Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hamilton, Reality Dysfunction (1997)

Peter F Hamilton, The Reality Dysfunction. Pan Books, 1997. Pp. 1225. ISBN 0330340328. £8.99.

Reviewed by Bruce Stenning

I bought this book over a decade ago, and when I started to read it I got less than ten pages in before deciding not to carry on. I cannot remember quite what put me off, but something did. It sat unread on my bookshelf all these years, until eventually I decided to give it another chance.

At over 1200 printed pages, this is space opera at its most rambling: It is quite a chunk of text to read. The story meanders into the horror genre, at times, and then back out again. It tentatively touches on religion, politics, and the supernatural, but only in a very superficial way.

The gist of the story is that, by chance, a sentient energy-being happens to run into a human of extraordinary evil, and the conjunction mysteriously opens a rift to Hell. At which point the hero, along with the rest of humanity and the other alien races, rush to try to come to terms with, to outwit, and then to outgun the deranged army of lost souls who are stealing the bodies of the living and generally being an horrific nuisance. There is a strong reliance on Judeo-Christian belief through this main strand of the story, if you happen to like that sort of thing. I say "this main strand of the story" because, actually, the book is an intermingled mass of separate story lines. Some of them are for background, or mere excitement or atmosphere, but many seem to be entirely unrelated. I had a very strong sense that there are many elements that tie into the author's other works, as if Hamilton is trying to create a network of intertwined stories in his books. Certainly, there is no resolution to many of these strands, which I found frustrating. Perhaps they are dealt with in the later books in the trilogy, but they just left me wondering why they were included at all. I feel the cynic in me rising and whispering something about "sales," but I shall give the author the benefit of the doubt until I have more evidence.

The introduction of the characters is very static. By that I mean that most of the characters, major or minor, seem to be introduced by starting a new paragraph with the character's name. It is done so often that it actually got to the point of feeling absurd. There is also a fight scene in a bar which I had to read several times because of the comedy value. I don't think it was intended to be funny, but I found the slightly amusing character names and their repeated use hilarious. There is the occasional action scene which I found engaging, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

The characters are all stereotyped to the point of disbelief. The main character is the cocky young space captain, blessed with supernaturally good luck, forging a future after having managed to buy back his deceased father's crumbling old spaceship. I use the phrase "main character" somewhat tentatively, as for most of the first third of the book I wasn't entirely convinced that the author had decided who the main character would be. Anyway, he is the hero who can get nothing wrong (it is put forward as an explanation of his good luck that he is unwittingly psychic) and who is constantly having to give in to the charms of a string of women, be they buxom, athletic, virginal, genius, political, energetic, whatever... To be fair, there are strong female characters in the book, but there is also an awful lot of throbbing, panting, and rolling around in: hay; zero gravity; strange, slippery, organic structures; and so on. It's not all biological, though. There are great swathes of military-hardware pornography stuffed into this book for good measure. I can't help thinking that it is some kind of adolescent male's wet-dream brought to prose.

This story does contain some interesting ideas, including bio-engineered sentient space ships and genetically engineered telepathy, which are used (heavily) throughout the book. I kept thinking that the story might just develop into an interesting read (after all, there was enough room—both in terms of scope and page —for it to move) but it never did. It felt very strongly to me that the last 50 pages were written in a desperate attempt to just finish the damn thing off.

In terms of morality, everything's pretty much black-and-white. There are just one or two moments when there might be a hint of exploration into grey areas, but things quickly snap back into place, usually accompanied by the sound of gunfire and explosives. The "good guys" just continue to use bigger weapons until they start beating the evil "bad guys" back. The tale seems to be that you are not going to go to hell; some insanely evil person is going to inadvertently open the gates, and hell will come looking for you. And you had better be fabulously wealthy, an incredible genius, command obscene power, be supernaturally lucky, and of course be exceptionally talented in the bedroom, otherwise you should expect to have your body, mind, and soul abused in the most horrific ways imaginable. But it does not feel as if Hamilton is attempting to glorify, to chastise, or to make some comment on our societal values or on moralising itself. Everything here feels too shallow for that, and it would surely be difficult to comprehend any such message in such a morass of story elements (unless the writing was substantially more directed that it is.)

There really is not a lot here to challenge the reader, other than the word count. This is one book that could have used some heavy (or even heavy handed) editorial input. Perhaps there was, and the author just chose to ignore most of it. I have heard, or read, a number of people gushing about Hamilton's science fiction, but this book seems to me no more than a work of pulp fiction. If you like to go on holiday, sit in the sun, read for the sake of reading, and not really be challenged to think a great deal, then this might be right up your street. I have not read anything else by Peter F. Hamilton, and after this book I am sorely tempted to keep the rest of them safely towards the back of the queue. As mentioned previously, The Reality Dysfunction is book one of a trilogy. Ramble on...

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