth is determined to find out which. If there is an alien race out there which can cut off star systems (or one so dangerous that star systems would cut themselves off as a means of self-defence) they want to know about it in case it ever encounters humans. Since the Dyson pair are too far away for current wormhole technology to reach, the only way to do the mission is to develop and fly an interstellar starship there. The Commonwealth’s immense scientific resources quickly manage to develop a ship – the ‘Second Chance’ - which sets off on its mission to the distant stars. The mission is lead by Wilson Kime, the last man to fly a spaceship, a former NASA astronaut whose career-defining first mission to Mars was made instantly irrelevant by the invention of wormhole travel.
The second major plot thread deals with an underground cult-like terrorist organisation called the ‘Guardians of Selfhood’. The Guardians are fervent believers in what is generally considered to be a fanciful conspiracy regarding a crashed alien spacecraft nicknamed the ‘Marie Celeste’ found on a distant planet. The spacecraft was found abandoned with no trace of its crew and despite extensive study of it by a huge research institute on the planet (the aptly named ‘Far Away’) little is known about the aliens that built it. The Guardians insist that an alien, what they call the ‘Starflyer’ survived the crash and managed to infiltrate human society, controlling the Marie Celeste research institute and many prominent humans. They conduct frequent paramilitary raids against the research institute’s staff as well as attempting to thwart the launch of the Second Chance, claiming it is all part of the Starflyer’s plot. The plot thread focuses on detective Paula Myo’s decades-long quest to arrest Bradley Johansen, the Guardians’ charismatic leader and shut down the organisation. An expert investigator who has solved every other case she has worked on she is determined to make the Guardians face justice, but as she continues her investigation she starts to question whether their conspiracy theory might actually turn out to have some truth in it.
This being a Hamilton novel, there are also plenty of other plot threads, including some of Paula Myo’s other cases and wormhole inventor Ozzie Isaac’s quixotic attempt to investigate the Dyson pair by wandering the ‘Silfen paths’, a mysterious system of paths between different star systems built by the Slifen, enigmatic elf-like aliens. As the book continues other plot threads appear, as the Commonwealth’s time of peace comes to an abrupt end.
The two novels are not perfect, but they are a definite return to form and manage to combine a compelling page-turning story with plenty of great SF ideas. Hamilton’s future world is well thought-out and although occasionally reminiscent of the Night’s Dawn universe’s Confederation it does have a distinct character. Hamilton throws in plenty of good pieces of scientific speculation and interesting alien races, sometimes as major plot points, sometimes as minor pieces of background. The Dyson aliens, when they eventually appear, are a particularly fascinating and distinctive alien race.
The plot is undeniably slow to start with, and the reader has to get through hundreds of pages of entertaining but seemingly irrelevant subplots before the main action starts as the Second Chance arrives at the Dyson pair. The initial investigation of the ‘Dark Fortress’ that surrounds the star is the first really great bit of the book, the characters are exploring the unknown and it is very difficult for either they or the reader to know what will they will find. What they find and the fall-out of that discovery is also interesting and it all leads to the action-filled ending of the book as the Commonwealth itself comes under threat. The investigation into the Guardians is very different in character, Paula Myo’s investigation making this bit of the story more similar to Hamilton’s earlier Greg Mandel books, a detective story (with a healthy dose of conspiracy theorising) in a science fiction setting. Both main plots are executed well unfortunately some of the sub-plots aren’t quite as compelling. Ozzie’s wander through alien worlds accompanied by teenage runaway Orion and exotic alien librarian Tochee is fun but it does seem like a distraction from the main plot and it doesn’t end up having enough relevance to the main storyline to really make it worthwhile. The huge cast of characters is also a bit variable, some characters such as Paula Myo, Ozzie or Adam Elvin (the Guardians’ weapons supplier) are interesting, but some of the supporting characters such as weak-willed astronomer Dudley Bose are either slightly irritating or a bit bland.
In summary, this is a very good but not perfect piece of science fiction. The book is significantly longer than it needs to be and the proliferation of subplots does distract a bit from the two fascinating main plotlines. Despite the occasional pacing problems and the sometimes uninspired characterisation the novel’s convincing future setting and the excellent portrayal of the investigation of the Dyson Pair and the later attack on Commonwealth makes this one of Hamilton’s strongest novels.
