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)

Friday 26 January 2007

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

In 2006 Gollancz asserted themselves as Britain's premier SF publishing imprint. This year, mainly thanks to the efforts of Simon Spanton, it delivered three very high-profile debut novels: the much-applauded The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd, and the superb The Blade Itself by Joe Abercombie.

At first glance The Blade Itself is pretty old-school: it's book one of a trilogy (entitled The First Law; the second volume, Before They Are Hanged, is out in March), it features an old wizard mentor character and a barbarian hero as well as an untried youth, a feisty young woman and an army of nasty barbarians on the march in the north, whilst a resurgent desert empire threatens our heroes' homeland - the Midderland Union - from the south. There's also the threat of a non-human species gathering its forces beyond the northern-most reach of humankind's lands (isn't there always?).

Yet Abercrombie invests these storylines with vigour and energy. None of our heroes are quite what they first appear to be and the author expertly deconstructs them throughout the book, revealing their true motivations when you last expect it. Abercrombie is also a dab hand are writing excellent battle scenes and swordfights. There is also a hint of otherwordly alieness in this book, such as the scenes set in the House of the Maker which are quite memorable. The only major complaint I had about the book is the lack of a map. Most fantasy novels with a map don't really need them, but with military campaigns getting underway it would be nice to tell exactly where Adua is in relation to the Northlands, and where both are in relation to Dagoska, for example. But this is a minor complaint at best.

By the end of the book the pace has been ramped up to a compelling level, as our heroes depart in different directions to face their various destinies and full-scale war seems about to erupt on all sides. The Blade Itself is a tremendously enjoyable novel and I count myself fortunate to have read it late enough in the day to only have a brief wait for the second book.

The Blade Itself (****) is published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom in trade paperback and hardcover. The mass-market paperback will be available on 8 March. Pyr Books will publish an American edition in September 2007 (no Amazon listing as yet).

The sequel, Before They Are Hanged, will be published by Gollancz in the UK in trade paperback and hardcover on 15 March 2007.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

A Game of Thrones: The TV Series

For years, many George RR Martin fansites have been speculating on what would happen if the Song of Ice and Fire novel series were turned into a series of films or a TV series. What would stay in, what would get cut out, who would play who, etc. It was always laughed off as a game. After all, no-one would ever, ever be insane enough to even attempt this, would they?

From Variety.

Apparently they would. HBO, which has turned out edgy, innovative, big-budget drama serials for years now, have decided to go for it. Their plan is to adapt each of the seven novels in the series into a TV season. Whether this would be a standard American TV season (22-25 episodes) or the 10-episode season format that HBO favours for some of its projects (like
Rome, which returned for a second season last week) is unclear. They've already hired two screenwriters and George RR Martin has agreed to both serve as executive producer and also pen one episode of the first season. Martin himself is an experienced screenwriter, working on The New Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast in the 1980s, and the news he is taking an active role on the project has been well-received by fans, although not without concern. Book Five of the series, A Dance with Dragons, is expected to be published before the end of the year, but there are two more books (The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring) to come and a minimum of four-to-five years to get there. However, between fully greenlighting the project, pre-production, production and publicity, it looks like the TV version of A Game of Thrones will not be aired until 2009 or 2010 at the earliest, giving GRRM plenty of time to complete most of the remaining work on the novels before the TV series gets underway.
"They tried for 50 years to make 'Lord of the Rings' as one movie before Peter Jackson found success making three," Martin said. "My books are bigger and more complicated, and would require 18 movies. Otherwise, you'd have to choose one or two characters."
Already, the fansites have been erupting with ideas for the proposed series. However, as GRRM has already said, HBO have merely bought the rights to the series. Although they have detailed plans on how to proceed and have already assigned writers (and pretty prestigious writers at that, including the author of hit novel and Spike Lee movie veryThe 25th Hour, David Benioff), the series has yet to be fully greenlit. In my view, this could be a very successful project. There are issues, such as the needed buget being colossal, rivalling or exceeding that even of Rome, if not Band of Brothers, but overall the approach that HBO is taking is very reassuring. Expect this to be one topic to run and run over the next few years.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Fat by Rob Grant

Rob Grant's fourth solo novel postulates a world in which the chronically overweight are persecuted and patronised, forced by guilt and shame to try scientifically dubious methods of weight-loss and dangerous dieting techniques. It is, pretty much, the world we live in already.

