In the year 2610, humanity has expanded to inhabit almost nine hundred worlds and thousands of industrial asteroid settlements. It has divided into two strands, the traditional Adamists who use technological starships and cybernetic implants, and the telepathic Edenists, who employ bitek - biological technology - to create living starships and sentient space habitats. The two sub-races are allied together in the Confederation (along with two xenoc species, the Tyrathca and the Kiint), despite their religious and ideological differences. Between them, every conceivable human society and civilisation exists, from the ultra-high-tech arcologies of Earth to the pastoral idyll of Norfolk to communist Mars to the breezy techno-economy of New California. Whilst crime and corruption still exist, most of humanity, at long last, seems on the verge of a golden age.
Syrinx is an Edenist voidhawk captain, bonded to Oenone. Starship and captain are born and raised together, forming an unshakable bond. After a stint in the Confederation Navy, they go into business as an independent trader, but a family tragedy prejudices Syrinx against the Adamists, leaving a scar that it seems cannot be healed. Meanwhile, Joshua Calvert is a scavenger, hunting the debris fields of the Ruin Ring (the remains of thousands of alien space habitats destroyed by forces unknown two millennia earlier), looking for that elusive find which will make him rich and allow him to repair his father's grounded starship, the Lady Macbeth.
On the stage-one colony world of Lalonde, a humid jungle planet accepting colonists from Earth's overflowing European arcologies, a new village is being settled. People fleeing from the cramped, overcrowded cities of the ecologically-devastated homeworld now find themselves planting cropfields and building sailing boats. It's a tough but rewarding existence, but one that has a serpent growing at its heart. A chance encounter between an utterly alien entity and a brutal and sadistic cult unleashes a devastating, ancient threat upon the human race. An alien species annihilated by the same force called it 'the reality dysfunction', a force which spreads exponentially and is hungry for more human bodies to use for its own ends. Even the utterly formidable resources of the Confederation will be tested to their limits as the threat engulfs Lalonde and threatens to spread to other worlds.
The Reality Dysfunction is an imposing book, a massive 1,230 pages in length and itself only the first part of The Night's Dawn Trilogy (Books 2 and 3 are even longer). When the book first appeared in 1996, reviewers liked to point out that the first part of Hamilton's trilogy was bigger than most writers' entire trilogies, although today fans of epic fantasy will not be particularly daunted by its size. For a space opera novel which, for its first third anyway, veers towards the hard end of SF, the size remains unusual.
Of course, this would be an issue if the book flagged or if there were obvious ways the length could be cut. There is not, although the two sequels could probably have done with some pruning. Part of the genius of The Reality Dysfunction is the way its huge number of characters and storylines seems to randomly ramble all over the place at the start, but towards the end of the book they come together most satisfyingly.
In this trilogy, Hamilton has created what is certainly the most comprehensive futuristic society ever created. The only work that comes close to equalling it is Hamilton's own Intersolar Commonwealth, from his later Commonwealth and Void series. With Night's Dawn, Hamilton became SF's answer to Tolkien, building an immense space opera universe totally convincing in its solidarity. He has put huge amounts of thought into the politics, economics, religion, civil and military forces that make up the Confederation, and then seems to enjoy pointing out his own flaws (the economics of starflight in the Confederation seem questionable, and the author gleefully points that out, leaving the reader unsure if he has an answer or not or is just making them think he does). Whilst that solidarity is extremely impressive, it does give rise to accusations that Hamilton likes to info-dump. He has no problem with listing the dates for the founding of colony worlds or explaining how they achieved their techno-economic power in just a century. Personally I found such explanations fascinating, but other readers have reported they become wearying after a while. As always, your mileage may vary.
A central theme of the novel is that humanity will not fundamentally change in the future. The divisions between atheists and the religious faithful remain, and humans, at heart, seem to still be motivated an awful lot by money and sex. Even the Edenists, who have flickers of post-Singularity, post-humans about them, seem to still be defined by their essential, recognisable humanity. The realism of this can be debated, but a central complaint of far-future SF, that humans have become so unrecognisable they are no longer particularly interesting, is averted here. Life in the 27th Century is very much like life in the 21st, only with better healthcare, longer lifespans and everyone seems to get laid a lot more. In fact, with the Confederation, Hamilton has achieved the near-impossible by creating a near-utopian civilisation which is not bland or dull, but still flawed enough to be interesting. His view of the future is essentially optimistic whilst not shying away from the nastier side of human nature, which is an impressive balancing act.