Rating : 9/10
Hamilton's follow-up to the “Night's Dawn Trilogy” was another space opera, although this time not set in the same universe. “Fallen Dragon” is again set several centuries in the future. Humanity has discovered faster-than-light travel and has established a number of new colonies. Unlike the “Night's Dawn” universe, these colony efforts have not been too successful. Although most of the colonies are flourishing, there is insufficient potential for interstellar trade to allow their founding companies to recoup their massive investment. Hence, no more colonies are being founded and the existing colonies are largely ignored. The corporations that now control Earth do see some potential for profit from the colonies – a process they euphemistically call Asset Realisation. A fleet of starships is sent to a colony, upon arrival they requisition the colony's most valuable technical supplies and produce – rationalising this theft with the explanation that it is merely a partial payment for the debts incurred in founding the colony. If the colony refuses to hand over it's produce, then the corporation will use force to take it – using Earth's unrivalled military might to easily force the colony into submission.
The main character is Lawrence Newton, a young man who emigrated to Earth from a colony planet after being betrayed by his father and the girl he loved. Upon arrival he enlists in the private army of one of the corporations, quickly becoming a veteran of the asset realisation missions. His most recent mission involves revisiting a planet he first went to over a decade ago. Although the colony outwardly bows down to the corporation, an underground resistance quickly makes life difficult for the occupiers with a cunning campaign of violence that doesn't allow the off-worlders any opportunity to identify the culprits. Newton, now a low-ranking officer, has to keep safe his young platoon from the partisans, while simultaneously trying to find an opportunity to return to a remote rural community he stayed in on his last visit. In the time since leaving the planet previously, Lawrence has realised that something very odd, and potentially highly profitable, is in that community – something that may have a relationship to the strangely highly-advanced technology the Resistance is using.
The novel focuses primarily on events during the occupation of the planet, principally seen from the points of view of either Lawrence, or the female leader of a rebel cell. There are also extensive flashbacks to Lawrence's previous experiences on his homeworld, Earth, and some (occasionally disastrous) past asset-realisation missions.
The premise is reasonably original, although not always entirely convincing. In particular, the motives of the rebel group seem a bit confused – their hostility to the corporation is easily justified but their other priorities seem a poor excuse for the violence that is needed to achieve those goals. It is also a bit difficult to reconcile Newton's pleasant personality, with the unquestionably immoral behaviour of the corporations he works for, and it is difficult to see why he does the job he does. Presumably Hamilton is aiming to make a comment on the dangers of corporate culture, but he seems also to try and find some sympathy for Lawrence and his platoon. The ending is also a disappointment, it has too little relevance to much of the book, and it feels rather contrived.
Despite some major plot issues, there are plenty of nice scenes in this book. A disastrous Asset Realisation mission to a planet whose inhabitants have been experimenting with radical genetic engineering is a particularly good sub-plot. The rebel's efforts to defeat the corporation allows a number of good action scenes and cunning plots, it's just a pity that by the ending Hamilton has got distracted from this storyline. Although it can be difficult to empathise with the decisions some of the characters make, they are generally quite likeable despite this and the lack of any pure heroes or villains adds some depth to the story.
Overall, “Fallen Dragon” is reasonably well written, but the plot is disappointing. It has potential but Hamilton fails to take advantage of this, with some questionable decisions about the direction of the story.
Rating : 6 / 10
“A Second Chance At Eden” is a shot story collection set in the same universe as the Night's Dawn Trilogy. The earliest story takes place in the near future, the latest a few years before the start of “The Reality Dysfunction”. The stories are only loosely connected to the trilogy - aside from a couple of cameo appearances from familiar characters – and mostly deal with the consequences of Hamilton's affinity technology, and the Edenist culture that uses it.
The longest story is the title novella “A Second Chance At Eden”, which is set in the early days of Eden, the Edenist's first habitat situated in orbit around Jupiter. Eden's founder Wing Tsit-Chong is about to embark on the next stage of Edenist development, but the fledgling colony is thrown into turmoil after one of Eden's most prominent scientists is found dead – shot by one of the habitat's animal servitors. Eden's new security chief, newly arrived from Earth, has to investigate who managed a seemingly untraceable murder in one of the most closely-monitored locations in the Solar System. Unfortunately for him, the dead scientist had plenty of enemies and rivals, and the murder was planned with great precision. His problems don't stop with the case, his wife becomes increasingly disapproving of the Edenist culture, as a religious woman she can't reconcile her husband's acceptance of the affinity technology with the Pope's decree that the technique is immoral. The story offers an interesting insight into Edenist culture and the murder plot has a few interesting twists, but the story is too slow-moving and ends up being slightly dull, despite a great ending.
The best story in the collection is “Escape Route”, which tells the tale of Marcus Calvert, father of the main character in the “Night's Dawn Trilogy”. Calvert and his crew, aboard the starship Lady Macbeth, are hired by some suspicious characters on a mission to a remote, uninhabited, star system. While there, they stumble upon an ancient alien spacecraft but problems arise when the tension between Calvert and his employers breaks into violence. It's an entertaining adventure story, with some nice alien technology.
