Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Peter F. Hamilton - Night's Dawn [Trilogy Review]

Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn books immediately set themselves apart on any bookshelf. How, you ask? Simple. It’s by being twice the size of anything else on the shelf. That size is what dictates pretty much element of the trilogy, from plot, to characters, to structure, to the writing itself. These books are not gigantic by accident. Rather, their space is used deliberately to create an effect that would be impossible in a more focused volume. In an article on the writing of The Night’s Dawn trilogy, Hamilton says:

The example I always give is The Battle Of Britain. A conflict which saw the warrior heroes of both countries battling it out for supremacy in the most sophisticated technology of the era. Theirs is a fantastic story, full of heroism and struggle and sacrifice. All very well, but there were hundreds of thousands of people who lived underneath the dogfights in the sky, whose lives were going to undergo monumental change because of the conflict (whoever won). Ultimately what happens to them i.e. society as a whole, is more interesting.

Nominally, the Night’s Dawn trilogy is about a mysterious disaster originating on Lalaonde and threatening the entire Confederation. In reality, though, Hamilton’s goal is to create a believable society and then show every effect of that disaster, both physical and moral, on his creation. As a result, this is a very decentralized story, where the number of point of views spreads throughout the entire Confederation, staying just half a step ahead of the waves of change and destruction. The best way to understand these books is to imagine a massive glass creation, gigantic but every inch carefully devised and filled with details, and then to imagine the inexorable destruction of the sculpture, inch by inch, the cracks spreading so slowly as to be visual but so quickly as to be unstoppable. It’s an effect that would only be meaningful if the reader first understands every intricacy of Hamilton’s creation, and so Hamilton shows us exactly that.

Imagine, for a second, that there are three layers to every story. The first layer is the present time, the plot, if you will. Just about every author will explicitly show this, because it is, presumably, why we’ve come. The second layer is the backstory, how the characters got where they are, who the characters are, etc. This is generally implied, though the degree to which it is shown depends on the author. Finally, we’ve got the layer behind even the backstory, what’s simply the background. This is stuff like the minutia of the justice system, or how planet X was settled, why coalition Y makes this product, etc. it’s the kind of thing that’s important for an author know, but it’s rare for the readers to ever learn – or care – about much of it.

Hamilton doesn’t follow that template. Instead, he shows you the first and second layers in their entirety. We are not dropped into a fully functional colony on Lalonde. Instead, we build the colony with our own two hands and watch every single event that occurs upon its path. The third layer, too, makes its way into the books, primarily the first, in the form of expository infodumps. These can get a tad excessive at times, but are usually interesting enough to make up for that.

The trilogy opens with The Reality Dysfunction. This volume bears the brunt of the exposition that’s so central to the tale, and, as a result, the beginning is very hard to get into. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to three point of views, and we alternate between them for the first third or so of the novel. At first, this structure is a bit self defeating. None of the three plot lines are boring, but none of them are right off the bat spellbinding, either, and the vast number of intervening pages (Hamilton writes huge chapters) between one appearance and the next seem geared to kill all momentum.

The interesting thing about these early threads is that they’re as close to slice of life as you can get in a space opera. That’s not to imply that they’re pedestrian or mundane, but rather to say that, no matter how interesting the events that take place are, they’re generally par for the course for the world. The result of this is that, when things finally do go out of hand, the reader can feel how wrong it is without being told. Joshua’s attempts to circumvent standard business practices and make huge amounts of cash, but, crucially, still playing within the system (just in a new and inventive way), serve to indoctrinate us into Hamilton’s Confederation. By the time the ground rules start to change, we’re at least as capable of pointing out the changes as any of Hamilton’s characters, having received lessons in every aspect of the worldbuilding from Joshua, Syrinx, and the various Lalonde pilgrims.

Hamilton’s characterization is always adequate, but only occasionally notable. In a cast of this size, it’s absolutely vital for each character to be distinctive enough for the reader to be able to recognize them when they pop up, and know who they are, and at this Hamilton has no problems. With main characters, appearing again and again over a span of pages this massive, however, the reader expects to see some growth. In this regard, Joshua is by far the best character of the series. Though his is not the kind of evolution you’re going to be analyzing in essays, his arc is believable and consistent throughout. Syrinx, too, is passable, though – and especially in this novel – she can occasionally be too idealistic at times.

