Reviews

Review: THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION, by Peter Hamilton

NIGHT’S DAWN TRILOGY – Book #1

 

45245If the words “space opera” make you think of grandiose scenarios, huge casts of characters and sweeping stories encompassing vast distances, Peter Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy certainly fits the bill.

I’ve postponed this kind of reading adventure for quite some time, partly because of the large amount of time necessary to deal with these books, which hover around or beyond the one-thousand pages mark each, and partly because I was afraid to lose myself in such a sprawling narrative: the list of characters is quite impressive and I know I tend to flounder when a story’s cast becomes unmanageable.

Well, I’m happy to report that my worries were unfounded: Hamilton sketches his universe, and the peoples who move in it, with such effortless ease that I felt immediately at home and never lost my way, the switches between the various characters and locations transforming my reading experience into a fast-paced exploration, one that was totally absorbing and whose speed increased exponentially as the events unfolded.

The background alone is nothing short of fascinating: by the 27th century humanity has spread across the universe, colonizing planets and creating several forms of government – all loosely grouped under the Galactic Confederation – even though the children of Earth are split into two larger gatherings, according to their philosophy.  The Adamists can be considered the most traditional ones: even though they can alter and control their physiology through genetic engineering and are able to interact with machinery through cybernetic implants, they remain tied to a more basic (for want of a better word) type of human being, unlike the Edenists. The latter have learned to interact with each other through affinity, a genetic modification affording them a kind of telepathic link and group consciousness that, while still maintaining individuality, fuses the Edenists into a more cohesive and psychologically balanced whole. Affinity also enables them to communicate with their artificial habitats and starships, built out of biological technology (or bitek) and graced with human-like sentience, or to store their consciousness in the habitat’s memory cells after death, achieving a sort of immortality.

Mankind is not alone in the universe, sharing colonized space with extra-terrestrial races like the Kiint and the Tyrathca, and despite the differences in philosophy and culture has managed to build a stable, reasonably balanced civilization, even though on closer examination it’s quite far from an idyllic golden age. For example, Earth is a constellation of arcologies, city enclaves shielded from the ravages of a crazy climate but not from crime or corruption or the despair of an overcrowded life deprived of endless horizons or clean air. That’s the reason many choose to leave their home world to try and build a new life on an extra-terrestrial colony; and it’s also the reason for the great numbers of Ivets – involuntary transportees –  traveling with them: they are the criminals and generally unwanted ones that Earth sends to the colonies as indentured labor.

It’s indeed on one of those colonies, the semi-primitive, tropical world named Lalonde that the drama at the center of this novel starts to unfold: other locations are just as intriguing – the Tranquility habitat, built near the Ruin Ring, an exo-archeologist dream come true, where the debris of an alien civilization wait for someone to discover the reason for the sudden, destructive demise of a whole race; or the planet Norfolk, where a society styled after 19th century England has found a lucrative way to exploit its natural resources while maintaining a bucolic way of life, and many others.  But it’s safe to say that everything begins on Lalonde, where pristine nature offers the newly-arrived colonists a chance for a fresh start, the tropical jungles teem with wild, exotic creatures and the wide rivers are traveled by steamboats not unlike the wheel-powered crafts navigating the Mississippi.  What happens on Lalonde, threatening to engulf the whole Confederation in a wave of horror, is similar to demonic possession: it first manifests with a group of rebellious Ivets, led by the charismatic psychopath Quinn Dexter, and from them it spreads like wildfire across the nearest settlements and the whole planet. The possessing entities (whose identity is both a surprise and an intriguing narrative choice) hunger after the physical bodies they manage to occupy by subjecting the victims to the most terrible torments, thus forcing them to relinquish the ownership of their own bodies, where they remain trapped as horrified spectators of the deeds performed by the invaders.  Once the new “tenants” have taken control, the bodies display uncanny self-healing skills, the talent of projecting complex illusions and the ability to generate powerful energies they can use as very effective weapons. And they seem unstoppable…

