Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Peter F. Hamilton - Fallen Dragon

In the public conscience, the glamour of interstellar exploration was fading like the enchantment of an aging actress...

The quote, given to us within the first paragraph, sets the tone for the rest of the book. Within, Hamilton questions just how realistic our gilded dreams of colonizing the stars really are. The rose-colored enthusiasm of the early explorers is almost wholly gone by now, leaving in its place corporate domination. The common people want nothing so much as to be allowed to live their own lives.

Despite this interesting premise, the book has some serious problems. Most of these seem to come from a fundamental clash in just what story was being told. It’s a common reader complaint that whatever book they have just bought didn’t turn out to be what they were after, and it’s hard to blame anyone but them for their generally shoddy research. I don’t feel that’s the case here, however. It’s not just that the back promises one thing and the text delivers another, it seems like the two different strands of the story are constantly pulling against each other and trying to sprint off in opposite directions.

The first of these strands is, essentially, corporate piracy. Zantiu-Braun funded the colony’s development, now it feels it has a right to whatever the place has produced since. Backed by their Skin wearing super soldiers, the corporation has to face a determined resistance attempt on the world of Thallspring. In this, all three viewpoint characters – Zantiu-Braun’s Simon Roderick, resistance organizer Denise Ebourn, and Skin soldier Lawrence Newton – seem to be of roughly equal importance and are given roughly equal screentime.

The second strand, however, is solely about Lawrence Newton and his development. Now, Newton is a fascinating character. His idealistic dreams about exploration and space flight form an interesting contrast with those around him, and his life is suitably traumatic to be fascinating. All the same, this focus works actively against the first far more than it aids it.

The resistance plotline relies almost wholly on rising tensions. As the movement commits each isolated act, the population of the city is further emboldened and the Skins are increasingly nervous. Tensions rise consistently and everything would be fine - if only it wasn’t completely upset after every single chapter. The book is roughly split between Lawrence’s past and the current conflict, and every flashback totally severs whatever was built up in the chapter prior.

The first few flashbacks are closely related and manage to keep our interest for the next one reasonably high. But after that, just as the other storyline is ramping up, the scenes here grow further apart and more disconnected. The result is that the books pace starts to feel wildly uneven, as each chapter has to start from scratch and wholly rebuild the tension that its predecessor had already established. In addition, Lawrence’s life goes through so many different phases that it is some time before we receive any pay off within the present day at all from the interludes.

Tying into this is Hamilton’s methods of maintaining tension in his various mysteries. We are given a single hint, then no further clues for five hundred pages. At the last second, though, the mystery is busted out fully formed.

After all that, I feel I should probably state that the book is actually quite good. The technology is always interesting and inventive, as are the worlds that the characters visit. The plot always moves at a decent clip and remains quite reasonable throughout. Several twists and developments come as a total surprise, though in retrospect each is exquisitely foreshadowed. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reading for hours at a time, on this one. Once Hamilton gets going, it’s damn hard to put down. The action scenes are near flawless, both adrenalin filled and packed with cool concepts and clever trickery. After making the Skin suites so powerful, one would think that Hamilton would have a hard time giving them worthy adversaries. On that front, there’s no need to worry.

The characters are a mixed bag. Well, that’s probably not the best term to describe them. They are, all save one, very well done. Which just makes that one exception all the more glaring. Lawrence Newton is the star of the show, and is the best realized character by far. All of his experiences eventually do tie who he is and his quest to finally attain his dreams of interstellar exploration is a joy to read about.

He isn’t the only character that is well drawn. At first glance, his squad mates, especially the newbie, Hal Grabowski, are all almost caricatures. Yet, somewhere amidst the man’s fourth and ten thousandth plea for sex, he came alive. Though it came as a shock while reading, I found myself genuinely caring when he got himself into trouble

The one flaw is Denise. For the vast majority of the book, we have a very solid character in her. The contrast between loving playschool teacher and ruthless resistance leader is excellent. In the course of her experience with small children, she tells them and us the story of Mozark. The story is a charming travelogue of sorts, filled with interesting descriptions and ideologies. Despite, or perhaps because, of how different it was from the rest of the book, it became one of my favorite parts:

“The planet’s true name had been forgotten centuries ago. It was just called The City now…The people who lived there had devoted themselves to making the most beautiful buildings it was possible to make. All of them lived in their own palace with a parkland and a lake and a river, and their public buildings were as majestic as mountains.

…after a time Mozark began to see it for the folly it really was. All the inhabitants of The City did was maintain their buildings. Some families had lived in the same place for twenty or thirty generations. They added to it, but never changed the nucleus, the essence that made them what they were…Mozark knew the people could be inspired to build beautiful or gigantic structures, but after that it was always time to move on. The city was magnificent, but decadent it celebrated the past, not the future."

Then, right before the end, Denise gives a big reveal. Her motivations change completely. The problem is, in a fairly tight third person perspective like this, we get to see her thoughts. All of them support the first course. The second, the supposed purpose of her life, isn’t dwelt upon in the slightest.

Among all these different characters, Hamilton certainly doesn’t shy away from the big issues. Weighty matters like systems of government and “ecocide” are debated at length. In and of itself, that’s hardly a new thing. What is refreshing, though, is the absence of any THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY declarations to close the argument. Hamilton is more than content to let his various characters make their points, and he allows those points to rise and fall on their own merits. That quoted passage up above, for instance? Undoubtedly against materialism, and yet it’s never confirmed by the hand of god/the author. In fact, several other characters would no doubt vehemently disagree with it.

I checked out Fallen Dragon after being intimidated by the length of the Night’s Dawn trilogy. In that respect, it served as an interesting entryway to Hamilton’s work, and I will be checking out the trilogy shortly. If you’re looking for a character driven science fiction story, filled with fascinating big ideas and awesome action, check it out…just don’t expect a perfect ride.

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