One of my Book Reading Resolutions of 2014, in fact the main one, was to ensure I make time each month to read the backlists of my favourite science fiction authors. With Peter F. Hamilton that is more of an undertaking than with others due to the sheer size of the beasties. However, as I know well, in Hamilton’s case, quantity and quality are equally matched and it is an absolute delight to spend a week consumed in science fiction of such magnitude and wonder. They might be brickbooks but they are also my breather reads and I love to spend such good time lost in them. At the moment I am reading the Night’s Dawn trilogy. Published originally in the late 1990s, these three books – The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God – combine to form over 3,500 pages of all out glorious space opera.
I am currently reading the middle novel, The Neutronium Alchemist, so it seems like the perfect time to write a few thoughts on the first, The Reality Dysfunction, which I read (almost to the point of obsession) at the end of this last January.
As you’d expect and hope from a book with a length in excess of 1200 pages, The Reality Dysfunction is rich in stories. It’s arguable which is the main one but it is probably the rise of a new horrible threat to the colonists of frontier world Lalonde – some kind of almost supernatural evil force is taking over the pioneers and their convict workers in a virulent plague of possession. Even more unfortunately, one of the convicts (or Ivets) is Quinn Dexter, a man who could be a study in evil itself. The malignant force destroys electricity and the result is that much of this story has the feel of a Wild West adventure, played out on steamboats, in virgin forest, in farms, wooden churches and schools and frontier towns. Even when the marines are sent in, the ensuing battle is fought on uncertain ground with unknowable rules. What is certain, though, is that it is utterly gripping.
But that is only one part of the novel and it is matched by other stories that are just as compelling and mesmerising. Our hero is Joshua, a pilot who begins the novel raiding a giant abandoned alien ring for technology. With the money that he earns from this he refits his father’s ship, Lady Macbeth, and then we are able to follow him across great distances, to a world of ocean or to another which wouldn’t seem out of place in a Jane Austen novel. Through Joshua (and his numerous love affairs), we encounter many places and people that we get to know more and more through this epic book (and series), especially Ione Saldana, the ruler of Tranquillity, a great habitat in space, with which Ione is emotionally fused.
In this universe, much of mankind labels itself as Edenist. This means that they live with an emotional connection to habitats and ships. If they die, their ‘soul’ is gathered up into their home or vessel where their descendents can interact with it until, after many years, the soul feels that it is ready to give up its individualism. This is a society in which death and religion hold very little significance. One of my very favourite moments of this memorable novel is the scene in which an elderly starship is escorted by its fellow ships to its death in the atmosphere of Saturn. In its last dance, it mates with the other vessels, resulting in the birth of several infant vessels, each containing a human child. For a year or so the vessel and child are physically joined, long enough for a connection to be made that cannot be broken. After adolescence, the grown captain with a small crew embarks on a lifetime’s adventure in his or her own voidhawk ship. In The Reality Dysfunction we follow the most wilful of these offspring, the pilot Syrinx and her voidhawk Oenone. Two more spectacular characters out of far too many to mention.
I can’t hope to do more of a synopsis because this is a book that truly overflows. And some of the themes and characters have a relatively minor role to play in this first part but now, in the second book, I can see them developing further. There can be 50 pages, even 100 or more, before our next encounter with an individual and, while this can be a challenge to a memory as poor as mine, it really contributes to the pace, which rockets along.
While this is science fiction at, for me, its best, there is also a very strong horror feel to The Reality Dysfunction. The possession of the inhabitants of Lalonde raises all kinds of supernatural spectres while the decision of the settlers (and many others in this universe) to turn their back on Edenism and instead trust in God and human progress throws up a bunch of religious issues, too, particularly in the light (or dark) of this horrendous threat to the soul.
Not surprisingly for the level of horror in this novel, there is violence and gore to accompany it. In places this is done extremely effectively, especially in the cases of humans who are able to forge a mental link to animals, such as dogs or birds. What they must endure on occasion is intensified by this strange empathy.
There is also a fair amount of sex and, as is common in Peter F. Hamilton’s books, some of it is rather unnecessary and not at all sympathetic to the female character. But it isn’t too intrusive and there are more than enough strong female characters to make up for it.
The Reality Dysfunction is a wonderful book. It might be extremely long but it is fast, being hugely enjoyable, thrilling, frightening, moving from start to finish. Above all else, it makes no apologies for being entertaining. It is full of grand ideas, settings and schemes but its goal is to entice you into its worlds, to spend quality time with its people, starships and habitats and to make you not want it to end. It works perfectly and, I am so pleased to say, the second book, The Neutronium Alchemist, is every bit as fabulous.