What’s most fascinating about this book is the slow way in which events advance at first, following different and apparently unconnected threads that step by step coalesce into an amazing whole: with hindsight I understand that Hamilton was building his background by increments, not so much indulging in the description of the various locations, but rather walking the characters through them and observing their progress.  Despite the massive amount of information that the book delivers, I never had the sensation of being subjected to info-dump, even when the author stopped the narrative flow to convey some back-story about a given person or place. Through it all I had the definite sensation of something about to happen, of some danger lurking in the shadows – not unlike those movie cues given by tense string music – and that is what kept me focused and interested even when the story seemed to stray on a tangent. It was the kind of strategy that paid off handsomely in the end because by now I’m not only invested in the story and all its complexities, but I need to know how it will pan out.

Last but not least, a word about the characters: as I said the cast is quite crowded, but each major player is given enough depth and definition as to be instantly recognizable and memorable enough to be remembered once the focus turns back again to a given individual after a point of view shift. What’s most endearing about them is that they are far from perfect, each one of them exhibiting some flaw that makes them delightfully human despite the enormous changes wrought by six centuries of physical and psychological evolution. Many of them have a sort of careless naiveté about them that experience might manage to slough off layer by layer: the clearest case in point is represented by Joshua Calvert, young adventurer with the goal of being an independent space captain, who goes through women with a sort of reckless, unthinking abandon that did nothing to endear him to me. And yet there’s hope for him to come into responsible maturity, as he faces the possibility of the annihilation of the civilization he knows, and witnesses firsthand the horrors of the Lalonde possession.  Another intriguing figure comes with Father Horst Elwes, a disillusioned priest attached to a new wave of Lalonde settlers, who finds a second lease on life through the tragedy and the huge responsibilities falling on him in the aftermath.  Individuals are not the only ones who stand out, though: Hamilton displays a remarkable skill in drawing group dynamics as well, be they the colonists as they go through the various stages of their adventure – first hopeful and excited, then overwhelmed by the hardships of building a colony, and finally terrified by the unknown menace – or the marines’ squads that land on the planet attempting to stop the fearful wave of sequestrations.

Now that I’ve finally taken the first step into this rich, complex universe, I definitely look forward to knowing more about Peter Hamilton’s work. And as a recommendation to all those who, like me, were suffering from “author intimidation”, let me say… jump in, the water’s perfect!  🙂

My Rating:


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Reviews

Top Five Wednesday: WORST LOVE INTERESTS

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

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This week the topic is:  Worst Love Interests (male or female):

I think that the topic might include both badly written romantic relationships and the well-written ones that end badly, because sometimes love can hurt, so I will explore both sides of the equation.

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Battlestar Galactica (tv series)

I know this might attract the ire of many BSG fans, but I never felt that the attraction/love/whatever between Apollo and Starbuck was something I could believe in.  It could have been a problem of actors’ chemistry (or lack thereof), it might have been the result of my lack of empathy with both characters, but the result was the same: I could not see them as a couple and I actually felt that anything connected to their relationship was a waste of screen time.  Moreover, there seemed to be a destructive quality to the attachment between them so I guess they fill both of the parameters of this meme.

Demon Cycle – Peter Brett

Renna and Arlen: these two seem to have been thrown into a relationship just… because. In my opinion there is no real attraction between them, and the only thing they have in common is their monster-slaying activity. I could never perceive some real feelings connecting them to each other, and the fact that they end every conversation with a mutual declaration of love (one that becomes stale quite soon…) seems more like a need to convince each other and the readers more than a real expression of feelings.

The Wheel of Time – Robert Jordan

I could not go very far with this series, having stopped around the third or fourth book out of sheer frustration from what I perceived was a meandering story with no goal in sight, and the romantic relationships I encountered up to that point were equally disappointing and given more to contrived sentimental skirmishes rather than true feelings.  I might be wrong here, because it’s been some time since I read those books, but this is the lasting impression I can recollect.

