Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton
Published by Pan MacMillan, September 2012 (Review copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
After the short-in-comparison Manhattan in Reverse collection of stories, here we have a standalone that is one of his longer works.
Set in 2142, the story begins as a future police procedural with the murder of a clone in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from one of ‘The North’ one of the most influential Families in a city seen as a central transgalactic network Hub (the fifth biggest city in Britain).
As the investigation develops, it becomes clear that the body is one in a similar state to one discovered on the trans-galactic world of St. Libra twenty years ago. On that occasion the convicted murderer was Angela Tramelo, who despite continuously protesting her innocence has been jailed for the crime.
Sidney (Sid) Hurst, leading the investigation in Newcastle, has to set up a new crime team in St Libra, playground planet of the rich, and see whether the two crimes are connected. For if Tramelo’s protests are true, the killer is an alien…
A couple of years ago now, Peter started talking about his ‘monster in the dark’ novel. This is it: a great, fat, doorstopping megabook, which at about 350 000 words, or 1100 pages, is longer than The Reality Dysfunction. Many will enjoy this immersion, though for me it could have been a bit tighter in the middle.
To deal with the crime issues, instead of Paula Myo, superspy, we have the slightly less active but still quite effective Sidney Hurst. Sid is basically the new Paula Myo, although whereas Paula was a kind of James Bond super-spy with a broad jurisdiction, Sid is more of a super-cop, a family-man following the same type of actions in a much smaller pool (even allowing for the large planet of St Libra.) I suspect his down to earth approach dealing with crime in a systematic fashion will make him quite popular and he’s about as solid a hero as we’re going to get here.
Angela Tramelo is a character who changes as we read: not a shrinking violet, there’s many different elements to her character that make her an interesting character to watch develop.
I was pleased that the book is a standalone, although there are many themes from Peter’s Commonwealth books than fans will recognise. There’s lots of big machinery around, with plenty of what I call ‘Thunderbirds’ type moments: huge (and perhaps improbable) pieces of technology that are there for display and explained in enormous detail. People are still able to lengthen their life-spans. Cloning is possible. Crime still happens. Old men still lust after young women (see Misspent Youth.) Aliens (and nasty ones at that) do exist (see the Commonwealth Saga /Pandora’s Star books). Clearly there are ideas here Peter likes, and his typical readers do too, and they are dealt with as well as we would expect.
However, whilst I felt that it was good to read about a world away from Ozzie and his compatriots, there are some missteps that didn’t work for me here.
Admission time. As much as I like PFH’s books, there are things I find that irritate. In the Commonwealth books, it was the Ozzie character and the use of his name as a sainted expletive. I never could understand his popularity, but kept going with the books, gritting my teeth through those parts.
This time around, the thing that irritates is the oft-used phrase ‘Crap on that!’ Dialogue such as this seems more 2012 than 2142 (In 2142 will ‘Whatever’ still be used as a phrase?) and I’m not convinced that it works. This, combined with the selective use of a Newcastle/faux-Geordie brogue, meant that I was often jolted out of my sense of disbelief.
Ah, and whilst I’m here, let’s deal with Newcastle. Centre of future inter-global commerce? Can’t see it as a global hub, myself. Whilst it can be seen in a way similar to, say, current day Aberdeen with its dependence on North Sea Oil production, I really can’t see it dominating world trade in the same way as London or New York, although there is that suggestion here. There’s too much inertia in the world’s centres now, too much already-present interconnectivity.
OK. Perhaps it’s just me and most readers can suspend their disbelief to get around my foibles.
My biggest issue with the book is that the book is too long. Now I know that Peter has a reputation for producing books that are measured by weight and volume, and many readers buy them because of this, but even allowing for this I found that there’s an awful lot here that we don’t need. There’s far too much time spent on showing the monotony and drudgery of police investigative work. Whilst I can accept that there is a lot of this in the job, and the use of technology such as smartdust (dust motes that create a virtual surveillance grid) make procedures different to now, I don’t think that we need to know all the details. The book does spend a lot of the first three-hundred pages or so doing this.
A couple of revelations didn’t really work for me, coincidences that were too coincidental. In the end, things are tied up together in a surprisingly positive manner which rather made me wonder why some of the events earlier in the book happened. The actual ending, especially on the St Libra side, is just too drawn out, to the point where its repetitiveness dulls the overall effect.
That’s quite a few negatives. So: despite these issues, why keep reading the book? Because once it gets going, at about the 450 page mark, it’s really good. I’ll go even further: despite my gripes above, some of the later parts in the book are, to my mind, some of the best Peter’s done. As the book changes viewpoints between events on St Libra and the police investigation in Newcastle there’s some fast-paced and riveting scenes in the last half of the book. These elements show that Peter can do it, and do it well, it’s just getting there that’s the issue.
In summary, Great North Road is quite fun but too long and with some questionable choices made along the way. In the end, despite the negative points I’ve made, it’s more of a success than not, though I suspect some readers will bail out before things get interesting. Though in my opinion Peter should be encouraged to go to different worlds and universes from that of the Commonwealth, some of those ideas that must have seemed great at the time of writing are less so here in the finished book.
Is it a good place to start reading Peter? Well, it shows many of his key themes as a standalone novel. For me, sadly, the issues mentioned above may put initiates off further reading. Whilst some will love the quirky touches that I didn’t like, and the immersive experience the book can provide, others will be intimidated.
Recommended, but with caution: you have to be prepared to get through a lot to get something from this in the end.
Mark Yon, August 2012