If ever again I get tempted to try another Peter F Hamilton novel, I need someone wise and avuncular to gently talk me out of it.
It’s no good getting angry. I just have to remember that no matter how enthusiastic Steve Gibson gets about Hamilton on the “Security Now!” podcast, or how easily Leo Laporte may be swayed, the fact remains that Gibson has lamentable taste in SF and Hamilton is to be avoided at all costs.
Great North Road is my second full foray into Hamilton’s oeuvre, the first having been Fallen Dragon. I say “full” foray because I did once make a start on “The Dreaming Void” and rapidly found myself utterly lost. Only later did I discover that there are a couple of prequel books I would have needed to read to be able to make any sense of the Void books and, in any case, it seems even devout Hamilton fans don’t much rate them.
I hadn’t really enjoyed Fallen Dragon. Too much pandering to the adolescent male. Fancy guns, gear and other militaria, with a side helping of wish-fulfilment schoolboy sex, and all of it uncomfortably counterbalanced with some space era politics and lumpy excursions into scientific lecturing that proved as dry as dust. So I should have known what to expect from Hamilton’s latest megatome. But to my shame I weakened.
Great North Road is not an awful book. It’s just that it’s really very average and, as it’s also very long, I found myself resenting the hours I gave up to it. And its flaws actively grated on me. It shares some of Fallen Dragon’s hormonal male obsession with gear and sex, but my biggest gripe is the lack of coherent world-building.
Hamilton sets GNR in the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne of the 2140s but it’s not any vision of the mid 22nd century I could take seriously. It comes over as a discordant blend of today and some date in the far distant future. To begin with, our protagonists are a bunch of Geordies who in terms of culture, outlook, behaviour and language are 100% mired in the Newcastle of no later than 2013, as if social norms will not change a jot in 130 years. You only have to ponder for a moment on how society has changed since 1880 to see how unrealistic this is. Then Hamilton overlays a limited number of specific technological advances, some of which are jarringly unlikely. I really cannot swallow a 2142 in which humankind has created interstellar gateways offering instantaneous transport to many other worlds. Newcastle itself has a gateway to St. Libra, a planet orbiting Sirius. The craziest part of this is that the gateway is used to import vast quantities of bio-fuel from St. Libra which has a tropical environment rich in plant life. Now am I supposed to believe that a civilisation which has developed instantaneous interstellar travel would not also have the technology to solve its energy needs? Without the need for (of all things) bio-fuel, let alone importing it from the Sirius system!
The only other advances of note factored in by Hamilton are on the data/networking and bioengineering fronts. These are more credible but still don’t feel like they form part of a rounded, internally-consistent vision of life in 130 years’ time, taking into account the social impact. I’m thinking of the fact that everyone has eye and brain implants that allow them to hook up with a future version of the Internet over a future much improved universal wifi, able to exchange data between network and brain at will, effectively providing the basis for technology-enabled telepathy. Yet people still sit in bars and chat to each other in 20th century dialect.
The biotech advances include human cloning and lifespan enhancement, the latter restricted to the very rich. One of the book’s main characters, Angela Tramelo, is a so-called “One in Ten” who still looks like a teenager while in her fifties and can expect to live to age 1,000 because she was the daughter of a mega-wealthy biofuel market magnate who could afford the bio-engineering treatment for her. It is not made clear how life expectancy has changed for the general population, given that there must have been wider progress in medicine, but it is intimated that most people age “normally” by the standards of today. What is not explained is how the population would stand for the technology for huge lifespans being available but hogged by a privileged few. I’d have expected riots, but people just seem to accept Angela as one of the lucky ones, and the men are in any case more interested in shagging her because she is (of course) stunningly attractive, as are many of the women in the book, and correspondingly oversexed.
There was something else that bothered me. Cars and taxis with human drivers. Even now Google is showing us how we are not far away from driverless cars, paving the way for dispensing with private cars and switching to a ubiquitous fleet of on-call taxis. Hamilton does refer to putting cars “on auto” but he has not really made the mental leap to how transportation is likely to change – leaving aside the interstellar portals and light-speed spaceships which go far too far the other way.
Other gripes include extremely cliched conversations and an ending which relies on the sort of infantile moralising that would make a Star Trek fan blush. Interestingly, at one point Hamilton includes a self-referential quip about the standard of dialogue. I’m not sure if he was deliberately poking fun at himself. Maybe it was intended as a swipe at the critics.