A Song of Ice and Fire – GRR Martin

Martin offers us a great number of interpersonal relationships, all affecting the involved parties in many ways – sometimes harmful or lethal. The one concerning Tyrion and Shae is the most painful to observe because you perceive the Imp’s deep need for love, for someone who would care for him despite his appearance, and though he harbors no doubts about Shae’s motivations for staying with him, there is that unspoken and un-acknowledged hope that she might surprise him in the end. Which makes her ultimate betrayal all the more dreadful.

Gentlemen Bastards series – Scott Lynch

We learn, early on in the series, that Locke Lamora pines for Sabetha, who once was part of their group of thieves and swindlers, and that everyone – especially friend and almost-brother Jean Tannen – advises him to put those feelings behind him, and move on. The reasons are revealed when Sabetha finally materializes on the scene: she is a very independent person, one who actively refuses to be fitted into any mold, or to be constrained by anything, even a lover’s attentions. Meeting her again is bad for Locke, and dulls his con-artist abilities, with catastrophic results.

Reviews

Tv Review: CHILDHOOD’S END

When the production for this mini-series was announced I was very intrigued: even though I never read the book it’s taken from, I felt certain that anything deriving from Arthur Clarke’s work was bound to be amazing. Unfortunately the end result felt somewhat disappointing, even though I’m delighted by SyFy’s continuing drive to offer quality products to its audience: the reservations I’m going to list are simply a matter of personal preference.

There will be some spoilers in this review, since I can’t address my main items of contention without mentioning plot points, so read on at your own peril…

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After a very disheartening prologue, in which we are shown a man, Milo Rodrick, moving through a devastated landscape, and saying he’s the last man on Earth, we switch to a time a few decades earlier: suddenly, massive ships appear over the skies of Earth and a voice speaks through every communication channel, urging humanity not to be afraid. The alien visitors, promptly named “Overlords”, claim to be there to offer a better quality of life: clean energy, cures for any known diseases, the end of famine and poverty, and so on – in exchange they ask that the people of Earth unite in a peaceful whole, renouncing conflict and any destructive technology. The speaker calls himself Karellen and says he’s the Supervisor for Earth, but he’s unwilling to show himself yet, since people would not be ready for this kind of revelation, yet.

Together with the positive, hopeful general reaction, the announcement also engenders a wave of suspicion and distrust, and with good reason: from the proverbial Greeks bearing gifts onwards, history and fiction have shown repeatedly that no one ever offers plentiful goods without asking for something costly in return. This kind of concern appears quite justified as the leaders of the anti-Overlords movement quickly find themselves marginalized and then wiped out almost overnight, and when – at the end of the first episode – Karellen finally shows himself, looking like every iconic image of the devil we are familiar with, it’s clear that something nasty is indeed going on.

Despite these intriguing premises, I found it difficult to get deeply invested in the story: the pace is quite slow and the characters appear more like useful talking heads rather than fully-fledged figures – with the notable exception of Karellen, played by Charles Dance. His portrayal of the alien Supervisor, and the ambiguous threshold he stands on between benevolent gift-bearer and inscrutable mystery is carried off perfectly to the very end, and it’s the chief reason I was willing to hold on for the whole run of the mini-series.

The other main characters are Missouri farmer Ricky Stormgren, chosen by Karellen to be his spokesperson; Perretta, a woman desperately trying to keep a hold on her faith while most of the world tends to forget it; and Milo Rodrick, a deeply curious scientist and the man speaking of humanity’s end in the prologue.  All of them move under the same heavy pall of hopelessness hanging, more or less subtly, over the whole narrative – and in Ricky’s case that’s compounded by the way events make him into a sort of sacrificial lamb and chosen victim: since the story develops through their individual points of view, and we know beforehand that humanity is indeed doomed, I could not develop any attachment to any of them, because I was robbed of any chance of it by Milo’s own words in the beginning, a choice I found somewhat questionable, since it takes away the thrill of discovery from the viewers and dictates the whole narrative structure from the start.

