McDonald’s next novel, 2007’s “Brasyl” has some similarities and quite a few differences to its predecessor, “River of Gods”. The similarities are in the formula of the novel – again there are multiple main characters and plot threads, an exotic locale (Brazil in this case), a twisting, convoluted plot and some intelligent, complex science underpinning the premise. Despite the similarities in formula, the books are still very different when the details are considered – the setting, structure, characters and scientific concepts all being completely different to “River of Gods”.
The novel takes place in three different time periods. In the 18th Century Jesuit priest Father Luis Quinn is sent from Portugal to Brazil to act as an admonitory – his mission to stop (by any means necessary) a mad former Jesuit who has established a bizarre and deadly religious cult in the “City of God” he has established deep in the Amazon rain forest. Accompanied by French geographer Dr Robert Falcon (on a quest to measure the shape of the Earth) he travels upriver deep into the Amazonian heart of darkness where Portuguese enslavement and rampant diseases are devastating the native tribes of the Amazon. In 2006, trashy reality-TV producer Marcelina Hoffman lives a glitzy, shallow life of partying, drugs and martial arts in the bustling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Her latest program idea sends her on a quest to find an elderly former goalkeeper, intending to put him on mock-trial in a TV show to decide whether he should be forgiven or publicly humiliated for losing Brazil a World Cup. Her seedy quest takes her to a fashionable cult based around hallucinogenic drugs produced from an Amazonian plant, but she soon finds her life in turmoil after discovering a seeming doppelganger is trying to ruin her life. Thirty years later, former gang member turned entrepreneur Edson De Freitas dreams of earning enough money to one day escaping his poor existence in a Sao Paulo where government surveillance is everywhere, but the biggest threat is from vigilante gangs armed with quantum knives that will cut through anything. After his foolish older brother steals a handbag encoded with a seemingly unbreakable tracking system, Edson is forced to hire a specialist criminal gang to use their illicit quantum computers to break the tracking system. While there he meets, and falls in love with, fugitive quantum computing specialist Fia, but he soon finds out where quantum technology is involved things can get very, very strange.
As unlikely as it may seem, all the plots eventually intersect, courtesy of some audacious and unpredictable plotting. Each of the plots ultimately hinges on the science of quantum mechanics and its bizarre and frightening consequences. The science is clearly explained and mostly consistent with current scientific theories, and although there is occasionally some slightly clunky exposition required to explain the science it is mostly handled fairly well. The scientific (and philosophical) concepts and the consequences of them are interesting and thought-provoking, although there is much more to this novel than just the science. The plotting is very original with three interesting and compelling main plot lines all coming to a largely satisfying (although not necessarily final) conclusion and all of them combining to ultimately form one epic, although ultimately unresolved plot that is much bigger than the confines of one country. The ending does not tie up all the plot threads, although many things are resolved there is plenty of scope left for sequels, although the very nature of the overall plot means that it would be a story very difficult to ever entirely finish. The plot is mostly fairly convincing, but occasionally some bits of plotting do seem a bit implausible (for example, the actions of Marcelina’s doppelganger don’t entirely make sense) and it can sometimes feel a bit contrived.
The characterisation of both the main and minor character is usually strong. The complex character of Luis Quinn, a man of deep principles but also someone atoning for past crimes, is particularly interesting. Marcelina Hoffman is not a likeable character, some of her actions are contemptible, but she has enough self-awareness of her own flaws then when her life starts to fall apart it is possible to feel some sympathy for her, even if a lot of her problems are ultimately self-inflicted. Edson is probably the most superficially likeable of the main characters, although he too has a fairly complex character. There are a number of interesting minor characters in the novel and even some that appear very briefly end up being memorable. On the other hand some of the significant minor characters do feel a bit under-explored – principally Edson’s sort-of-girlfriend Fia.
