Saturday, 14 May 2011

Thoroughly Voided

I finished Peter Hamilton’s The Evolutionary Void yesterday, and I figured a bit of reviewing was called for.  Spoilers follow, unsurprisingly.

The three biggest problems Hamilton’s Confederation Trilogy suffered from were; in no particular order, a damp squib of an ending, characters who were introduced far too long before they were in a position do anything interesting, and sex scenes so toe-curling that even Alan Titchmarsh would have deleted them before he reached the second paragraph.

As I noted after finishing the Commonwealth Duology, Hamilton had managed to curb the first and third of those issues (not so much the second one) on his second attempt (I’m bypassing his stabs at near-future fiction, for the eminently sensible reason that I never read them), but that even so Pandora’s Star (one of my favourite names for a book ever, by the way) and Judas Unchained worked rather less well than their Confederation cousins. There was too much of a sense of desperately trying to avoid repeating himself, which only led to a series of technological gadgets reminiscent of those employed by Joshua Calvert et al, only a little bit less believable or well-named. I mean, OCtattoos? There was also a slight whiff of attempted revisiting-without-repeating regarding the Prime alien, another awesomely powerful and (almost) totally unrelenting threat with a nasty habit of taking control of people (albeit in a very different way). I don’t want to criticise the Primes too much, because they were some distance from the Possessed in a lot of ways, and genuinely inventive to boot, but I still had high hopes that the Void Trilogy would provide something more than another vicious malicious [1] extra-dimensional/extra-terrestrial force hell-bent on destroying the universe as we know it.

Did we get that? Well, yes, in the main. One way in which Hamilton’s writing certainly has matured is in his dealing with politics. He touched on political manoeuvring all the way back when he was writing about the Confederation, and tried – not particularly successfully – to introduce more of it in his first books set in the Commonwealth. This time round, though, he seems to have gotten the hang of it. It’s not Dune, or anything, but for what this is – expansive, primary-coloured space opera, it serves well enough to give context to Hamilton’s apparent purpose here - to take a break from offering up malevolent external threats to humanity in favour of having ourselves fuck everyone else over for a change.

It’s telling that the two most troublesome alien races in this series are the Ocisen, who are noteworthy only because a Commonwealth faction are supplying them with aid, and the Raiel, who unquestionably are in the right almost every time they start gunning for humanity. This time the unquestioned technological and intellectual superiority of humanity is part of the problem, not the solution.

Indeed, the two key messages the third book imparts are as follows: absolute power corrupts absolutely (if not necessarily indefinitely), which we already knew, and absolute fulfilment arrests absolutely, which is a little newer. Not that much newer, of course, the idea that it’s adversity and the risk of disaster that motivates humanity (to say nothing of the rather unpleasant possibility that no human can be happy without being able to identify someone else who is demonstrably worse off than they are) has been around for a while. Hell, the idea that we have to face and solve our own problems has been a key theme of Hamilton’s work since the very beginning.

Even so, this is his best expression of it yet. It’s not exactly massively complex, for sure, but far more assured than the rushed and muddled ending to The Naked God (though in fairness, I was far less disappointed than the end of the Confederation Trilogy than most). Add in the genuinely impressive manner in which Edeard’s story is tied together with that of the Commonwealth characters is very nice (one quibble, though, if Makkathran’s architecture was so obviously similar to a major feature in the Greater Commonwealth’s sphere of influence, how come only Gore Burnelli made the link?)

I’m not sure this series will win over anyone who hated the Confederation Trilogy. It’s also fair to say that anyone who didn’t read the first two Commonwealth novels is going to find some of this a little baffling, if not in plot terms then certainly regarding why we should care about a lot of the characters. And yes, once again the story basically breaks down into a lot of time and energy spent searching for something much more powerful than humanity and asking them to bail us out. It’s not a change of tack for Hamilton, for sure. It’s simply the best example yet of him doing what he does.

[1] Sounds like the best ice-cream flavour ever.

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