As we observe the Earth entering a veritable Golden Age, where people are freed from strife, violence and illness, the doubts about the Overlords’ true intentions keep mounting until the momentous revelation: Earth is at the end of its life cycle, and the aliens’ task is to facilitate the transcendence of its children, but only them, into a sort of group consciousness. The decades of peace that humanity just enjoyed are a sort of parting gift, a last compassionate act toward a doomed species: Milo learns this after stowing away on Karellen’s ship, from which he’s returned to his dying home world – indeed the last man on Earth – to give the Supervisor an account of the end, and an impassioned plea not to forget Mankind.  It’s a surprising development, considering that the clues seemed to point toward something more sinister and that literature and movies caused us to mostly expect the worst from alien visitors: still, I would have preferred to learn about it along the way instead of being subjected to the massive spoiler represented by the prologue. In my opinion, the revelation’s impact would have been greater.

Apart from that (as I already said, it’s a matter of personal preference), my other major issue with the story comes from the concept that a life devoid of hardships and trouble would kill creative drive and the need for religion.  In the latter case one might find the foundation for this development in the existence of the aliens themselves: the appearance of these seemingly all-powerful creatures could certainly cause a massive crisis of faith even in the staunchest believers – the theme is not explored enough, however, so the question remains open.  On the other hand, the often-lamented creative stagnation is not so easily justifiable: scientific research seems to suffer, mostly because of the restrictions imposed by the Overlords, and this is indeed plausible, while the failure of the arts is not.  At some point, a character says that the lack of strife is equivalent to a death knell for artistic endeavors, and this does not ring quite true: in my opinion, removing obstacles like illness and hunger, for example, should free the creative impulses, not stifle them.

These controversial topics, despite not being fully explored, are the most interesting aspect of the mini-series, and I’d like to know whether they are present in the original work as well: sadly, the overall sadness and slowness of the screen version does not encourage me to go that way – not yet at least.

My Rating:


Reviews

Top Five Wednesday: Best Suggested Books

I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week the topic is: Best Suggested Books You Loved (books recommended to you):

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A friend whose tastes I trust implicitly mentioned reading this book, and since I loved Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale I decided to try it. The fact that it depicted a post-apocalyptic scenario was an added bonus, since I’m somewhat addicted to that trope: what I found in Oryx and Crake was much more than I expected, a tale both terrifying and sad about the end of the human race as we know it.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

A few years ago, a friend who was involved with a small publishing house asked me to read this book with the prospect of acquiring the rights for translation and publication: knowing my love of the genre, she wanted my opinion about it. I was instantly captivated both by the story of old people who are given a second chance in life by signing up with an off-world military organization, and by the author’s writing and voice. Since then I’ve become a staunch Scalzi fan, and every title he publishes goes directly on my “buy immediately” list.

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds

I can’t recall where the recommendation for this book came from, except for the fact that someone urged me to try this author: nonetheless, whoever you are – thank you!  This story about a nanotech virus who has reduced an advanced city into a jungle of decaying buildings, where technology can be a danger, is fascinating on its own, but if you add the main character’s quest for revenge, you get a gripping tale that makes this author one of your favorites.

DreamSongs by GRR Martin

Much as I admire Martin’s writing, I had not thought about reading this collection of stories spanning his long writing career, because at the time I preferred to “sink my teeth” into full-fledged novels.  But I heard a few of this stories narrated with the special voice of actress Claudia Black, and I loved them for their depth and intensity, so I decided to read them all: as recommendations go, this was a rather indirect one, but I’m glad of it all the same!

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

I saw this book mentioned on a forum I was following and the title caught my attention: in the SF show Farscape there is a very special kind of ship – a bio-mechanoid creature labeled as a Leviathan, and my love of the show brought me to try out this book. Little did I know at the time that I would be fascinated by this new, fresh approach to space opera and that I would become a faithful fan of this series, that is now being translated on the screen with amazing success.

