Proudly described as “Britain’s number one science fiction writer” on the cover of his new short story collection, Peter F Hamilton is the prolific creator of a number of tomes that have weighed down the shelves of science fiction fans for almost two decades, many of them set in the Commonwealth universe that features prominently here. Join Geek Chocolate as we read the words that take us through the many worlds of possibility.
The seven stories featured vary in length, structure and span, but all are entertaining and well crafted. The shortest is The Forever Kitten, a deceptively simple proposition that raises questions of the ethics of parenting and free will, and with genetics regarded as the next frontier of medical science, it may not be long until the issues raised are reflected in our newspapers. Just because we have the ability to do something does not mean we are right to do it, but history has proven that those with money and power more often do for themselves than those around them.
The story closest to our own universe is the revised Footvote, with references to Gordon Brown and the Iraq enquiry the setting for a vast exodus of a disillusioned population to the promise of a new world beyond the gate of a wormhole, one man’s vision of utopia if you will abide by his rules. Parallels are drawn with earlier migrations, but unlike the decades of settlement in the Americas, this drain takes place in months, teachers, scientists, craftsmen and police leaving a hole in society that grows faster than it can be filled. In this one family must make choices based on their circumstances and beliefs – but when circumstances change, how firmly will they stick to those beliefs?
A repeating theme in the collection is how, as we live longer lifespans, we must adapt to more changes in our lives than any previous generation, both in the technologies that we deal with and changing work patterns, from manufacturing to service as automation replaces industry. Taken to extreme by the rejuvenation technologies available in the Commonwealth, society has fragmented into those who make all they can of their extended lives, those who isolate themselves, rejecting technology and he temptation it offers them, and those who have simply accepted the ennui and rendered themselves into virtual life to escape it.
Two of the stories, The Demon Trap and the titular Manhattan in Reverse focus on those seeking isolation, and how far they will go to obtain it, and the problems of settling a new world to cope with the vastly numerous population of the Commonwealth, both featuring investigator Paula Myo of the novels Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained.
Police procedural is a genre in itself, and setting it in a science fiction frame does not change anything other than the scope of the tale and the methods the investigator uses. Even when it is apparent who is guilty, the path by which the evidence to prove it is gathered is only half the story, the other half being how interesting a host the investigator is. In this respect, Paula Myo is an oddity.
Designed at a genetic level to focus solely on the task and with an overriding sense of justice, she is fascinating intellectually, but she is not warm or personable, certainly not when faced with a classic crime scene, such as the terrorist attack in The Demon Trap, but other facets of her surface on the developing planet Menard. There she finds herself in a situation that is not so delineated when she must make a determination whether an indigenous species on a colony planet is proto-sentient, an investigation beyond her expertise.
Ironically, it is her detachment from her subjects that gives the collection the best line, when coming to the assistance of frontier colonists threatened by the indigenous animals, who rather than seeking to retaliate, threaten to sue the colony administrators. “She supposed it was a sign of civilisation, nobody reaches for a gun any more, just their lawyer.”
Like many of the great science fiction stories of the last century, most focus on a single advancement in science or technology, and how it can profoundly change a society, but the longest, and most satisfying story, is the opener, Watching Trees Grow, cataloguing a whole suite of developments through a series of episodes spanning over two hundred years of the extended lifespan of an investigator who refuses to case of the life of a relative whose life was curtailed.
Time and place may change with each segment, but a sense of presence is always evoked; twenty one years may pass between the murder and the arrival of the investigation in Manhattan City, but despite the city, the country and the season changing, the long winter shadows of Oxford are echoed in the low sun in Manhattan, though here the sky is red and gold. The feeling is of utopia, but with the intimation in the background that sacrifices have been made to achieve this.
The prose is clear and direct, like the Agatha Christie it reflects, accessing memories of period dramas, starting as it does in mid nineteenth century Oxford, albeit with the spin of an alternate history. We observe and note, looking for clues and patterns, all of equal weight until a trail is found.
Speaking earlier this year, Charlie Stross commented that for reasons of length most science fiction novels were an unwieldy option for cinema adaptation, and that a novella would be a more practical option. Watching Trees Grow is the perfect example of why that is so: in under a hundred pages it tells a murder mystery that spans centuries and planets as the technological and social evolution of a whole civilisation is charted in the background, with the only two constants being the lead character providing narrative and that the Vatican still retains its archaic grip. Had Hamilton so chosen, the story could easily have been expanded to become a full novel in its own right without losing any of the grandeur, fascination or impact.
It also important that after so many stories of compromised values and lost integrity that the closing pages of the final story, the scene that gives the collection its title, is an expression of someone standing up for their belief that an indigenous race should be protected, whether it is proven they are sentient or not, whether that answer will be forthcoming in decades, centuries, or even beyond the lifespan of a Commonwealth citizen. Sometimes, even in science fiction, the good guys come out on top.
Manhattan in Reverse will be published imminently by Macmillan
Special thanks to Chloe Healy of Macmillan for making this review possible
Please follow the link for our interview with Peter F Hamilton