Oddly enough, though, it’s when discussing groups that Hamilton’s skills with people come to the fore. Though there were few individual characters in the trilogy that I would’ve been devastated to lose, there were several locations that I developed a strong bond with. In this, I think it’s Hamilton’s sense of scale, and ability to convincing juggle night on countless viewpoints, that carries the day. Though there’s no one colonist on Lalonde that you particularly care about, the colony itself feels like something you built with your own sweat and blood, a place where you are on congenial terms with all of your neighbors and nod happily to everyone, and the threat of its destruction evokes an emotional response that’s far greater than the collective death of its citizens can account for. Easily eclipsing Lalonde in this regard, Tranquility, especially in the later books, becomes a symbol of hope, a message that the spreading disaster makes a happy life difficult but by no means impossible, and that message effects the reader to the same degree that it effects the characters.

Something that has to be mentioned when discussing The Reality Dysfunction, especially Joshua’s storyline, is the sheer amount of sex in it. Now, I’m not arguing that something like this can never be appropriate, but Hamilton exceeds any sane measure of excess. Any meaningful relationship is all but drowned out in a sea of orgasmic white noise. Furthermore, the sex scenes never come across to the reader as anything but a chore to get through. The characters, in their absurd over-enjoyment of every act, create an impenetrable barrier of quadruple orgasms that the reader has no hope of penetrating, in the manner of an actor overacting to a degree that we just see the performance, not the material, leaving us feeling more like an uncomfortable voyeur than a participator. Thankfully, Hamilton seems to have been aware of the problem, because the number of sex scenes drops off faster than you would believe in book two.

The sex isn’t the only unpolished aspect of book one. Though Hamilton’s writing throughout the series is never exemplary, it’s never trying to be. It gets the job done fine, paints a clear picture, and brings you to a swift understanding of the incredibly complex world that Hamilton’s created. In the first book, however, comma splices appear in what feels like every other sentence. Let’s turn to a random page, 126. Most of the way down, we get: The food they had been served was strange, the aboriginal fruit was all odd shapes with a mildly spicy flavoring but at least there wasn’t any vat meat like they had at the arcology. Now, I’ll admit it’s an incredibly small complaint in the grand scheme of things, but the mistake’s endless appearances become more than a tad annoying as the book goes on.

As I’ve said, The Reality Dysfunction’s pacing is iffy at best for the first third of the book. At that point, however, Hamilton kicks things into high gear. Things begin to come together, both large and small, and various plot threads slowly begin to coalesce, while Hamilton throws more and more into the already overflowing pot. The book becomes something akin to a runaway truck. At some point, any sane person would think, something has to give. But it doesn’t. Impossibly, the pace picks up and up until it’s hard to stop reading for long enough to turn the page, until the urgency is almost painful.

That’s not to say that the book becomes mindless action, however. Far from it. Though Hamilton is excellent at military skirmishes and combat in general, it is the weight of the world building and the density of the atmosphere that makes the book so incredible. The disaster on Lalonde isn’t revealed in one go, nothing even remotely like that, and the initial encounters are absolutely terrifying in a way that even dedicated horror fiction seldom manages.

This works precisely because of the lengthy build up. That sense of wonder that we all love so much is actually layered. There is the initial shock of immersing oneself in another world, but by the time you get up to the actual disaster, you’re thinking like an inhabitant. That, however, is just in time to be absolutely blindsided, alongside every character, by what’s suddenly emerging. The double effect is, needless to say, incredibly powerful.

[The exact nature of the disaster, revealed partway through the Reality Dysfunction, is a key component of the series. Since I don’t wish to spoil it for anyone, but cannot proceed without revealing it, be warned that the rest of this review has SPOILERS for book one. Then again, most reviews I’ve read spoil it anyway, so…]

The central conceit of the Night’s Dawn Trilogy is the dead returning as possessors. It would have been incredibly easy for the idea of possession to devolve into silliness, especially once famous people begin to start popping up, but, barring a few mishaps, Hamilton treats his ideas seriously enough to not rob them of their power. Crucial to this is his decision to not rob them of their humanity:

“Do you think [Hitler] changed after he died, Mr. Halahan? Do you think he lost his conviction or his righteousness? Do you think death causes you to look back on life and make you realize what an ass you’ve been? Oh no, not that, Mr. Halahan. You’re too buys screaming, you’re too buys cursing, you’re too busy coveting your neighbor’s memory for the bitter dregs of taste and colour it gives you. Death does not bestow window, Mr. Halahan. It does not make you humble before the Lord. More’s the pity."

