I was sure I’d read *something* by Peter F. Hamilton previously, but a quick perusal hasn’t led to much elucidation as to which book it might have been. Regardless, I’m pretty sure it was in an epic space opera mode (possible with ancient mysterious alien artefacts to boot). Great North Road is science fiction, yes, but, sadly for me, not particularly operatic.
It’s two stories really, neither of which has too much to do with the other. The first is a fairly standard police procedural (albeit one set in the 22nd century) that begins with a quasi-unidentifiable body washing up on the banks of the Tyne. The police know that it’s a member of the powerful North family — interstellar technology magnates — but getting any more specific than that is going to be a challenge. You see, all Norths are clones, descended from one of three cloned children of the original old man North. Gifted and driven everyman cop (and Geordie) Sidney Hurst is put on the case. The progression of the investigation is the main focus of attention for the first half of the book, as Hurst and his underlings laboriously piece together the events of the night of the murder. It’s clearly an unbearably tedious process for the police (relying on exhaustive searches of the records from approximately infinite futuristic security cameras). Unfortunately, it isn’t that much more exciting for the reader.
The second can basically be summarised as “marines in a jungle” (you know: “Oh shit, man — they’re in the trees!”). The film Predator sprung to mind. Angela Tramelo, previously convicted for murder after coming up with a ludicrously unconvincing explanation of what actually happened (“A monster did it — honestly!”), is released after the murdered North (see above) is found to have been killed in a remarkably similar way to her supposed victim. She is now a consultant to the team of soldiers and scientists sent to an outpost planet where it is imagined this monstrous killer might be…
The two stories don’t mesh particularly well, and are so different in setting and tone that the book feels a little fractured. On top of that, neither kind of story is one that I’m really interested in. There are a few high-concept bits and pieces in there, though (and it is here that Hamilton’s writing shines, which, when describing more quotidian events verges on… the quotidian). My favourite element in the book is the Xanth, a crystalline alien entity that relentlessly consumes and transmogrifies, turning everything it encounters into more Xanth, defying, or adapting to, all attempts to defeat it. It transgresses our physics in ways that are reminiscent of antagonists from the works of Lovecraft or Miéville. Unfortunately, not much is done with the Xanth. We see some flashbacks where colony worlds are destroyed by it, and it provides motivation for the search for other intelligent life (who may be able to help humanity against the threat it poses).
Thematically, there’s a bit of environmentalism and a bit of technologically-enabled post-humanism. There’s a fair bit of anti-bureaucracy, and rather a lot of oligarchic liberalism. This world is certainly not one which would have been sketched out by Banks (speaking of which, I just saw Elysium — terrible film, but, my god, that Orbital looked beautiful). In this future, there are zones within cities that are so poor, so decrepit, that the government has relinquished all responsibility for them. Rather than portraying a bold anarchic (albeit highly idealistic) alternative to government (as Banks does with the Culture), Hamilton just describes its pathetic failure.
So there are some problems with the book. I can’t say I hated it. It was an easy read (though far longer than it needed to be), and ambled along in a fairly pot-boilerish way. Indeed, I really enjoyed the few glimpses we are afforded of things happening on a more epic scale, and have been assured that Hamilton’s (equally massive) trilogies lean more towards this side of things. I suspect I’ll get around to some of these in the future.