Dec 4 2012 6:00pm

Slow Motion Space Opera: Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton

A book review of Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton

I don't care what people say: size matters. Equally, however, it isn't everything. If it were, Great North Road would be Peter F. Hamilton's best book since The Naked God in 1999, but it's not. It's just his biggest, and bigger does not necessarily mean better. Indeed, engrossing as it is on the whole, this sprawling space opera/dreary police procedural would have been twice as strong if it had only been half as long—a problem that's apparent from the offing.

Great North Road begins with the brutal murder of a man from this meticulous milieu's most powerful family. It is the year 2143, and Earth's oil reserves have been barren for many decades. Now, Hamilton has it, the world turns on bioil, a resource largely harvested from algaepaddies on the planet St. Libra: a beautiful but inevitably deadly bushworld connected to the hearth of humanity by one of the North's patented trans-spacial gateways.

Many hundreds strong, the Norths are a colossal company of clones, clones of clones and so on, and St. Libra is essentially their territory, thus they have a monopoly on the resource around which the entire global economy revolves, and fingers, it follows, in practically every pie—including the police. So when detective Sidney Hurst discovers the gruesome remains of an unknown North, he foresees the sheer scale of the subsequent investigation.

But first, a little future history:

“Once upon a time - a hundred and thirty-one years ago to be precise - there were three brothers. They were triplets. Born to separate mothers. Perfect clones of their incredibly wealthy father, Kane North. He named them Augustine, Bartram, and Constantine.

”Although they were excellent replicas of their brother/father - who in turn had possessed all their family's notorious drive, worship of money, and intellectual ability that all Norths inherited - they had a flaw. [...] Any woman having a child by one of the brothers produced yet another copy of the original. This was the flaw in the new dynastic order: as with all forms of replication, copies of copies inevitably saw some deterioration. Errors began to creep into the DNA as it reproduced itself. 2Norths, as the next generation were called, were almost as good as their fathers - but there were subtle deficiencies now. 3Norths were of an even lower quality. 4Norths had both physiological and psychological abnormalities. 5Norths tended not to survive very long.

“But it was the 2Norths who made up the higher echelons of the company management. 2Norths who devotedly ran things for their brother-fathers. 2Norths who had cast-iron links into the very heart of Grande Europe's political and commercial edifice. 2Norths who ruled their fiefdom of Newcastle with benign totality. 2Norths who would want to know who killed one of their brothers, and why. They'd want to know that with some considerable urgency.”

And there's the rub already, because the first third of Great North Road is exactly as pedantic as our detective dreads. What follows is an unabashedly attentive account of the inquest Sid leads into this cold-blooded killing. Alas, he has no evidence to go on—excepting that unlikely lack—merely an array of competing theories, including astronomical politics, corporate conspiracy and, least plausible of all, alien intrusion. Typically, this last attracts the attention of the eagle-eyed media, particularly considering that another North was murdered in suspiciously similar circumstances on St. Libra some time ago, and the individual convicted of the original crime is still in prison.

To her credit, Angela Tramelo has always insisted on her innocence, and stuck by her strange story—that some extraterrestrial monster was responsible—so after all these years she's freed to help identify her serial-killing creature for the HDA, which is to say an autonomous, anti-alien army about to mount an exploratory expedition into the deepest, darkest reaches of St. Libra in search of said.

With that, Great North Road finally gets going, and moreover gets good. Here is where the complex plot comes into its own; where its characters can at least breathe, if only briefly. Peter F. Hamilton is Britain's most successful science fiction writer for a reason: when he's on form, his work is wonderful—accessible, inventive, evocative and boundlessly bold, as the synopsis above suggests. Sadly, getting to that stage tends to take Hamilton an age, and there's more meandering in this standalone tome than in anything he's published since the final volume of The Night's Dawn.

If you can handle a whole normal novel's worth of that, though, you're likely to love this. I did, in the end—and through most of the middle, additionally. But tedium creeps into the overlong outset nearly immediately. Sid’s painstaking investigation is at a standstill almost constantly, and even on those rare occasions it seems set to move, it goes in slow motion. Therefore the advent of Angela’s markedly more momentous narrative fully a third of the way through Great North Road will be too little, too late for some readers.

But say you’re able to bear the beginning’s glacial pace. In that case, there’s a gripping thriller buried in this book, all backstabbing and interplanetary espionage. And beyond that, behold a truly superb story of survival against abominable odds as Angela and her HDA escort are abandoned in a bizarre landscape where something sickeningly familiar shadows their every step, picking people off one by one. The hunters become the hunted in this desperately tense thread, during which Hamilton summons such suspense—and paces the creepy proceedings ideally—that it’s hard to reconcile this element of the entire with the rest.