As the series progresses, and as more and more possessed get their own viewpoints, the conflict turns from one of horror to one of military action and moral consequences. Hamilton brings back Al Capone to lead the possessed Organization, and his conflicts – both with other possessed and with the government at large – are well done and gripping, featuring several very clever ideas.

The main theme of the series is that, helpful as it is, technology doesn’t hold all the answers. As a result, the people of Hamilton’s future are very much the people of our present. There is no easy solution here, whether it is to be found by magic or brute force. In order to progress, society is going to actually have to face – and fix – its problems. The implementation of these themes is somewhat mixed. Hamilton has no problem with weaving these ideas into the story. The ground war begun in book three, for instance, does an excellent job of showing the impossibility of any kind of military solution.

What isn’t so interwoven is the Neutronium Alchemist sub plot. Now, by itself, this would be okay. Even effective. What isn’t so okay is that this sub plot takes up an incredible amount of space. Someone would be forgiven for thinking that something that comes up in the second chapter and easily has several hundred pages (a decent novel’s space, mind you) devoted to it would turn out to matter for more than reproving an already understood point.

Equally disparate from the rest of the narrative, but far more effective, are the sub plots – beginning in The Neutronium Alchemist but coming into their fore in the final volume – that show the possessed’s attempts at creating a utopian society. As it turns out, magic’s no more helpful than nanotechnology when it comes to correcting basic human flaws, and the possessed, who are, first and foremost, people, and their attempts to deal with reality once again formed some of my favorite parts of the whole trilogy.

Despite all these issues, The Neutronium Alchemist is the best paced book in the trilogy. Though the number of threads is even larger than in The Reality Dysfunction, Hamilton focuses on one thread at a time – though not to the total exclusion of the others – until it reaches a climax of sorts. As a result, though there is a truly incredible amount of ground covered in this volume, it never feels scattershot, and we’re able to get closely involved in each struggle as it comes up.

The Naked God, by contrast, returns to an exacerbated version of the flaws that were so prevalent in the first book’s structure. Once again, we’re seeing events through several hard to connect plot threads, and since the number only swells as the series progressed, the amount of different side stories is truly unwieldy by this point.

That’s not to imply that the book doesn’t work, however. The various sub plots are some of the strongest of the series, even if they rarely gel all that well (and occasionally get lost in the shuffle).The most out there plot is definitely the battle for Earth’s arcologies. The concept is interesting, and the deliberations and actions of B-7 formed some of my favorite parts of the series, but none of the events here felt like part of the main story. Part of the problem is Louise, because the pacing grinds to a dead stop every time she walked on stage. Worse, however, is Quinn, who is the only character that manages to get shallower with each book that passes and is, by this point, a painful caricature of his early self. Which, mind you, wasn’t exactly a paragon of in-depth characterization.

After over a million words, you’re expecting some serious payoff. Something that will BLOW YOUR MIND as far as endings go. For books one and two, after all, Hamilton certainly showed himself to be no slouch with endings. The Reality Dysfunction ends with a huge battle, some character development, and a relatively decent amount of closure (or, at least, a you-can-take-a-breather-here moment). The Neutronium Alchemist does nothing of the sort, ending on a cliffhanger, but it’s a well done cliffhanger that I can’t really blame him for, despite how much I may have ranted about it in the past.

The ending of The Naked God, however, is absolutely unforgivable. Now, Wert’s argued ad nauseam about why it’s not a deus ex machina, and I’ll give it to him. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most anticlimactic endings I’ve ever read, however. Imagine, for a second, that Robert Jordan went so far as to have titled the final book in The Wheel of Time: The Dark One Kills Himself. Would that have made his purposeless suicide any more entertaining to read about? If not, you’re probably going to hate this ending. Essentially, had all but one character in The Naked God sat around twiddling their thumbs, humanity would’ve still come out just fine.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy has quite a few problems, not the least of which is the sheer number of sub plots, many of which are either extraneous or just plain not as good, that clog it up. None of that changes what it is at its core, however, and that is one of the most explosive and wide screen science fiction stories ever conceived of. Hamilton’s creation is both majestic and impossible to put down. If you’re a fan of the genre, you need to pick this up without question.


Wert’s reviews of the trilogy (Reality Dysfunction, Neutronium Alchemist, Naked God) should give you a good grip of what the trilogies all about. Peter F. Hamilton’s website also has an extensive question and answer that’s extremely interesting, though also as spoiler filled as it’s possible to get.

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