Peter F. Hamilton is a steak dinner, with sides, and a big helping of desert. He probably comes with an after dinner espresso too. He makes you feel like a bloated carcass when you push away from the table and stumble out of the restaurant, your top button straining to stay in place. He makes you feel like an elbow to the gut will result in the carnage of the last two hours of debauchery emptying into the gutter. He doesn’t just give you a story and move on, he gives you all the stories and then a few more. He’s delicious.
This sounds like a precursor to an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s actually an entry point in discussing his most recent novel, The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which aspires to be just as addictively bloating as his previous work. Unfortunately, it’s more like a tapas experience full of disparate tastes that won’t quite leave you satisfied.
Because this is a Commonwealth Novel, Nigel Sheldon, the co-inventor of the wormhole and co-founder of the Commonwealth itself, is back for another go. The year is 3326, over a thousand years since Nigel was born. For those well versed in Commonwealth lore, the Void is expanding and the Raiel, our aloof and quasi-all-powerful alien buds, are getting concerned. For those not well versed, well, ignore this part. It’s not that big of a deal. Suffice to say the void is a thing of nothingness that consumes everything it touches, like a black hole, but not understood.
Meanwhile, a religious figure starts espousing divine dreams from within the Void, in which a man with near-magical mental powers ascends to heaven. Determined to stop the Void and rescue the humans trapped inside, Nigel jumps on his white horse and plunges in to save the day. Except that’s not really the meat of the story. The tender filet mignon of The Abyss Beyond Dreams sits on the world of Bienvenido, where trapped humans are afflicted by a colonizing alien species of biological mimics—the Fallers.
Residents of Bienvenido, Slvasta and Kysandra, take Nigel’s place as co-protagonists. Slvasta is a military man with an obsession for eradicating Fallers. Kysandra is a farm girl on the fringe of society scared to death of them. Right on the cusp of a technological revolution, Bienvenido finds itself also on the cusp of an actual revolution as the corrupt government begins to ignore the Faller threat in favor of oligarchical expediency. What follows is less a story of high concept science fiction and more a struggle for independence in a fantasy world, with telepathy and telekinesis replacing spells and incantations.
Reminding me a bit of Mistborn in the way the revolution accomplishes its goals, Hamilton assembles a team of malcontents to take on the dreaded Captaincy (since the original settlers of Bienvenido was a crashed Commonwealth colony ship the leader of the planet is a Captain, fun right?). These are the most entertaining bits of the novel with a fair bit of authentic politicking, something most novels of politics gloss over in favor of the outcomes.
Where all of this is going on in the middle of the book, the beginning is more traditional Commonwealth. You’ve got a space ship, some scientists, and some dramatic space walking. The juxtaposition of these two narratives makes for a frustrating experience. How would they connect? Would it be satisfying? In the end, not really. While Hamilton explains everything sufficiently he does it in a convoluted way. Rather than churning the ice cream so to speak, he chooses to use liquid nitrogen instead, which is a hell of a lot quicker and a whole lot more difficult to pull off.
It also bears mentioning that his solution to bring the story lines together requires a revelation that robs all agency from the revolution and its instigators. Such a solution renders the time the time spent reading about all that moot. At the end of the day, the planned duology is once again Nigel’s story, not Slvasta’s, Kysandra’s, or anything elses’.
Is The Abyss Beyond Dreams a science fiction novel? Sure it is. Hamilton does manage to cram all the disparate ingredients into the casserole. But it’s not really a cohesive dish. It’s a bit all over the place. It feels a lot more like a novel within a novel, where Hamilton figured out a way to contrive to tell them both. Did Hamilton, wanting to write something that isn’t his normal shtick, feel compelled to shoehorn his Commonwealth Universe into a steampunk narrative in the name of fan service?
I can only speculate. But, the result is something that plays to a sales team hungry for the repeat audience buying anything labeled as “Commonwealth.” For me, that’s an insufficient recipe for success. There are set pieces that will set the taste buds tingling, and stories within the larger narrative that rise like the perfect soufflé. The Abyss Beyond Dreams doesn’t declaim the downslide of Hamilton’s career. Rather it is a novel that feels almost bored with its author’s reputation.
Peter Hamilton is one of the finest chefs of the galaxy spanning space opera. Where once I was Eric Cartman offering to eat one more bite of chocolaty Peter F. Hamilton goodness, now I am wondering if he might have something else in his kitchen. So, please, give me that steampunk fantasy. I really enjoyed the half of one in The Abyss Beyond Dreams. But, feel free to leave the shoehorn at home this time.