Tag Archives: Peter F. Hamilton

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.

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.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton

Warner Aspect, 1997-2000, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

A Second Chance at Eden, 1997, 420 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 1: Emergence
, 1996, 586 pages
The Reality Dysfunction, Part 2: Expansion
, 1996, 572 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 1: Conflict
, 580 pages
The Neutronium Alchemist, Part 2: Consolidation
, 596 pages
The Naked God, Part 1: Flight
, 2000, 778 pages
The Naked God, Part 2: Faith
, 2000, 778 pages

Six books. 4000+ pages. A cast of hundreds. Techno-jargon. The Dead coming back to life. Oh no, the Night’s Dawn trilogy isn’t for sissies. Even reasonably fast readers such as myself basically have to plan ahead for a month’s worth of reading time in order to get through it all. Is it all worth it? Absolutely.

I mean, let’s face it: In its quest for literary legitimacy and critical consideration, Science-Fiction has indeed become a more respectable literature with poignant characters, enjoyable prose and complex plotting. Unfortunately, along the way we seemed to lose the very thing that had initially attracted us to the genre: Big ideas, high adventure and stakes that made the galaxy look small. Sure, pulp SF space opera was fast, cheap and out of literary control, but at least it was a blast. Why wouldn’t it be possible to use the new facets of SF and stuff them with some of that old space-opera fun?

I’m not sure if that’s what Peter F. Hamilton intended when he sat down to write the Night’s Dawn trilogy, but the woozy cozy feeling of grandiose fun is what I’m keeping in mind after completing the trilogy. The sheer bulk of the work makes it a reading experience unlike any other.

It begins laboriously, of course. You can’t just rush into a brand-new interstellar universe in a hapzard fashion, and Hamilton is careful in establishing the various threads of the story. Be careful, however, in assuming that initially important characters will remain so. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole trilogy is seeing one sympathetic but over-abused character simply say “That’s it! I did my job and now I quit!” then disappear from the rest of the story.

In a relatively short time (that would only be 600 pages, mind you), the fascinating framework of Hamilton’s universe and the most important characters are established. That’s crucial, given that these very same characters form the bulk of the Night Dawn trilogy’s continued appeal. Whether we’re with our stalwart hero Joshua Calvert, our innocent rich girl Louise Kavanagh, our delightful Lord of Ruin, our detestable antagonist Quinn Dexter or most of the rest of the hundred-plus dramatis personae, Hamilton makes us care for most of them. (With exceptions; however hard I tried, I couldn’t get interested in any of the Hippie-Possessed characters or the Valisk habitat.) In any case, don’t be worried about the size of the cast; they’re introduced in a very organic fashion, sometime so smoothly that you only later realize how important some bit-players eventually become.

Indeed, it’s hard not to be impressed by how smoothly Hamilton sets up his various players, whether he’s introducing characters or explaining the political complexities between the various empires that interact in his universe. Some of the best moments in the trilogy are in fact alliances shifts and other spectaculars that depend almost exclusively on the various forces that Hamilton himself sets up. We’re not talking chamber drama; we’re talking massive space battles, planets disappearing, the dead returning to life and stars exploding.

Sounds juvenile? Don’t be so sure. While pulp space-opera often read like the scribblings of a bright overenthusiastic teenager, Hamilton comes to the genre with an approach that benefits from decades of increasing genre maturity. He brings to the story a sheen of complexity and sophistication, both technical and emotional: The systems he describes are all-too fallible and interdependent, the psychology of the characters is multi-layered and never quite predictable. (Though the caricatural pure evil of Quinn Dexter does get tiresome after a while) This is a space-opera from the nineties, and the easy simplistic solutions of earlier decades don’t work. (Well, shouldn’t work: The conclusion of the trilogy is deus ex machina, but not unsatisfying so. There is considerable progress made on all fronts by this point in the story, and the characters are allowed to resolve their conflicts by themselves.)

You can’t expect a 4000+ pages story to be simple, and indeed the plotting can get hilariously convoluted at times, though never quite unbelievable. Such a large story-space allows Hamilton to cover a lot of thematic ground, so don’t be surprised to go from horror to romance to action to contemplation in a short time. Surprisingly enough, Hamilton is able to juggle all the balls at once and seldom strikes a false note.

Best of all for a series of this size is the impression that it’s compulsively readable. Not only are characters compelling in themselves, but Hamilton has polished his prose until it can be read seamlessly, and with enough repeating information to keep everyone up-to-date even though they’re not paying enough attention. It’s bad enough to split a series in six thick books; it would be unbearable to make the reader fight his way through it.

But no fighting here; once the initial volume is read, the rest is smooth sailing, with occasional pauses for whooping when the heroes make another nick-of-time escape. Indeed, Hamilton’s Confederation is like an onion whose layers a peeled away as we progress in the story. Human and alien historical conspiracies are revealed even as a full intergalactic war is in full progress and the very metaphysical nature of the universe is explained. It’s a heady trip, well worth the investment. (Though I’m still not sure that all the pieces -with a particular emphasis on the “ghosts”- fit together.)

Two other books form a loose addition to the Night’s Dawn Trilogy. While I haven’t yet bought The Confederation Handbook, a “non-fiction” look at the universe created by Hamilton for the series (too expensive in British import), I can give a marginal recommendation to his related short story collection A Second Chance at Eden. Bringing together seven stories set before the start of the trilogy, A Second Chance at Eden helps to flesh out some events mentioned as background in the other six books. Most notable are the title novella, a murder mystery incidentally describing the events leading up to the foundation of Edenism, and “Escape Route”, which features Joshua Calvert’s father in an unrelated but enjoyable “empty alien ship” adventure. (That last novella is hilariously spoiled in The Naked God). I also liked “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rosa”, but couldn’t muster any interest for the other three stories. Your mileage may vary. You may read the collection before starting the trilogy, though be warned that the trilogy is generally easier to read.

Being someone who naturally avoids long series, I was unaware of how deeply you could invest yourself in a multi-volume
story. How the various character threads cross each other in delightful coincidences. How you could really get to care about them through countless adventures. How deeply you could establish a universe. How just darn good it is to lose myself in a story for weeks at a time, rather than read in a day or two and throw back the book on my shelves. A great feeling, and I didn’t even have to pick up a fat fantasy trilogy.

In short, the Night’s Dawn trilogy gets a strong seal of approval from the offices of this reviewer, through an unbeatable combination of readability, imagination, complexity, respect for the audience and some wonderful characters. Sure, it’ll take a while before you’re done reading, but trust me. It’s all worth it.