As in “River of Gods” one of this novel’s best aspects is the fascinating portrayal of the exotic cultures of past, present and future Brazil. McDonald has obviously studied Brazil extensively and the novel is packed with Brazilian words and terms and cultural references. To someone not familiar with Brazilian culture this might make the book a bit difficult to follow at times, because McDonald rarely explains the foreign terminology and although there are little pieces of cultural exposition scattered throughout the book, a lot if left for the reader to work out from the context. There is a glossary of Brazilian words included at the end of the book, but I did not find it necessary to use it, since it was usually possible to figure out what the Brazilian terms meant from the context. This does help give the novel a convincingly exotic feel when combined with some very evocative writing about subjects as diverse as exploitive reality television, religion, football, the natural wonders of the rainforest, quantum computing, the cruelty of slavery, the oppressiveness of a surveillance society, the danger of the favelas and, of course, the country of Brazil itself. The quality of the prose is consistently high, and it also features quite a lot of variation of writing styles from the precise, analytical writings of Dr Falcon to the fast-moving sometimes deliberately ungrammatical prose used to describe Marcelina’s misadventures.
In summary, this is another hugely impressive novel with an ambitious, distinctive plot, intelligent, thought-provoking science, good characterisation, excellent writing and a fascinating portrayal of a foreign country. Occasionally the usually-excellent plotting does seem a bit implausible, but that’s about the only major flaw.
Rating : 9/10
Ian McDonald’s 2004 novel “River of Gods” is a distinctive science fiction novel for several different reasons. Most obviously, it is set on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi in mid-21st Century India, a comparatively unusual setting for a genre usually fixated upon American or European settings. The scale and ambition of the novel is also unusual, featuring ten main characters all with their own separate but occasionally overlapping storylines, as well as having a huge amount of detail about McDonald’s futuristic Indian culture and quite a lot of convincing futuristic technology and science. Lastly, it is a rare science fiction novel that manages to combine good characterisation, good writing, complex worldbuilding, plausible futuristic speculation and a compelling plot into a single reasonably-sized story. Too often science fiction novels only deliver some of those things well, but “River of Gods” is good at just about everything it attempts.
The setting is India around the time of the 100th anniversary of Indian independence. Much has changed, with the single Indian state of today fracturing into many smaller states, all frantically competing over precious water supplies to quench the thirst of India’s vast population. It is a nation of contrasts, much like it is today, with high technology (artificial intelligence, genetically engineered children, a third gender in addition to male and female) and some opulent affluence mingling with grinding poverty and a deadly criminal underworld.
The plot is complex and convoluted but the individual storylines are all clearly explained and mostly easy enough to follow and although it is initially unclear how all the storylines could possibly relate to each other, they do eventually combine to form a (mostly) satisfying conclusion. The various main characters include a stand-up comic who inherits an industrial empire on the verge of a great technological breakthrough, a hard-working policeman who hunts rogue A.I.s, a bored middle-class housewife becoming infatuated with her cricket-obsessed gardener, a politician with a secret fetish for the third gender, an entertainment reporter interviewing virtual soap stars, a petty gangster out of his depth and a western quantum physics researcher surprised to be suddenly taken to an American space facility and asked questions about a mysterious device embedded in an asteroid that appears to be older than the solar system. Always in the background is the threat of war between Bharat (where most of the book is set) and its neighbouring states over a controversial new dam on the Ganges and the looming disaster of drought caused by the failure of monsoon rains. By the end almost all of this will have become connected in some way, though a couple of plot lines do seem to end abruptly without ever becoming fully realised. It does admittedly start off a bit slowly and it takes time for most of the plots to really develop (one disadvantage of the large number of plot lines is that there are large gaps between successive instalments in each story) but as the book goes on the plot lines become increasingly compelling.
