Described as “Britain’s best selling science fiction author,” Peter F Hamilton is a prolific writer of epic space opera. Best known for the Greg Mandel Trilogy, the Night’s Dawn trilogy, the Commonwealth Saga and more recently the Void Trilogy, he is currently touring to meet his fans and promote his new standalone novel, Great North Road. On Wednesday 10th October, his schedule took him to Edinburgh where he was kind enough to spare a few minutes to talk to Geek Chocolate.
Geek Chocolate – In Great North Road we are intermittently reminded that the detective, Sid Hurst is not long back from a suspension from duty, but we never really know what for, and there was a feeling that compared to the other story lines we would never find out. Why did you choose not to reveal that part of his life?
Peter F Hamilton – There is a reveal on that about half way through, a third of the way through. Police in that time, most of their work is done by agencies. There’s sort of a core of genuine police, and they get paid nothing, so it’s kind of accepted that you play the system with the companies, and he did that and just did it one time too often. But internally in the police force there wasn’t much of a stigma attached to that.
GC – You seem to like a good whodunit. What draws you to police procedurals?
PFH – They work well in science fiction because with a detective character you get down to those dirty mean streets and you can have a good look around through him at the society you’ve created, the problems that are there, the benefits that are there. It’s a narrative way at looking around the universe you’ve created.
GC – Religion plays a major part in the motivation for some of the main characters, always placing our existence in a hierarchy behind greater intangible forces. Why do you bring us back to the question of existence?
PFH – It’s one character who is deeply motivated by religion. The rest of them have sort of moved on from that but are reminded by the forces around them that there is a bigger life form in the universe, there is more to life than what we see. Questioning existence is what everybody does, it’s as simple as that. I do it through the eyes of science fiction through, the drama that unfolds in Great North Road.
GC – When you kill-off a character, at what point do you decide it’s a good idea? Are you ever glad when you’ve bumped somebody off?
PFH – Oh, a good one! Some of them serve a useful purpose by being killed off. You can’t be afraid of killing them off, but the main protagonists tend to survive through most of the book because that’s the way you identify with the story, that’s the way the readers see the story you’ve created, as I’ve said. I’m not afraid of killing off, but it’s done judiciously.
GC – There are a few distinctive ideologies concerning the future of the human race, one which pursues eternal youth and remaining as we are, another that looks for evolution through the accumulation of wealth, and another that seeks to be isolated from the rest of the human race and start again. Why was it important to address these?
PFH – The questions is talking about the three ways that the North family splits. Because that basically covers all the bases. It’s the three brothers and it’s the three routes they choose. None of them is more valid, if you like, than the other. Some of them are quicker, some of them are tougher. They each have their own belief in the way we should be evolving, the way we should be bring about change to other people less fortunate than ourselves. It’s three sides of the coin.
GC – Some have said that the ending of Great North Road was “implausibly happy given the body count in the story.” How would you respond to that?
PFH – There wasn’t a huge body count! Come on, there was only about twenty. I didn’t kill off entire planets this time. There was, yeah, the body count that was there on the expedition just kind of demonstrates how tough that expedition was. It was there because it reflected the tension that the characters were under. I don’t think it was excessive.
GC – Does it satisfy you to write a happy ending more than a melancholy ending? Does literature with happy endings serve a different purpose?
PFH – I’d argue that that was a happy ending. It was an optimistic ending, and it certainly had a slingshot of a high point, the epilogue part of it did. The optimistic ending proves, if you like, that the characters were right to pursue the goals they did, in my view.
GC – Sid Hurst had a linear narrative in that he was the only main character that didn’t have flashbacks to an earlier point in his life, whereas the others – particularly Vance Elston and Angela Tramelo – were built on, in some cases a tormented past. Why was this?
PFH – There were a lot of flashbacks, and I didn’t want them to become too complicated. Angela’s character and the forces driving her is revealed slowly through the flashbacks. You can’t overwhelm the reader by info dumping all that background in one point.
Sid Hurst was a very straight forward guy. He’s the family man, he’s struggling to survive in the world, like all of us, pay the bills, get through life to a decent pension. Basically he’s the straight man, he doesn’t have the tormented past that the others do that drove them. His driving force is the need to solve the puzzle, the need to get to the murderer, and so he doesn’t really need a backstory.
GC – I felt Sid was a stabilising force, something for the reader to anchor on to.
PFH – Yeah, I’d go with that, very much so. I deliberately kept Angela’s motivations an enigma, certainly for the first half, then you began to learn more and more about her. The way the novel was structured was is in itself a fairly new way of structuring a book for me.
GC – Sid’s backstory, the suspension from duty, there was some sense that he had been a fall guy, that there was much more to him. Do you plan
possibly on revisiting him and that subject in the future?
PFH – No. That novel was specifically written as a one-off. I can’t see myself going back to that universe. Besides which, we left them all on a optimistic ending! Why spoil it?
GC – On Earth, you set it on Newcastle. Why was that?
PFH – Half of it is set one Earth, half of it is set on St Libra. Newcastle specifically because that’s where my family comes from. Plus I had the option of, somebody called it a punning title, Great North Road, it was created in the Roman times to reinforce Hadrian’s Wall, it was “the end of what was known,” if you like, and it now extends further into space, so you just keep going down the Great North Road.
GC – It gave it a grimy authenticity, would you agree?
PFH – That’s very kind! Yes, I’d go for that. A lot of what I do, hopefully the strength is in the detail, and the detail gives the world a believability.
GC – You superimpose advanced technology over the familiar setting in such a way that it could be today in a parallel universe, particularly with Smart Dust monitoring everything. How do you feel about the increased surveillance society we are in?
PFH – It’s a mixed blessing. If it could help solve crime the way it does in the book, I’d possibly be more lenient about it. At the same time, I’m enough of an individualist to resent everybody being able to access anything they want about me. There is this dynamic with all surveillance, with all acquisition of data that I don’t quite know how to resolve.
GC – And sure enough, the Smart Dust doesn’t always work. Is that you channelling your hope that no matter what, we can still be a wee bit sneaky?
PFH – We can be a wee bit sneaky. It also reflects my frustration with some technologies, the computer that doesn’t boot up, the car that doesn’t start. It’s designed to start, it’s designed to boot up, it doesn’t always do it, it doesn’t always work, it isn’t always reliable.
GC – You said this was a standalone. I know with publishing dates you’re usually already on the next project. What are you looking at?
PFH – I’ve basically taken this year off writing the stuff I normally to do children’s books. I’ve just handed in the second one, and I’ve got to do another one in time for Christmas/New Year. And I don’t mean young adult, either, everyone just assumes, no, these are aimed at 8-12 year olds, but they’ll be fantasy books, or they’ll have a magical theme in them, and after that I’ve just signed up with Macmillan to do two more in the Commonwealth series.
GC – Fantastic. We shall look forward to that.
PFH – Thank you very much.
GC – Thank you so much for your time, Peter.
Great North Road is available now from Macmillan and is reviewed here, and his short story collection Manhattan in Reverse is reviewed here
Once again, thank you to Chloe from Macmillan for her kind assistance and support