Fallen Dragon, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 2002, 630 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52708-4

One of my pet notions lately has been the thought that civilization is a by-product of excess capacity. A group of people scrounging for food and shelter doesn’t have time for philosophy, art and leisure. It’s only with a little bit of redundancy, of waste, of unused potential and free time that we build the things that make like fun and comfortable. Hence my discomfort at concepts such as “efficiency”, “just-in-time inventory”, “outsourcing” and “return on investment”: By cutting away the so-called fat, you end up without a reserve and, eventually, in a constant state of emergency.

A projection of this unease in the future does nothing to qualm my fears: It goes without saying that our first space colonists will live a hard and uncomfortable life, even if Earth manages to solve its own problems. The implacable laws of “efficient” economics will see to that. With Fallen Dragon, Peter F. Hamilton pushes this notion to a logical dead-end, imagining far-flung colonies whose existence are made economically viable by organized piracy.

It’s not called piracy, of course, just as “outsourcing” and “service fees” are never called “being greedy”. In Hamilton’s grim future, “asset realization” is the process by which the multinationals who financed the colonies (or bought back their establishment contracts) invade the colonies and take all the valuables back to Earth to line the company coffers. At regular decade-long intervals, heavily-armed ships descend upon colonies, establishing rule of law and scouring the planet for low-volume, high-value loot. It’s all scrupulously legal, of course. But try telling that to those who don’t agree with the practise.

Our protagonist is one of those, and he’s arguably in a position to do something about it: As a squad leader in the corporate appropriation forces, Lawrence Newton is having an increasing amount of trouble rationalizing what he’s doing. A number of flashbacks tell us why. The only reason he’s hanging on for one more mission is the conviction that the Thallspring system has something very interesting hidden on its surface. Little does he know that this very thing, this fallen dragon, is going to make life pure hell for him, his squad, and the entire practise of asset realization.

After the massive Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton is almost taking a break with the relatively slim (!) Fallen Dragon. But at 630 pages, there’s enough space in here for two novels, and that’s almost what we get: A first story, military SF-style, about piracy on faraway colonies and a well-organized resistance to the pillaging. Then there’s another novel, crammed in the last third of the book, about something much closer to space opera than to economic extrapolation. Some readers are bound to be annoyed by the unsuccessful melding between the two stories; perhaps Hamilton, in his hurry to get to his “fallen dragon” concept, ended up writing a longer and better military-SF story than he expected. It’s certainly far more interesting that the type of military SF self-consciously published by, ahem, Baen: Hamilton’s not a veteran himself, and his prose gets straight to the dramatic point of the scene without too many acronyms in the way.

What’s interesting about Fallen Dragon is that even if, in retrospect, you can see how the “fallen dragon” of the last act influences the rest of the novel, many of those influences seem dull and frustrating as they happen: The action is often interrupted by lengthy chapters describing the protagonist’s personal history, and they are certainly not vital to our understanding of his situation: A few selected flashbacks might have worked far more efficiently than an entire parallel storyline. But then again, Fallen Dragon may also have been better without its titular dragon.

This doesn’t detract from the reading pleasure offered by Hamilton’s prose. He may never use just one word when three can fit, but Fallen Dragon, like his previous books, is easy to read and not without its share of good moments. The gadgetry alone (what with its rather-destructible “skins”) is worth a look. While I was never totally convinced by the rationalization of colonial asset realization, it does make a horrible sense in the same fashion as suicidal economic practises like outsourcing and subcontracting seem to do: If it’s twisted and brings short-term gain to someone, you can guarantee that someone will be desperate enough to try it. Especially if there isn’t any excess capacity available.

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