Another complaint is that the book dwells a fair amount on sex, although this did give rise to David Langford's counter-argument in his 1997 review of the second book that any universe in which everyone has as much great consensual, safe sex as this one is intrinsically worth saving. Of course, all things are relative and out of the 1,230 pages of the book, the number of pages without any sex is also pretty high (and there's considerably less in the sequels). Hamilton himself seems to be aware of the situation and in a nice exchange near the end of the book the morality of the situation is briefly discussed between two of the characters.
The Reality Dysfunction lives and dies by its central characters: the evil Quinn Dexter, the roguish Joshua Calvert, the aloof Syrinx, the determined Marie Skibbow, the responsible Ione Saldana, the conflicted Father Horst Elwes and more. They're a fascinating bunch, by turns flawed but also convincing, sometimes corrupt but mostly relatable (with the possible exception of the insane Dexter). I notice that many readers seem to dislike the apparent hero Joshua (Han Solo, but without the morals), but this is perfectly in keeping with the author's intentions: he describes Joshua as a 'prat' and states that the 'proper' title for the trilogy is actually Joshua's Progress, the transformation of his character from self-obsessed, borderline-sexist egomaniac to a better person due to the experiences he encounters.
Hamilton also delivers good space battle. The engagements between his starships are built on real-life physics, and the idea that such fights would involve fighter craft is rejected in favour of more realistic unmanned drones that fight whilst the actual spacecraft are thousands of miles apart. The tactics of space combat are well-handled, as are the ground combat sequences featuring mercenaries and marines. There isn't really enough to qualify The Reality Dysfunction as 'military SF', but fans of that subgenre will nevertheless feel well-catered-for.
Pacing wise, The Reality Dysfunction has to unfold smoothly in order to captivate the reader for such an immense length, not to mention to convince them to come back for two more, even larger books. To this end the book is divided into three roughly equal segments: introduction, rising action and counter-action. The introduction, which is more like a collection of short stories than a novel, shows us the Confederation, introduces the characters and outlines the main concepts of the story. After that, all hell breaks loose and the true threat is unleashed, investigated and (impartially) understood, with events building to a climax which, whilst not a cliffhanger, will nevertheless leave many readers on the edge of their seat, eager to move onto the second.
The Reality Dysfunction has some things acting against it. Some people will think it's too long, others that it has too much info-dumping or too many sex scenes, or that the entire exercise is just too confusing, with too many characters, planets or storylines to easily keep track of. Some people find the central premise of the reality dysfunction itself too unbelievable once it is revealed, and possibly out of keeping within an SF novel (although Hamilton does a surprisingly good job of explaining the situation in SF terms in the final novel of the series), although others absolutely love its unexpected nature: of all the 'twists' in an SF novel to occur, I don't think I've ever read anything on this scale before.
For myself, I found the book stunningly well-paced and a ferocious page-turner, building up the most well-realised SF setting in the genre's history with verve and aplomb. The Confederation is flawed and sometimes corrupt, but above all it is worth saving, unusual in a genre all-too-often dominated by dystopias that probably deserve to be annihilated. Hamilton also intelligently explores numerous questions in this book, from economics through to faith and religion. Whilst a conservative atheist (in the small-c sense), Hamilton is nevertheless fascinated by the merits and weaknesses of organised religion and its impact on morality and society, and in the Night's Dawn books he explores religion in space opera with more intelligence, fairness and understanding than any other SF writer bar possibly J. Michael Straczynski in his TV series, Babylon 5.
The Reality Dysfunction (*****) is for my money one of the very best works of space opera ever written, right up there with Dune and Hyperion (not as well-written as either, but considerably more convincing), and easily the most comprehensive single-author SF setting ever conceived. As SF author and critic Colin Greenland said at the time, The Reality Dysfunction reads like fifty science fiction novels, each tackling a separate and fascinating subject, rolled into one gripping and cohesive whole. The novel is available now in the UK and, at long last, in one volume in the USA. A limited and illustrated edition will be released by Subterranean Press in November.
The remaining two, slightly more flawed, novels in the sequence are The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God.