With such a convoluted plot and so much worldbuilding to do (McDonald not only has to portray the future, he also had to portray a futuristic extrapolation of an Indian culture foreign to most of his readers) this must have been a very difficult book to write, but the quality of the writing is excellent. Although there is a lot of foreign terminology (a number of Hindu terms as well as words describing the futuristic technology) the book is never difficult to follow and although there are frequent infodumps they never distract from the story and this book is a model example of how to integrate concise, interesting descriptions of sometimes bizarre concepts into what is a mostly character-driven plot. The characterisation is also excellent, with the different major and minor characters all being distinctive and interesting and despite sometimes not getting a huge amount of time to develop they do still manage to fit in a lot of interesting character development.
The scientific concepts that form the basis of the plot are logical extrapolations of modern-day cutting-edge scientific thought and are clearly and convincingly explained, although McDonald does spend a lot more time on the Indian culture than on the science. The Indian setting may be this novel’s most distinctive aspect and to me it does feel like a convincing portrayal of what Indian culture might develop into, and what feels like an authentically Indian atmosphere permeates the novel. It has to be pointed out that I have never been to India, so an Indian person may disagree with this assessment, but as far as I can tell McDonald has done a good job of portraying the sub-continental setting.
In summary, this is a superb piece of writing with a distinctive setting and an admirable ambition. It is a dizzying tale of zero-point energy, artificial intelligence, political conspiracies, soap operas, cricket, gangsters, infidelity, social climbing and a much-delayed monsoon and overall it is very well executed, despite the slightly slow start and the disappointing conclusion of a couple of the sub-plots.
Rating : 9/10
After finishing the Viriconium series Harrison switched to writing stories that were mostly set in the real world, but still feature some fantastical elements. 1992’s “The Course of the Heart” starts with a trio of young Cambridge students about to perform a mysterious ritual under the guidance of the sinister Yaxley. The ritual is never described or explained but two decades later, when the main part of the story takes place, the three who carried out the ritual are still haunted by its consequences. One of the former students, the narrator of the story, seems to be the least affected of them, but still finds himself drawn into Yaxley’s schemes in an attempt to help his friends Lucas and Pat who struggle with illnesses and their faltering marriage. Yaxley suggests he may be able to help, but requires the narrator’s assistance with a sordid task that leads to the novel’s most disturbing event. Meanwhile, Lucas and Pat construct an elaborate mythology centred on the fictional world of The Couer.
The Course of the Heart is definitely not a typical fantasy book. The story, even by Harrison’s standards is often obscure, key plot points like the ritual are never explained, and character motivations are often vague, particularly in the case of the novel’s seemingly decent narrator whose semi-willing involvement in Yaxley’s reprehensible plotting feels inconsistent with his actions in the rest of the novel. Despite this, the novel is still powerful and compelling and sometimes shocking and difficult to forget. There is a definite sense of melancholy for most of the novel, but there are occasional glimmers of hope among the darkness and cynicism. The point of the novel can sometimes be difficult to discern, although I think it has something to do with Harrison disdaining the characters’ obsession with mysticism and fantasy that eventually ruins all their lives.There is some vivid characterisation (despite the occasional inconsistencies) and the quality of the writing is, as usual with Harrison, mostly excellent although a few passages get so incoherent and divorced from reality that they end up being a bit nonsensical.
“The Course of the Heart” is not a novel that could be described as being accessible and it is often frustratingly obtuse but the writing itself largely makes up for this. This is not a novel that everyone is going to like but I’d still recommend it even if I don’t entirely understand it.
One of Harrison’s most famous works is the Viriconium fantasy series, now available in a single volume.
“Viriconium” is a compendium of a series of four books which are perhaps too loosely connected to really be accurately described as a 'series'. The subject of the series is the city of “Viriconium”, the last remaining great city in a world that has been exhausted by the works of millennia of preceding cultures. The people of this world largely make a living by scavenging the amongst the ruins of the last of the 'Afternoon Cultures', digging up great machines of unknowable purpose and rendering them down to produce swords and simple implements – or else using these artefacts as centrepieces of collections of works of art whose purpose the world has long since forgotten.
