Peter Hamilton is one of those authors who always intimidated me through the sheer amount of published works combined with the staggering page count of each book: big volumes never scared me, far from it, but from the reviews I read I’ve learned that Hamilton’s Night Dawn trilogy, for example, represents quite a challenge, both in scope and in the quantity of characters and story-lines it contains.
So, when I saw he also published some shorter works, I decided to get my feet wet – so to speak – with something far less daunting before wading into the bigger ocean and this novella seemed like a good starting point. As far as careful approaches go, it was quite positive, and the best way to start on my journey with The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!).
Watching Trees Grow is an alternate history tale based on the premise that the Roman Empire never fell, extending its influence all over the known world. The action unfolds over a time period from 1832 to 2038, presenting some intriguing juxtaposition – like a turning dial, Bakelite telephone existing at the same time as battery-powered cars – together with quite fast technological progress that, by the end of the story, has brought mankind away from Earth in an expanding colonization effort throughout the galaxy.
The novella opens with the murder of a brilliant young student in Oxford: as a family representative, Edward Raleigh is called in to investigate the crime, but despite his best efforts he’s unable to find the perpetrator. This does not faze him, though, because the Empire has found a way to prolong its citizens’ lives and Edward knows time and scientific progress are on his side, so he keeps investigating the collected evidence through ever-improving means, with a relentless focus paired with the certainty he will ultimately succeed.
In the end the murder investigation is only the means through which Hamilton explores this alternate world, one where, for example, space exploration coexists with the Church’s heavy-handed influence on moral standards – there’s a running thread about the Borgias still ruling in Rome despite the general consensus about them having long overstayed their welcome. The result is interesting, even though in places the dialogues appear somewhat stilted: Edward Raleigh and the people he deals with still retain a kind of old-fashioned speech pattern that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Victorian era, and that I found at odds with the evolving times and technology; there’s also a certain amount on explanatory exposition that looks back to the era in which the story begins, and tends to slow the narrative flow a little.
Despite these small ‘hiccups’ the novella remains appealing and it encouraged me to try something more from Peter Hamilton, especially other short stories I’ve found that should work as introduction to the universe where the author spent most of his time and craft. So far, what I’ve encountered looks more than promising, and I’ll be back shortly with updates on my progress…