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“Watching Trees Grow” by Peter F. Hamilton


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

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