Still further on from Great North Road’s first fumblings, the unraveling of the novel’s initial mystery proves immensely satisfying come the conclusion, meanwhile most of the themes and ideas Hamilton has been developing are paid off powerfully. Character arcs are also robustly resolved, and in the intervening period, that which is perhaps most remarkable about this author’s oft-protracted prose—namely the stunning sense of wonder he conjures cumulatively—is ever present, and never less than impressive. Take the sumptuous sights of St. Libra:

“The alien jungle stretched out to the horizon in all directions, lush glaucous vegetation clinging to every hill and ravine, plants that possessed a unique vitality, clogging tributaries until they swamped, forming cliff-like sides to the deeper, faster-flowing rivers. It was relentless and all-powerful. Giant, palm-like trees stabbed upwards, towering thirty to forty metres above the main canopy like green impaling spikes waiting for the Berlin flight to make one mistake. Vines festooned the gaps caused by steep gorges. Bubble-bushes, a pink-hued scrub that grew in clusters across any sodden area, thronged the folds creasing the mountainsides, where misty streams tricked downwards. Waterfalls spewed white from rock precipices, falling for an age into deep pools. Thick tattered braids of cloud meandered along valleys and round peaks. Away to the west, the land rose in a vast massif that created an even more rugged-looking plateau country beyond. Much of it as yet unnamed — who had the time?”

I’ll be honest: I didn’t love the length of Great North Road, specifically because of the monotony of its plodding first third, but in terms of its ambition, overall? In terms of its approachability, its worldbuilding, its ultimate impact? Simply brilliant.

An astonishing achievement given how belatedly Peter F. Hamilton's new book begins....

Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Tor.com, Strange Horizons and The Speculative Scotsman. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.

Claire de Trafford
1. Booksnhorses
I didn't find the police work quite as tedious as you Niall but I agree that it is slow going and that the book itself is not his best work. What I found interesting is the shift in PFHs characters and heroes from total love god/desses to a married with family guy and Angela, who acts tough but really is quite nice to her boyfriends.
Nicholas Winter
2. Nicholas Winter
I'd argue that Iain Banks with Culture series is far more successful than Peter Hamilton is with his series as Iain sells veru well in the US and GB: I'd also note that Neal Asher's Polity series with thirteen volumes is more successful than Hamilton has been.
Nicholas Winter
3. a1ay
Since it's Peter F Hamilton, I'm guessing that the bad guys are the filthy Socialists again?
Nicholas Winter
4. Nicholas Winter
Excellent guess.

One of the reasons I prefer Asher and Banks is that their politics is not a thinly disguised scree on present-day politics.
Nicholas Winter
5. Rasko
@ 4 Nicholas Winter

Which, given Asher's politics, is a considerable achievement.
Adam Whitehead
6. Werthead
I'd argue that Iain Banks with Culture series is far more successfulthan Peter Hamilton is with his series as Iain sells veru well in the US and GB: I'd also note that Neal Asher's Polity series with thirteenvolumes is more successful than Hamilton has been.
An old comment, but one worth responding to. Peter F. Hamilton is the UK's biggest-selling SF author, fact. He's sold at least 2 million novels and probably a lot more, primarily in the UK (though his US profile has risen a lot in the last few years as well). That puts him way ahead of Asher, whose sales are still in the mid-hundreds of thousands and Banks, whose sales are impressive but still somewhat behind Hamilton's.

In fact, after Hamilton the UK's biggest-selling SF authors are Alastair Reynolds and Dan Abnett (cue arguments about where WH40K is SF or fantasy). Banks is fourth, as I understand it. He's been around somewhat longer than the others - but only four years longer than Hamilton - but he's had a relatively low rate of production compared to them.
Nicholas Winter
7. John Hooper
I have got about a third of the way through GNR.

I thought I might read a few reviews - just to see what other people thought of it. I quite enjoy his books although I think he is a fairly poor writer. I guess he trades quantity for quality.

One review praised him for his attention to scientific detail. I can cope with the wormhole stuff, after all this is SF. I got a bit hacked off that all these humans are running around St Libra with carefree abandon.

He states that the planet is twice the diameter of Earth which would give it eight times the volume. Assuming it is basically rock and not some spacey bubble stuff the gravity of eight times the mass of Earth would crush or at least cripple the humans.

A bit sloppy.
Andrew Love
8. AndyLove
"He states that the planet is twice the diameter of Earth which would give it eight times the volume. Assuming it is basically rock and not some spacey bubble stuff the gravity of eight times the mass of Earth would crush or at least cripple the humans."
Though a planet with twice the diameter of Earth would have 8 times the mass, it would only have twice the surface gravity. If the density of the planet was the density of continential crust throughout (i.e. half the density of Earth), the surface gravity would be about the surface gravity of Earth.
Clay Blankenship
9. snoweel
Just read this--I found it fascinating. Some great far-future SF ideas with the cloning and the gates and some alien biology, but also very accessible. I have not read any Hamilton before, but I did not find it the least bit preachy. The society has a believable mix of big government (a future European Union) and large corporations. The police have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy for sure. If anything, there is a bit of an environmental message.

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