Monday, 28 May 2012

Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2143. Detective Sid Hurst is called upon to investigate the unusually violent murder of a North. The Norths are a large family of clones who have forged a powerful, interstellar corporate empire. Twenty years ago another North was killed in the exact same manner on the world of St. Libra...but the woman responsible, Angela Tramelo, has spent two decades in prison, protesting her innocence and claiming that an alien lifeform was responsible.With mounting evidence that she may have been right, an expedition is mounted to St. Libra's wilderness hinterland to investigate further, even as Hurst's enquiries on Earth continue.


However, St. Libra, a planet twice the size of Earth circling Sirius, is a difficult world to survey. It's thick ring system inhibits the operation of orbiting satellites and the planet is already under investigation for its bizarre plant life (which cannot have evolved in the short lifespan of the system). The expedition soon finds itself operating in a wilderness far beyond any relief efforts, with something in the jungle stalking them.

Great North Road is the latest novel from Britain's biggest-selling science fiction author, Peter F. Hamilton. It's a stand-alone unconnected to any of his previous universes or series, so can be read in confidence that there are no cliffhanger endings lurking in wait. With my review copy clocking in at 1,087 pages (the final version may be slightly shorter, apparently) it's also a huge book, giving a lot of words to the pound. It's actually Hamilton's longest book since The Naked God, outstripping his previous seven novels in size (none of them particularly short either).

As usual with Hamilton's space operas, we are introduced to a large cast of characters who are divided up amongst several storylines. There are two primary plots: the investigation into the murder in Newcastle and the expedition on St. Libra, with a number of smaller subplots that are developed more concisely. There's also a complex backstory to the novel that is revealed gradually through strategically-placed flashback sequences. Hamilton is an old hand at both multi-stranded epic plotting and also depicting high-tech police investigations and Great North Road is a triumph in both departments. The pacing is pretty good as we move between characters and storylines and their individual pieces of the puzzle slot together nicely in moments of revelation.

Character-wise, it's a solid cast, although not Hamilton's best. We're lacking a character as vivid as Ozzie or Paula Myo (or as frustratingly punchable as Joshua Calvert) but otherwise they are an interesting bunch. Angela Tramelo is embittered from her two decades in prison (not to mention effective torture by a shadowy government agency), but also has herself to blame for her lack of cooperation when that could have vindicated her much earlier. The reasons for this form a mystery that gradually unfolds over the course of the novel. Sid Hurst is a reliable protagonist as the detective investigating the murder, although his house-hunting woes (Hamilton continuing a slightly random theme of futuristic property market musings that began in The Dreaming Void) take up a fair bit of space that could have been trimmed. Vance Elston, the leader of the St. Libra expedition, is also a key protagonist and Hamilton uses him to return to one of his favourite topics, the place of religious faith in a science-driven world.

The science is a mix of the fairly basic and the advanced, speculative. The basic science comes from the history of observations of Sirius, which, if you accept the history at face value, is fairly bizarre. The presence of a fairly complex system of planets orbiting Sirius is also something Hamilton almost cheekily sneaks in: due to Sirius's size and type, detecting planets circling it through current methods has proven almost impossible, giving him a window to make up his own planetary system. The more speculative science applies to his traditional use of quantum and wormhole physics. As in his earlier novels, Hamilton brusquely describes his advanced scientific concepts in a straightforward manner that renders them fairly understandable to the reader. Unfortunately, he does commit one error when he fails to take into account relativity during a sublight interstellar voyage, which is a bit of an elementary mistake. Fortunately, it is not of major importance to the storyline.

In most respects, this is Peter F. Hamilton at his traditional, page-turning, easily-readable, SF blockbuster best. Unfortunately this extends to his traditional problem of including a number of sex scenes that add little to the narrative. It's not as prevalent an issue as it has been in the past (and we're fortunately still a long way from the dissolute Misspent Youth) but there are still a few scenes where characters start disrobing and the reader has to groan as the more interesting SF stuff is put on hold for a few paragraphs. Hamilton's other notable problem of how he ends his novels also rears its head here. In general terms the ending is fine and well-foreshadowed, but it does seem to almost be implausibly happy given the body count in the story and is certainly rather abrupt (something a character even half-apologetically notes). However, the storyline is mostly wrapped up satisfyingly, with only a couple of minor elements that could have been explored a bit thoroughly.

Overall, Great North Road (****) is a very solid novel. It's not amongst his best, but it rattles along at a good pace and handles its immense length quite well. It's also great to read a book where Hamilton is able to combine his mastery of epic plotting with a definitive ending. The novel will be published on 27 September in the UK and on 26 December in the USA.

Source: I received an advance review copy of this novel from the UK publishers.

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