Fat has been marketed to the SF crowd, despite its SF credentials being more or less non-existent. Rob Grant is, of course, best known as an SF writer. He co-created the SF sitcom Red Dwarf (the only decent live-action SF sitcom ever made) twenty years ago and co-wrote the first thirty-six episodes and two novels (Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life, both excellent) before splitting with writing partner Doug Naylor. His first (and only) solo Red Dwarf novel, Backwards, was a major success, as were his subsequent two original novels, Colony and Incompetence. Now he's back with a timely look at the modern obsession with weight. It isn't really SF: if it is, it's set the day after tomorrow, when concerns over weight are slightly more extreme than they are now.

The novel follows three characters in turn. Grenville Roberts is a man genetically predisposed to be fat. No matter how much he diets, no matter how much he exercises, he still takes ten minutes to get out of bed every morning, which tires him out for the rest of the day. Clearly something needs to be done, but his latest exercise regime is cruelly interrupted when, in a fit of rage at the persecution of fat people by the thin, he goes on the rampage and destroys a car park.

Jeremy Slank is a PR man working for a City firm, called in to help publicise the government's new Well Farm, a firm-but-fair institution designed to help people lose weight. After all, people are getting fat and dying chronically early from heart disease due to laziness and greed, costing the health service millions. Or is that the simplistic view, and the health farms are a government's sound-bite answer to a complex problem?

Hayleigh can't stand to look at her own reflection in the mirror and feels she is too fat to carry on living. All she can see is her own horrible obesity. But what Hayleigh sees is not the truth...

Fat is a novel of conflicting viewpoints. Simultaneously, it is a very funny, satirical comedy; it is a heartbreaking, powerful depiction of chronic anorexia; and it is a revisionist sideswipe at the accepted view of the science of dieting. Oddly, it manages to handle these competing aspects pretty well. There is a strong educational streak in the book. I didn't know, for example, that a large number of people start dieting by immediately drastically cutting their salt intake, which is quite dangerous, or that cholesterol's link to heart disease is actually not entirely accepted by the medical community (although a quick trawl of scientific websites reveals this is on the same level as those who reject global warming: a small but vocal minority). Grant's rejection of the accepted science in some cases is a bit baffling (being controversial for the sake of it) and leaves the reader wondering what point he is trying to make. It's okay to go out of your way to eat unhealthily because there is a 90% chance you'll put any weight you lose back on again in less than twelve months? A mixed message if I ever heard one.

Whilst Grant's science is somewhat shaky in places, his grasp of character is as assured as ever. He has a deft hand in painting characters well and depicting strong emotions. Grenville's rage at the unfairness of life is quite amusing and well-handled, whilst Hayleigh's quieter despair at her situation verges on the heart-breaking. It is with this latter storyline that Grant finally comes of age as a novelist, portraying this teenage girl's despair with a surprisingly deft hand. And it is to his credit that the word 'anorexia' never appears in the book at all. The resolution to this storyline is perhaps a tad simplistic, but psychologically it works well.

Fat is a well-written and, in places, extremely funny look at the phenomenon on dieting, whilst elsewhere it is a well-realised look at depression. At barely 300 pages, the book doesn't outstay its welcome either. It isn't really SF, no matter its writer's history, but no matter. It is an interesting, amusing and well-written look at a controversial slice of modern life, let down only by a non-partisan approach to the science.

Fat (***) is published by Gollancz in the United Kingdom. It has no US publisher, although some copies are available via Amazon.