Peter F. Hamilton is one of SF's most reliably entertaining authors, churning out blockbuster epics so huge that the hardcovers can be used as aids to hippopotamus euthanasia, whilst retaining the ability to tell page-turning, gripping stories. His Night's Dawn Trilogy is a classic of the genre, but his more recent duology, The Commonwealth Saga, was a more mixed bag. An excellent and very promising opening installment, Pandora's Star, was followed up by the mildly disappointing Judas Unchained, which ended the story in a rather rushed and somewhat confused manner.
The Dreaming Void, Book 1 of The Void Trilogy, picks up the story in AD 3589, 1,205 years after the conclusion of the Starflyer War. Humanity is now split into three distinct sub-species: normal humans, Highers (who live in roughly equal paradise-like conditions with all their needs provided by their nations) and Advancers (who live essentially inside a vast cyberspace-like reality called ANA and download into biologically-grown bodies when they need to visit the real world). They are spread over a thousand worlds, unified as the Greater Commonwealth, which is now one of the most powerful forces in the Galaxy. Dozens of alien races have been contacted, many mysteries from the first two books have been solved (some of them rather dismissively explained within a few pages of the novel's opening) and mankind is now officially allied to the Raiel, now revealed as the most powerful race in the Galaxy. Life is seemingly good.
However, the black hole at the centre of the Galaxy, dubbed 'The Void' by some, is expanding much quicker than it should, threatening to shorten the lifespan of the Galaxy by possibly several billion years. According to hundreds of thousands of years of constant study by the Raiel, the Void is actually an artificial construction of unknown purpose, feeding on the surrounding stars to survive. One human, Inigo, claims to have made contact with the inhabitants of the Void through his dreams. In these dreams he reveals a beautiful world where humans live as natural telepaths under the protection of the 'Waterwalker' and the 'Skylords' who seemingly rule over the Void. Thanks to the Gaiafield, billions of humans have now shared these dreams and the Living Dream movement is gathering momentum, apparently planning on a mass exodus into the Void. This move is opposed by many who believe it will trigger a dangerous and possibly unstoppable expansion of the Void.
The book follows several key plotlines set in the Commonwealth, as some work for the Pilgrimage to take place and others attempt to stop it. Hamilton gives us several interesting new characters here, such as the purposely amnesiac assassin and secret agent Aaron, but it's the return of several key characters from The Commonwealth Saga, such as Paula Myo, whom fans will probably most welcome. Unfortunately, Hamilton's tendency to have one young, attractive female character who takes part in a number of rather explicit sex scenes resurfaces here. There's nothing too wrong with that save it adds little either to the character or the book overall. It is, however, made up for by the fact that some thought has gone into sex in the far future, with scenes involving gestalt humans, who control many bodies with one mind, generating interesting scenarios.
The Commonwealth storylines are all enjoyable and handled with Hamilton's typical confidence and verve. However, a couple of the stories are not as developed as deeply as might be liked. Whilst the timeline hints at the fates of key central characters from the Commonwealth Saga (the SI, Ozzie and Sheldon most notably) there isn't much about them in the text, which will confuse some readers of the earlier work. The storyline about the alien Ocisens is also dropped rather abruptly halfway through the novel despite being set up as a major force earlier in the book (and provides the cover image). There's also a slight feeling of being sold short: there are simply far fewer plotlines and subplots than in previous Hamilton SF blockbusters. Whilst this will no doubt please critics of his previous complexity, those who enjoyed that complexity may walk away feeling a little under-nourished by this offering. Finally, Hamilton seems to have tried to appeal to both fans of The Commonwealth Saga and the new reader and make the book accessible to both, but has instead fallen between the two stools, neither offering enough information to fully sate fans of the earlier series nor keeping such references limited enough so as not to confuse new readers.
Luckily, the book's weaknesses are pretty much swept away by the book's major subplot. Set inside the Void, this story follows the life of Edeard, a young 'shaper' whose life is changed forever by a cataclysmic event and he finds his way to the great city of Makkatheren where he enters the service of the constables. Almost completely separate from the rest of the novel (though the final revelation can perhaps been seen from several chapters away), this storyline would, by itself, qualify as the best epic fantasy so far released in 2007 (easily blowing away both The Name of the Wind and Red Seas Under Red Skies, as fine as they are) if it wasn't constantly interrupted by the SF plotlines set in the Commonwealth. Hamilton's revelation that the sequel will focus much more on Edeard's odyssey is thus most welcome.
The Dreaming Void (****) is yet another very fine Peter F. Hamilton novel which sees him breaking new ground with a possible stealth move into fantasy whilst retaining the hallmarks that made his previous books so readable. There are some minor flaws, but Hamilton's decision to produce a shorter book (even if only by own standards) has paid off nicely, leaving the reader wanting more rather than feeling a bit bloated as with some of his prior books. The novel is published by MacMillan in the UK and will be released by Del Rey in the United States in February 2008. The second book in the trilogy, The Temporal Void, will follow at the end of next year.