The Pastel City
The earliest – and most accessible – novel in the compilation is “The Pastel City”, a comparatively conventional epic fantasy tale. The lead character is tegeus-Cromis, a poet and expert swordsmen who was part of a band of warriors known as the “Methven”, a group of adventurers who served King Methven, the ruler of Viriconium. After his death, the Methven dispersed and the King's young daughter ascends the throne. A decade later, the Queen's cousin has raised an army among the wild Northmen and she is poised to invade Viriconium. Viriconium's army is ill-prepared for battle, despite possessing the last few of the Afternoon Culture's flying ships and power-weapons. Cromis sets off to find his old companions – the violent metal prospector Tomb the Dwarf, warrior and smuggler Birkin Grif and the lecherous Theoderis Glyn. As well as locating his old companions, he also has a strange encounter with a talking bird made entirely of metal, which insists that they are in great danger from something called the gheteit chemosit, and they must go at once to a lonely tower to consult with Cellur, an expert on the Afternoon Cultures. They ignore the unnecessarily vague warnings but soon discover that the Northmen have managed to resurrect some of the Afternoon Culture's most dangerous technology.
This is the most conventional of the Viriconium tales – although the setting is reasonably original and nicely rendered, the plot falls into the typical fantasy quest category. The characters are generally likeable, and although they have no great depth the characterisation is competent. Like all of Harrison's work, it is the quality of the writing that is notable here, although it's not as impressive as “Light” (for example), Harrison manages to effortlessly evoke a deeply melancholic atmosphere of the remnants of humanity trying to rebuild past glories on a worn-out world. The menacing gheteit chemosit are convincingly sinister and the battle scenes are described concisely but effectively. It does have a fairly abrupt ending, Harrison choosing not to chronicle the final days of the war except in a brief epilogue.
Although the plot may not be entirely original, it is generally well-written with a memorable setting and it is also more comprehensible than some of the later Viriconium stories, and is thus possibly the best of the series.
Rating : 8 / 10
A Storm Of Wings
The second novel is “A Storm of Wings”, set several decades after the end of “The Pastel City”. The plot is less conventional this time, as Viriconium is menaced by swarms of giant alien locusts, unable to survive on Earth and desperately trying to re-imagine the world in a way more suitable for them. This has a devastating effect on the humans of Viriconium as their reality starts to collapse and merge with the alien world of the insects. Increasing numbers of humans convert to the Sign of the Locust, a nihilistic philosophy that believes the world doesn't really exist. The followers of the Sign have particular hatred for the 'Reborn', a group of humans from the Afternoon Cultures who were resurrected by Tomb the Dwarf. The Reborn have their own problems, they can only remember their previous existence fleetingly, and many of their people become obsessed with trying to regain the memory of their past lives – to the extent that they start to lose their grip on the reality of living in Viriconium. Somehow Tomb the Dwarf and Galen Hornwrack, a disillusioned assassin looking for a purpose in life, must find the source of the Locusts, and find a way to destroy them. They are helped, and sometime hindered, by the greatest lord of the Reborn, Alstath Fulthor, the incoherent ghost of long-dead airman Benedict Paucemanly and Fae Glass, a Reborn who knows the location of the insect's lair but is too lost in her memories of the past to be able to communicate with her companions.
The plot is impressively original, and although it is slightly vague at times it is still possible to follow the progress of the story. There are plenty of – often abstract – philosophical ideas presented here, and the plot is impressively integrated with those ideas. In another novel, the fact that many of the characters are often confused and lost in incoherent memory might be a disadvantage, but Harrison cunningly makes this the main point of the plot. As ever, Harrison's prose is excellent, although this is not his best work it does still portray his immense talent for writing.
The atmosphere is melancholy, wistful and slightly depressing. Fortunately, the novel is short, less than 200 pages (which makes it the longest Viriconium novel) so the nihilism doesn't have time to get too depressing.
