* this post first appeared on writingbar.com
Diving headlong into one of Peter F Hamilton’s science fiction novels, with their fully-complete worlds, richly-detailed cultures, and authentically-believable characters is so all-encompassing that it’s as if you’re there in person experiencing it all firsthand.
Which is quite an achievement since Hamilton, who is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost science fiction author, has a penchant for setting his stories in far off futures where mankind has conquered the stars but not alas, at least for the idealists among us, his inner demons.
And the last time I checked no one was selling tickets to the future, flawed or otherwise so having Hamilton to take us there, or at least his vision of it, is quite a gift.
While the optimists may mourn mankind’s still intact clay feet, readers will lap up the fact that in Hamilton’s latest book, The Great North Road, the flaws are now gaping voids across what is otherwise an advanced, highly evolved interstellar civilisation.
Among the many worlds that now make up mankind’s realm in 2142, where portals make travelling to alien planets as easy as crossing the street, and the North family, made up almost solely of clones of its founder, have created cheap energy for all (at a price, of course), something evil is lurking in the verdant jungles of St Libra.
Quite whether it’s manmade or an indigenous type of fauna, which somewhat unnervingly on St Libra is oddly non-existent (at least as far as anyone knows) is up for debate.
Twenty years ago when one of the founding sons of the North dynasty, Bartram North and pretty much his entire household were slaughtered – his branch of the family rule St Libra as their personal fiefdom – guilt was quickly assigned to Angela Tramelo, the only survivor of the terrible murders.
But she refused to admit any guilt for the atrocities, steadfastly maintaining with resolute conviction that alien life forms were responsible and that if the authorities, keen to make a quick, politically-convenient conviction, wanted to find the real killer they should journey to the wild unexplored continent of Brogal and conduct a proper search.
Which twenty years after her imprisonment is exactly what the Human Defence Agency (HDA) does, launching a massive expedition which is triggered by the murder of another North clone, this time in the city of Newcastle, and one which bears all the hallmarks of the killing on St Libra all those years before (with Tramelo still snug in her cell).
As the investigation by Detective Sidney Hurst on Earth uncovers more and more bizarre elements to the case, people on the expedition start dying in the forests of Brogal while Tramelo, still proclaiming her innocence, is blamed for deaths that are anything but normal.
It soon becomes clear that St Libra maybe hiding a secret far deadlier than anyone, least of all the visionary-minded zealots running the HAD, could ever have imagined.
Hamilton has once again crafted a universe where mankind, advanced though he is, and replete with long genetically-enhanced life and technology beyond imagination, is nonetheless at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
In Great North Road, that admittedly does lag a little in the sections which deal with the Newcastle murder, and is a considerable read at about 950 pages, (though it never outstays its welcome), the master of space opera has crafted a mystery of universal proportions that keeps you guessing to the last.
And as a result, make it quite impossible to put the book down.
He also seamlessly weaves in sumptuously detailed examinations of what it means to be human in an age of almost god-like power and accomplishment, and questions about whether we have a divine right to stomp wantonly about the galaxy, acquiring what we like, without once impinging on, or slowing down, what is consistently a gripping, engaging narrative.
Great North Road is, much like his earlier work, a near total submersion into a perfectly-realised future version of human civilisation, and proof positive that the master of the science fiction epic is at the top of his game.
*Check out Peter F Hamilton talking about Great North Road …
* And the gripping trailer for the book …