Review by Curtis Cole
As any dedicated reader of my reviews will have noted, I review a lot of… well, ‘crap’. True steam piles. I read a lot of texts which function little better than first drafts riddled with more spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors than a sixth grader’s Harry Potter fanfic. Naturally, it is nice to sojourn every once in a while to a warm, tropical island called ‘literary quality’. Thankfully, Peter F. Hamilton is my co-pilot on this vacation and he ensures that all goes as planned. (Thank Lenin!)
The text this time around is Great North Road.
Story wise we are dropped into a fairly reliable, albeit cliched, plot: that of a rich man’s murder and a renegade alien monster. To make a complicated plot simple, it is like this: a century from now, the economy is ruled by the uber-powerful North family; they are the life of this universe and live their days out accordingly (decadent, Roman-esque parties, anyone?)—but when one of them is murdered, and the killer proves elusive, they jail an innocent instead, a sex worker named Angela Tramelo. Twenty years later, the unthinkable happens once more—another North family member is slaughtered: the killer’s MO eerily similar to that of the previous slaying. Now, Angela’s rantings about an ‘alien monster,’ do not sound so absurd.
As one would imagine, this scandal—a North being murdered—forces a huge pressure onto the local police force who must now wrestle with the implications of the first North murder and the difficult circumstances of the new murder. Yes, dear reader, this is a detective novel with clear Noir influence. This is where the reader is introduced to Sidney Hurst, a dedicated investigator who proves himself as the consummate detective despite the overwhelming array of mysterious placed before him. In navigating the immense web of lies, history, and social drama which the murder has instigated is no small task, but Sid manages and his tale of unraveling the onion-esque layers is remarkable.
While this North’s murder is being investigated, the so-called ‘Human Defense Alliance,’ or the HAD, has launched a multi-billion dollar military expedition to a planet called St. Libra, which is connected to the monster’s history. If Angela Tramelo’s fantastical story is to be believed, after all, then the implications are clear—another intelligent alien life form is out there, and it is targeting the human elite. It must be stopped.
Human expansion has been rapid. Indeed, expansion into the stars had been one of the species-saving initiatives: why fight amongst yourselves when you can simply settle a planet and build whatever utopia/dystopia you can dream? But with expansion also came terror, the alien entity known as the Zanth, a massive swarm mind intent on devouring humanity. So the presence of another alien race, possibly hostile to humanity, is more than enough to mount an expedition to settle the matter once and for all.
Is the narrative more complex than this? Absolutely. But once you sort out all of the threads, it actually becomes quite manageable and actually simplified if you are keen in compartmentalizing narratological aspects. At the end, though, it is a murder mystery set within a richly realized universe by a master of the craft. Is it perfect? No, that would be absurd, but it is a satisfying take on a straightforward concept.
What are the positives? What are the negatives? Depends on your outlooks since the former could very well be the latter, depending on your view of how a narrative should proceed. But my own thoughts tend to categorize as such: character development (Positive): Hamilton writes believable heroes. They are allowed to develop. One will not find huge info dumps concerning every aspect of a character the first time you meet them. You are given new bits of information as the plot lurches forward and each character feels distinct; Environmental and exterior descriptions (Negative): on the former aspect, I can understand why the natural—living—environment was given such lush descriptions as it relates some to the twist. However, in general, and especially with simply the more generalized descriptions of cities and urban dwellings, Hamilton spends a bit too much time pontificating on snow’s effect on tires or the decay of roads and how that relates to the ‘Smart Dust’ effecting the case. Again, I can see how it had needed to be explained, but I also feel that it could have been smoldered down to the bare minimum instead of exposing itself to every chapter. I felt that this was one of the novel’s misses and that Hamilton was trying to write Hard Sci-fi in a Soft coating; Universe Building and Pace (Positive): this is a brick of a novel with two distinct stories intermingled among several subplots and flashbacks. It takes time to illuminate the actors of this tale and make them feel palpable. Amazingly enough, though, Hamilton succeeds in building both a universe and a narrative which compliments one another and the people who populate it. A mean feat to be sure! Now, the story does plod along. There were moments, if I am being honest, where I felt like skimming the pages (see previous talking point), but by and all I accepted these moments because I knew that it was all part of the buildup—this is a detective story, after all, and rushing to get to the end is the number one reason why many amateur writers end up tripping over themselves. Hamilton takes the slow approach and I feel that the story as a whole is better for it as it gives the characters the time that they need in order to grow; the Ending (Mixed): considering everything that happened in the story, the ending was well managed. But I insert ‘mixed’ because there remained aspects which went unresolved, whereas the means of resolution, though admirable in a philosophical sense, did seem a bit contrived, though I fully understood why Hamilton chose to conclude on the note he selected.
It was refreshing to read Great North Road. Personally, I thought that the highlight was the character of Angela Tramelo. In a genre where female heroes are either hit or miss, Angela is a solid hit. She has real development, an interesting history to back it up too. Her entire arc is brilliantly executed and I can honestly say that she ranks among the most fascinating creations that I have had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. Done properly, I could easily read a well-executed tome devoted wholly to Angela… considering the ending, however, that is unlikely as well as unnecessary as this novel has told us all there is that makes her a fascinating study; is there room for additional exploration? Of course, but whether that exploration would be as intriguing as what we have here is another matter entirely.
Hamilton’s project here is ultimately one concerned with philosophy, on musing on the big questions of human life. Its ultimate meaning—of peaceful co-existence with other sentient life—is not afraid to shy away from the depictions sorely needed in contemporary science fiction; the dysfunction of the Haute-bourgeois lifestyle, the rights of the environment and validity of non-human sentience, and the defeat of expansionism disguised as peaceful settlement are all explored in a bewildering complexity. Deconstructionist miners, in other words, will find much to probe. In other words, Hamilton envisions science fiction as it was meant to be—intellectual, demanding, but also thought-provoking. He does not always hit his marks, but those he does are wonderfully executed.
Great North Road
Peter F. Hamilton
976 pages. Published by Del Rey. $30.00 (Hardcover), $3.29 (Paperback), $7.99 (Kindle), $7.99 (Mass Market Paperback), $44.09 (Audible audiobook). 2013.