This is a highly original, probably unique piece of fantasy that may not be an entirely straightforward read, but is still clear enough to be enjoyable.
Rating : 8 / 10
“In Viriconium” (also published under the title "The Floating Gods"), the third novel in the Viriconium cycle is only tenuously connected to the previous novels – indeed it's debatable whether it really takes place in the same city at all, as characters seemingly killed in previous novels reappear here, in different circumstances.
The plot makes the story of “A Storm of Wings” look conventional, it is contained entirely in the City and even at the end it is unclear what has actually happened. The main character is Ashlyme, a portrait painter in Viriconium who is determined to rescue one of his subjects – Audsley King, a fellow artist – from the quarantined plague zone. A mysterious blight is spreading in Viriconium, areas it touches seem curiously dimmed and the people inside start to sicken. Meanwhile, a mysterious pair of ruffians known as the Barley Brothers – who claim to have invented the city – are seen everywhere doing incomprehensible mischiefs. King lives in one of the plague areas, but she refuses to move to the nobility's quarters in the High City out of a disdain for the bankrupt culture of Viriconium's upper classes. Ashlyme and Emmet Buffo, a senile astronomer, resolve to kidnap King for her own good, with the dubious aid of The Grand Cairo, a violent and eccentric dwarf who controls the Quarantine Police and lives in perpetual fear of the Barley Brothers.
The plot meanders, and there's little real action to speak of. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could be tedious but Harrison's writing provides sufficient reason to keep reading. Nevertheless, although Harrison's prose keeps some interest it is difficult to care about the plot (such as there is), and the characters are bland, and their actions often seem arbitrary.
It may be well written, and it's certainly different, but ultimately it could be said that Harrison is wasting his considerable talent on a slight story with little purpose. The ending is abrupt, and fails to really resolve anything, if Harrison had an aim in this story it's too well-hidden for me to find.
Rating : 6 / 10
The final volume contained in “Viriconium” is “Viriconium Nights”, a collection of short stories that are randomly interspersed between the three novels. This shares strengths – some nicely poetic writing – and weaknesses – irritatingly vague characterisation and incoherent plots – with “In Viriconium”. None of the short stories are an easy read, and it's frequently difficult to find either a point or a plot. They may be nicely written, but there's no real discernible point to them and no matter how well written a story is, it's impossible not to be disappointed when the story ends and the reader is left with no real idea of what just happened, or what ideas Harrison might have been trying to convey. They are possibly interesting as curiosities, and for Harrison's excellent prose, but other than there seems little point in reading such incomprehensible ramblings.
Rating : 4 / 10
M. John Harrison is a respected, but divisive, author of non-conventional Science Fiction and Fantasy with many fans and detractors. In the last decade Harrison has concentrated on a trilogy beginning with the novel “Light”, an unusual example of the 'space opera' genre. The story is split into three different plot threads, all of which eventually tie together in a surprising conclusion. The first plot thread – and possible the most interesting – is the story of Michael Kearney, a brilliant scientist on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough, who in his spare time is a delusional serial killer. He is haunted by visions of a skeletal bird-like figure he knows only as the 'Shrander' – he has no idea of the figure's intentions but feels compelled to run from this apparition. The plot strand follows Kearney's attempts to find a place in a world he doesn't really belong in, while simultaneously trying to re-establish his relationship with his depressed ex-wife, and develop revolutionary new quantum technology.
The other two plot threads are set in the far future, after mankind has, in standard space opera fashion, spread out among the stars. The story is concentrated in the area of space around the Kefahuchi Tract, a mysterious region of the galaxy surrounded by the remnants of an ancient race's technology that humanity is trying desperately to understand. The main character in the second plot thread is Seria Mau, a woman who exists in symbiosis with a semi-sentient alien spaceship. The operation that allowed her to pilot the ship means that she can never leave it, or rejoin humanity, with the result that she has spent the last couple of decades away from human contact. After she defects from her military employers she works as a mercenary – destroying other human and alien ships. By this time she is so alienated from humanity that she doesn't care about the lives (or deaths) of others, she only wants to find her place in the universe – and she desperately believes a strange artefact will help her to do that. Unfortunately she has no idea what the artefact does, but she sets off on an expedition to the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract to find the one person who might be able to tell her.