The rest of the stories tend to be quite average, there are a few nice moments but generally they aren't all that memorable.
Rating : 6 / 10
Hamilton’s first three books were comparatively simple tales mixing the traditional detective novel with some additional Science Fiction content. Hamilton's next series was the “Night's Dawn Trilogy”, a daring mix of space opera and supernatural horror with a huge cast of characters and complex intertwining plotlines spread over several thousand pages. The setting is the 27th Century, Mankind now inhabits over 600 star systems and has made some important scientific discoveries that have had far-reaching consequences.
Humanity is divided into two groups – the Adamists and the Edenists. The Edenists are a utopian culture that dwell in living sentient space stations called 'habitats', the Edenist’s defining feature is the use of a genetic enhancement known as 'affinity'. This affinity allows Edenists to communicate telepathically with each other over long distances, and also allows them to share in a community mind which forms their government. Upon their death their personality becomes part of the habitat, in effect they never truly die. Because of their increased empathy the Edenists have an amazingly peaceful culture with minimal conflict. The Adamists make up the majority of humanity, who are basically a more advanced version of 21st Century humanity, some of them believing that the affinity gene is immoral and inhuman, and it is banned in Adamist society.
Although the differences between Adamist and Edenist cultures are intriguing and are mentioned repeatedly throughout the trilogy, they are merely part of the background, the main plot kicks off on a newly-settled colony planet called Laalonde. Quinn Dexter, a vicious criminal and member of a cultish Satanist criminal organisation, is sentenced to work as an indentured labourer in a remote settlement on the colony planet. After an accidental encounter with an alien entity, he unleashes a deadly plague onto humanity – the 'Reality Dysfunction' that provides the title of the first book in the series. The alien he encounters has inadvertently opened a gateway into a dimension where the spirits of dead humans dwell. These spirits can re-emerge and take possession of human bodies, overwhelming the original personality, giving their unwilling host new powers – making them unnaturally strong and giving them seemingly supernatural powers. As the Possession Crisis spreads off Laalonde and is carried by highjacked starships onto other worlds, the rest of humanity must struggle to understand, and contain, this menace.
There are a number of plot threads, each with their own main character. The most prominent follows Josua Calvert, the owner-pilot of the 'Lady Macbeth', a small spacecraft that he uses for (occasionally illegal) interstellar trade. Other major characters include Syrinx, an Edenist captain in the Confederation Navy, the aforementioned Quinn Dexter and Louise Kevanagh – a young woman from the pastoral planet of Norfolk who is seduced by Josua, and later has to deal with the consequences of the Possessed landing on her planet.
The books are notoriously large, to the extent that the 'Hamilton' has been jokingly referred to as a new measurement for the length of a science fiction novel – with one Hamilton equal to a thousand pages. There are too many plots to summarise them all – the main plot deals with Josua and Syrinx's efforts to try to find a way of stopping the possession crisis, which they eventually conclude may involve travelling to an area of space controlled by the Tyrathca – a race of highly-private hive-mind aliens – in a search for a weapon to use against the Possessed. Other plots deal with the spread of the Possessed and the crises that arise on various worlds as a result of the Possessed. Less closely related is the plot that takes up a significant portion of the second book, the “Neutronium Alchemist”, a weapon with the power to destroy a star that a rebel scientist is now trying to recover and use as a revenge for the destruction of her home planet by another star system, with the Possessed also trying to get hold of the weapon. Another major plot thread deals with the independent habitat of Valisk – ruled by Rubra, a rogue Edenist who, at the moment of his death, uploaded himself to take sole control of his habitat which he now rules as a dictator. One of his disillusioned descendants sees the Possessed as a means to overthrow Rubra's control.
The plot is sprawling, with a cast of thousands and a multitude of intertwining plot threads. Despite this, Hamilton's clear and reasonably concise writing style makes for fast-moving action and intrigue that is usually interesting and never difficult to follow. The technological underpinnings of the story would not be out of place in a pure hard-science fiction story. His technology is believable and well-described and the impact of the technologies – particularly the Edenist's affinity – is an important part of the background. The cultures of the various planets are varied and plausible, and although the alien cultures – the belligerent Tyrathca and the mysterious Kiint – are not the focus of the story they are still better developed and more convincing than the alien cultures in a high percentage of the science fiction novels published.
Hamilton is also excellent at writing the (frequent) action scenes – whether they are from the science fiction or supernatural horror genres. The space battles are exciting, and Hamilton seems to take unusual effort to consider the physics of space combat and come up with a plausible system of combat. At first, when the nature of the Possessed has not been fully revealed, the scenes where they convert new victims are particularly nightmarish. Later on, the impact wears off slightly, but the idea of foreign spirits taking over human hosts remains unsettling.
