Sunday, 28 January 2007

Author Profile: Peter F. Hamilton

Peter F. Hamilton is a British writer of science fiction, born in 1960 in Rutland, where he continues to reside. His work falls into two broad categories: near-future thrillers and mysteries exploring high-tech but plausible ideas; and far-future grand space operas, featuring richly detailed fictional universes awash with different alien races and technology based on modern theoretical physics. He began his writing career in 1987 and sold his first short story to Fear magazine in 1988. After several years writing short stories, his first novel, Mindstar Rising, appeared in 1993 and was the first book featuring near-future psychic detective Greg Mandel. Two sequels followed. However, it was Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, which began with The Reality Dysfunction in 1996, which made him a well-known name on the SF stage.

The Greg Mandel Trilogy was an interesting start to Hamilton's career. Set in the 2040s in a Britain devastated by global warming (London has apparently been destroyed by a fusion explosion and the new capital is Peterborough) and then ruined by an oppressive, socialist government, some critics complained it was little more than a right-wing writer's attack on the Labour Party (although the 'New Conservatives' who are trying to restore Britain are hardly painted more sympathetically). More to the point, it established Hamilton's credentials as a writer who enjoyed telling a good, rip-roaring, page-turning story. Although keen to use 'hard science', Hamilton's books have never been about the nitty-gritty details of string theory calculations, instead preferring to show the effects of such science and technology on ordinary people. The Mandel trilogy is a successful work, prefiguring the rise of the SF thriller subgenre of the early 2000s (led by Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City and Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon) and establishing Hamilton as a writer to watch.

That promise was delivered, with interest, in The Night's Dawn Trilogy. Whilst David Brin and Iain Banks had had some success in keeping the original space opera novel alive in the preceding years, it was Night's Dawn that brought it back into vogue. Set in the 27th Century, Hamilton painted a picture of a universe where humanity has spread across 860 worlds, splitting into two divergent strains (the traditional Adamists and the telepathic Edenists) and building vast, sentient space habitats and living starships whilst vast corporations fund the expansion of the human race. On a remote colony world a chance encounter between a low-tech colony and an utterly alien entity unleashes a nightmarish force upon the Confederation which is soon overrunning entire worlds. Night's Dawn is an impressive example of 'genre-bending' and horror and SF collide. The trilogy also established Hamilton as a writer of huge, brick-thick volumes. Whilst the Mandel trilogy had consisted of sensibly-sized 400-page books, each of the Night's Dawn novels extended across 1,200+ pages in paperback and were split in two apiece for American publication.

Hamilton's next two books were related to his grand trilogy. A Second Chance at Eden, published between the second and third volumes, collects several short stories from the Night's Dawn universe and shows a greater range than perhaps Hamilton had evidenced previously, most notably his ability to use different prose styles. His main novels employ a fairly straightforward, somewhat prosaic or 'clean' style to tell the story (with stories this complex, a fancy prose style is the last thing both the author and the reader want to worry about), but his short stories display a greater talent. After the release of The Naked God, Hamilton followed it up with a guide to the series, The Confederation Handbook, which published a lot of the background materials and notes he'd used to create his future history.

With Hamilton now established as a major force in British SF, he chose to move away from his Night's Dawn setting rather than exploit it through further novels. His next book, Fallen Dragon, was a stand-alone novel which postulated that mankind's expansion into space had faltered and run out of steam, leaving dozens of dead-end worlds essentially left to their own devices. Although a clever novel with a great twist ending, Fallen Dragon showed a more melancholy aspect of Hamilton's writing, and was not regarded as much of a success as Night's Dawn.

Hamilton's next work was not very well received. Misspent Youth returns to a near-future setting, but a different continuity to the Greg Mandel novels. In this new future, Britain is part of a greater European Union and its national identity seems in question. At the same time, a rich entrepreneur becomes the first human to undergo rejeuvenation technology and goes from being in his late 70s to having the body and health of a 20-year-old, which leads to conflict with his teenage son. Misspent Youth features some fantastic ideas, such as Hamilton's 'nightmare future' of what will happen if the Internet does kill off creativity since copyrights cannot be protected: a world where writers, directors and musicians cannot make a living and the only forms of entertainment left are soap operas and pornography. Misspent Youth is a relentlessly downbeat book, and did not receive much critical acclaim.

Interestingly, despite its weaknesses, Hamilton had cleverly used Misspent Youth to seed ideas for his next novel series. Choosing to return to the world of space opera, he planned two books set some 300 years after the events of Misspent Youth in a world where everyone undergoes rejeuvenation at regular intervals, with some people now being over 300 years old. Hamilton also cleverly reverse-engineered technology from Night's Dawn, so that freestanding wormhole gates directly and permanantly link various planets together, and travelling across the Galaxy is as easy as catching a train. Starships do not exist (they are not needed) and the apparently benign SI (Sentient Intelligence, essentially a friendly version of Skynet) watches over humanity from afar to ensure its survival. However, the disappearance of two stars some one thousand light-years from Earth proves the impetus for mankind to build its first starship, and unleashes a chain of events that leads to the wealthy and indolant Intersolar Commonwealth facing a full-scale war, whilst treachery lurks within. His Commonwealth Saga restored Hamilton's reputation as a writer of large-scale SF blockbusters, capable of addressing myriad storylines simultaneously and bringing them to a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps aware that Night's Dawn had been criticised for its 'neat ending', Commonwealth left more unexplained questions to be resolved in his newest series, The Void Trilogy, which picks up the storyline some eleven centuries further on.

Hamilton is now established as Britain's biggest-selling science fiction author, and is increasingly a well-known figure in the USA as well. Whilst Hamilton is not a flawless writer (some may feel his books may feature somewhat more sex than is necessary for the story and he sometimes shies away from big SF issues, such as the Singularity), he is reliably entertaining and extremely inventive. As Colin Greenland once said, his books often feel like "fifty SF novels in one," leaping from subject to subject, idea to idea, in dizzying fashion. He remains one of the more notable authors in the field today.

The Greg Mandel Trilogy
Mindstar Rising (1993) ****
A Quantum Murder (1994) ****
The Nanoflower (1995) ****

The Night's Dawn Trilogy
The Reality Dysfunction (1996) *****
The Neutronium Alchemist (1997) ****½
The Naked God (1999) ****

A Second Chance at Eden (1998) ****
The Confederation Handbook (2000) ***

Fallen Dragon (2001) ****
Misspent Youth (2002) ***

The Commonwealth Saga
Pandora's Star (2004) ****
Judas Unchained (2005) ***½

The Void Trilogy
The Dreaming Void (2007) ****
The Temporal Void (planned for release in October 2008)
The Evolutionary Void (planned for release in 2010)

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