DNF at 65%
Peter F. Hamilton’s first major space opera series clearly marks him as part of the British space opera revival movement that includes the authors Iain M. Banks, Alastair Reynolds and Neal Asher. Hamilton’s big fat 1200 page space story fits snugly among the works of these other writers and not just because of its great length, but because all of these writers seem to drink from the same well of science fictional ideas.
Succeeding a whole bunch of Banks’ Culture novels, The Reality Dysfunction takes on board the idea of sentient space ships and sentient habitats, and big oblong vessels and having conversations with your ships. And predating Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, Hamilton introduces us to communities of humans who have shared telepathic links, and form a separate culture called the Edenists, who differentiate themselves from the Adamists who never wanted to embrace that evolution. This is all awfully similar to Alastair Reynolds’s Conjoiners and Demarchists. There is more in The Reality Dysfunction that is later echoed in Revelation Space, namely the Rust Belt of broken habitats, here called the Ruin Ring. In short, this book occupies a space in the timeline of these British space opera writers from where you can draw lines of influence forwards and backwards in time.
See, that’s the thing with Peter F. Hamilton. There are actually two things. First, his books are so massive and play out over such a broad canvas that he is bound to tackle ideas similar to those of a whole bunch of his peers. Secondly, his writing may have received its fair share of criticism (and we will get to that) but let’s not forget that he is capable of really wonderful ideas. Ideas that in turn influenced writers after him. I especially enjoyed the symbiotic relationships of the Edenists with their biological space ships, and their shared lifecycle.
The first few hundred pages are bit of a barrier to full immersion into the story. It’s not easy to get into it. For the first 5 chapters, every chapter introduces a new group of characters in a new situation before returning to any of them, and in chapters after that, new characters keep popping up. For the first few hundred pages, every chapter is like a standalone vignette, introducing some of the sociological, political and scientific concepts of this far-future place. Hamilton wants to show us every corner of his galaxy before the story finally creaks into motion at around the 400 page mark. On their own, these vignettes are interesting. One is about alien archeology, another about rebels transporting a super-weapon, another about a colonisation effort with indentured workers, another about a living spaceship giving birth to a baby space ship. On their own, all interesting stories. This is Hamilton saying: here is a universe to get lost in. Escape your real life and submerge yourself in these stories. And when the plot begins, we recognise that there is something going wrong in the universe that we’ve been enjoying.
If you have a basic love for space opera, you’ll work your way through those first few hundred pages and get into the groove of it later on, but for readers new to science fiction it might be a bit much. I was having a good time but was far from being impressed. But when the main conflict started, I didn’t know what to think about it. A portal to Hell opened up and spirits or demons took possession of some criminals and suddenly they glow and have superpowers. They cause some kind of expanding zombie infection of people being taken over by spirits from the afterlife. It also involved an idiotic priest character who, in b-movie fashion, does nothing but rave about Jesus and Hell in a completely useless way.
I did not have an easy time getting through the rest of the novel. It’s not hard to read, but I think it is bland, with underdeveloped characters without interesting developmental arcs, and a bland disaster movie plot about possessed people with magic powers.
Hamilton’s writing is nothing special either, and often clunky. Whenever he starts talking about some technical thing, such as how a space suit functions, or how a planet’s magnetic field works, he gets lost in the details and seems to forget that he was telling a story. It often happened that in the middle of an exciting scene or dialogue, he might pause for half a page to describe in detail every room and building in the area, complete with a materials analysis of the walls and ceilings. So, his prose is incredibly wordy, but not necessarily clear, and much of it is unnecessary in general. I found his style a bit tedious.
On top of that, his social commentaries and human relationships are all very superficial. One group has a kind of over-zealous Christianity, another group a naive angry high-school atheism, and some bad guys follow a Satanic sect. The women are all attractive teenagers, and there is a heavy focus on sex which comes up in every chapter for some reason, sometimes multiple times per chapter. Of the dozen named hot teenage girl characters, you can be sure that they all meet a certain dashing male captain and fall for him. And their mums. It gets really excessive with excited mentions of zero-g sex cages and so on, and that stuff is all really badly written.
The book only looks monumental because it is big, but that doesn’t make it good, and it has the kind of writing that cannot engage me for that long. And ultimately, I didn’t find the story interesting. After the introductions of the storylines, the remaining 800 pages are about people fighting possessed people with magic powers as they take over planets, communicated in a very bland way with bland characters. I heard that in book two, a planet is taken over by someone possessed by the ghost of Al Capone, so if that sounds interesting to you, give it a shot but it will take you 1200 pages to get there. For me, I am checking out.