The serious, convincing science fiction background makes an unlikely combination with the lurid seemingly-supernatural horror, but it works surprisingly well. The basic premise is admittedly quite outlandish and requires some suspension-of-disbelief but for the first two books the clash of genres is effective as long as you can accept the existence of the Possessed. Unfortunately, in the last book of the trilogy, plausibility takes a big slide and the levels of suspension-of-disbelief required for some sub-plots gets unnecessarily high, especially concerning the increasingly tedious Valisk sub-plot and the unlikely number of coincidences creeping into the story.
The other major plot problem concerns the ending, Hamilton lamentably choosing to tie up all the loose ends with what feels very like a huge deus-ex-machina. The ending does make sense, and it is foreshadowed as early as the first book (so not technically a deus ex machina, but it is still disappointing that Hamilton seemingly couldn't resolve all the plot threads without resorting to such a contrived plot device, especially since other parts of the third book suggest other ways of resolving the main plot that might have made for better endings.
Nevertheless, despite the disappointment of some of the third book, this is still a highly-entertaining and imaginative series that is virtually unmatched in its ambition and scale. If you can accept the basic premise then the first two books (and some of the third) are superb entertainment, with a fair amount of depth and originality in addition.
Rating : 9 / 10
The third (and presumably last) Greg Mandel book is “The Nano Flower”. Julia Evans is puzzled to be presented with a magnificent flower by a mysterious woman at a high-class party in Monte Carlo. She is even more puzzled when the flower is analysed and her scientists come to the conclusion that it is unrelated to any flower that ever grew on Earth. She calls in Greg to investigate where the flower came from, and whether it might have any connection to her technology-obsessed husband Royan, who vanished without trace several years previously.
As in the previous novel, for most of the book the science fiction content is fairly light as Greg and companions fly around Europe chasing leads and trying to avoid some nasty hitmen who seem to be after them. It gets slightly James Bond-ish in feel as Greg stumbles from one spectacular action scene to another, in a series of increasingly unlikely locations, including an airship used as a home by a wealthy businessman, and Man's first asteroid colony. In the last 100-or-so pages, the science fiction content increases as Greg encounters the source of the titular “Nano Flower”, and finds himself facing a tough decision about how to resolve a problem that could potentially harm all life on Earth.
Again, the characters are entertaining, the action scenes are fun and the end of the book has some nice Science Fiction concepts. The end of the book isn't perfect (some parts of it are possibly trying to wrap every plot thread up neatly), but it is at least original, although it is disappointing that the rest of the book doesn't have such a high density of ideas as the ending. The plot may also rely a bit too heavily on coincidence, and there might be a couple too many action scenes, but other than that it is good.
“The Nano Flower” is entertaining, reasonably original and has a fair number of interesting ideas. It may not be the best of Hamilton's work but it’s not too far away from that standard.
Rating : 8 / 10
The second Greg Mandel novel is “A Quantum Murder”. As the title indicates, this is a murder mystery with Mandel called in to investigate the brutal slaying of a brilliant but reclusive physicist. Because the physicist - one of the pre-eminent scientists of his time – worked for the company owned by Julia Evans, she asks her friend Greg to investigate the case, since the local police are stumped by the bizarre murder. There are no shortage of motives, in addition to corporate rivals looking to kill one of Evans' company's best researchers, the physicist shared his home with a small number of highly gifted physics students – several of whom had a potential motive to kill him, although none of them seem capable of such a brutal killing. Needless to say, there are plenty of twists in the tale that Greg will have to unravel.
The science fiction content in this novel is fairly slight, mainly concentrating on the physicist's vaguely described efforts to use quantum mechanics to use wormholes to travel or communicate through space or time. Inevitably, the consequences of this technology are key to the events surrounding the murder. The Science Fiction content does provide a bit of a twist on the typical detective novel, allowing the detective a few extra tools that aren’t present in a typical murder mystery. Some of the technology does also allow the slightly unlikely shoot-out that forms the book’s climax.
As in the first book the characterisation is strong, both the returning characters (principally Greg himself, although several others reappear from the previous book) and the new characters in the form of the physicist’s students. The murderer’s motivation is also plausible although the murderer does make a slightly bland villain once revealed. The plot is quite fun, it may be a reasonably standard detective story but it is also a well-executed one.
“A Quantum Murder” isn't the finest book Hamilton has ever written, but it is entertaining. Although it lacks in ambition it is a competently executed plot and works well as a murder mystery.
Rating : 7 / 10