The Confederation Handbook, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 2000, 282 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61027-5

As a big fan of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, I was naturally curious about the “companion guide” to the series, a handbook bringing together in one handy volume all the considerable background information that served as source material for his 3000+ pages opus.

My first impression was that this would be a fan-gouging rip-off, an impression scarcely dispelled by the cheap trichrome cover recycling graphic elements from previous book covers. The slim volume should have warned me, but no, nooo, I had to buy the darn thing.

After reading it all, I won’t ask for a refund… but I’m still not totally happy about the end result.

It’s not as if it’s not exactly what it purports to be; a handbook describing the universe in which the Night’s Dawn trilogy takes place. Successive sections examine the political environment (Adamist and Edenist cultures), hardware (starship and weapons), players (confederation members; Sol, Ombey, Tranquility, New California and the other planets/asteroids/habitats on which the series takes place) and alien races. There is also a dramatis personae (with a few details) and a timeline of event from here to then, though the last two can also be found in the trilogy books themselves.

The first, and most discouraging conclusion formed after reading the Confederation Handbook is that there isn’t much in here that isn’t mentioned somewhere in the books. It’s presented in an organized fashion, of course, but there aren’t any startling revelations here for those who have read the series. (The story of Edenism is already well-described in the short story collection A Second Chance at Eden)

I was also disappointed by the patchy organization of the book. Oh, it’s not as if everything isn’t at its place, but I would have preferred numbered headers (eg; 3.1.1.1: Earth Government), especially in Section 3 where the multiple levels of information are occasionally confusing. There are also patches where information provided for one entity isn’t provided for another (or is simple glossed over quickly), reflecting the amount of information available in the novels themselves.

Faced with this, we can justifiably ask who is the audience for that book. Role-Playing Games enthusiasts will certainly enjoy having all that world-building information coherently organized, as would universe-building writers looking for inspiration.

To Hamilton’s credit, the Handbook doesn’t contain many spoilers, making it a useful reference book for anyone reading the series. (Whatever spoilers there are are concentrated in the latter xenoc and characters section, and seemed clearly identified; avoid reading the detailed dramatic personae and the post-2611 information!)

One thing in which the Confederation Handbook excels, though, is in evoking comfy memories of the original trilogy. Seeing all the background information squeezed in one coherent whole clearly illustrates the richness of Hamilton’s universe, as well as the dramatic possibilities so entertainingly exploited throughout the trilogy. If I hadn’t already read the trilogy, I’d be sold on doing so by now.

Ultimately, though, the Confederation Handbook is a strange object, halfway between curio, resource and cash-grab. If you think this is a type of book that would appeal to you, by all means go make your local SF bookstore owner happy. If you have the slightest doubt that you’d be better off borrowing it from the bookstore, though, steer clear and follow your instinct. It’s not bad or disappointing, but it’s quite redundant.

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