The third plot follows Ed Chianese, a man hiding in virtual reality games from a threat he no longer remembers. People are chasing him, and seem to want desperately to find him, but he has no idea why they want to find him or who he really is. He goes on the run through a stereotypically dystopian futuristic city, eventually ending up in a bizarre interstellar circus.
Michael Kearney's plot is probably the best of the sub-plots – the often surreal events that occur to him mean that there is rarely a dull moment. Although there isn’t really anything remotely likeable about him, he is an intriguingly deranged character and one perhaps worthy of at least some sympathy due to his madness. Seria Mau's subplot is less interesting, again she is deserving of pity but her arrogance and inhumanity make it impossible to empathise with her, also her plot thread seems to meander slightly, never really going anywhere of great interest. Ed is the most likeable of the characters, the only one who is actually a decent, comparatively normal, person. Unfortunately the plot is possibly the least interesting, for most of the time (at least, until the latter stages of the book), it is fairly standard cyberpunk.
Harrison is a superb writer of prose and “Light” is probably the best example of that. At his best he weaves words together with great skill. His characterisation isn't always as skilful, at worst some seem caricatures of eccentricity whose action have little reason behind them. There are a few other flaws as well, embarrassingly bad sex scenes litter the plot with irritating frequency and the future history of his galaxy seems unnecessarily whimsical at times – for example the alien race of “New Men” who conquer planets and are then too apathetical to do anything except watch low-quality human TV.
In summary, “Light” is a brilliantly written book with plenty of ideas and original concepts. Sadly the characterisation and plotting fails to fully live up to it's potential – it's still generally well done but there are some flaws that drag the whole experience down a bit.
Rating : 8.5 / 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
One of Hamilton's best pieces of work is the novella “Watching Trees Grow”, published in the “Futures” anthology. The setting is an intriguing mixture of alternate-history and space opera. In this world, the Roman Empire never truly fell and as the story begins, 19th Century Earth is now dominated by an elite formed from the descendants of a number of aristocratic Roman families. Europe has been largely at peace for centuries and the social system has allowed scientific development to proceed at a pace much faster than occurred in reality – with mid-20th Century levels of technology being achieved in the 1800s due to the elite families investing much of their resources in the pursuit of scientific progress.
The plot returns to one of Hamilton's favourite genres – the murder mystery. An investigator working for one of the families is called in to help investigate the murder of a young student at an English university. Several of his friends might potentially have a motive, but there is no obvious suspect and the local police and the investigator both soon realise they have little chance of catching the killer. As time passes scientific progress continues and humanity makes great advances, including colonising the stars, these advancements have the effect that population is now destined for a centuries-long life, including the suspects in the murder investigation. The investigator refuses to give up on the case, and new scientific discoveries allow him to draw closer to the killer, even when a century has passed since the crime.
Hamilton is often criticised for the sometimes excessive length of his novels. It is therefore refreshing to see that he can pack an impressive amount of plot into a single short story. As well as an original alternative history scenario, this story also features more technological and cultural ideas, concepts and advancements than would typically be found in an entire series of science fiction novels. Many of these ideas are tied into the murder investigation and the careers of the suspects and the final revelation of the killer involves some clever use of technology.
Inevitably, in a story so short there isn't time to do more than mention most of the ideas, and it does sometimes feel like some more explanation of a change would we welcome, but there is still an impressive amount of depth for a single story. Similarly, there isn't too much space for character development but the characterisation is decent enough, and the murder mystery plot is handled with typical competence.
“Watching Trees Grow” is an entertaining short story that manages to pack an astonishing amount of detail into a single novella.
Rating : 8½ / 10