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Reviews

Review: EXPANSE NOVELLAS by James S.A. Corey

While I was waiting for the arrival of The Expanse on tv, I decided to finally read some of the short stories written by James S.A. Corey (i.e. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) about this universe: for some reason I never got around to reading them, so that now seemed indeed the best time to start.

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THE BUTCHER OF ANDERSON STATION

The character of Fred Johnson, head of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) always intrigued me: it would seem almost impossible for an Earth-born to reach such levels of power in Belter society, where outsiders are looked at with mistrust (and that in a best-case scenario), even more so considering the shadow cast on him by his past as an Earth soldier – and therefore the enemy, from a Belter point of view, the one who has been dubbed “Butcher” for his past deeds.

Much is explained in this story about how he gained that name, and we also get a glimpse of the beginning of Johnson’s “second life”: as the narrative opens, he’s in a Belter bar, standing out very much like the proverbial sore thumb in such a hostile environment and not, as one would expect, trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible, but rather looking for trouble.  A series of flash-backs takes us to an operation on the titular Anderson Station, a supply base in the Belt that had been taken over by rebels: Johnson and his marines manage to retake the station but something does not add up and some evidence seems to indicate that the action was less of a military operation and more of an exemplary warning to all Belters.

This is indeed the most interesting part of the tale, the one that shows in no uncertain terms the history of the bitter hostility between the inner planets and their far-reaching colony: a video message from one of the rebels gives Johnson a new viewpoint on the situation, one that points to the ruthless exploitation of the Belt colonists, whose meager quotas of air, food and water are constantly reduced in the name of profit, a goal to be reached without thought for the suffering of one’s fellow humans. The reason for the revolt he was called in to quell came from a three percent increase on supply charges applied to already overburdened colonists, whose protests were dismissed with a careless exhortation about “working harder”, not unlike the alleged Marie Antoinette reply about eating croissants…  As the recorded message from the now-dead Belter says:

“… what if you’re already running at the bare minimum? How about every year, you just don’t breathe for three days? That would about cover it. Or you don’t drink any water for three days. Or you don’t eat for three days when you’re already on the brink of starvation. When there’s nothing left to cut back on, how do you make it up then?”

This is a short but very intense story that literally begs to be read and gives you a deeper insight in many of the facets of this fascinating universe. To say more would mean to spoil its effect, or the emotional impact that it carries.  Highly recommended.

THE CHURN

After reading the latest book in the Expanse series, Nemesis Games, I gained a better perception of the characters of Alex Kamal and Amos Burton, who had until that moment seemed somewhat nebulous and even interchangeable: Amos’ figure was the one that gained a sharper focus after the last installment, so I was more than happy to discover that in this story the spotlight is on him and his past, something that has been shown only in tantalizing glimpses until now.

That past was spent on an Earth whose description reminds me of post-apocalyptic backgrounds: the city of Baltimore, and probably every other city on the planet, is divided between those who work for their wages, and possess a drive and energies for trying to create a better future for themselves, and those who live on basic – the government-funded welfare program that leaves them with a lot of free time on their hands, and here the maxim about the dangers stemming from idleness seems to apply most dramatically.  On this future Earth, if you don’t work you give up some rights, like the freedom of having children, which does not stop people from birthing “unlicensed” offspring, individuals who are not in the system and therefore must survive on the fringes of society, where criminality is the way of life.  Periodically, the authorities raid the warrens where these virtual ghosts live, and the aftermath of one such operation  – aptly termed “the churn” – can bring great changes both to individuals and to criminal organizations.

This is what happens to a younger Amos and – without delving into details that might spoil the effect of this well-crafted and involving story – what contributes to shape him into the person we will meet later as part of the Rocinante’s crew, a man who can decide to kill you or lend a helping hand with the same kind of detached equanimity that makes him so powerfully scary, the man who is described as possessing “an amiable smile, an unpleasant past, and a talent for cheerful violence”.  Despite that, he also comes across as an individual possessed of deep loyalty toward his crew-mates, and one who is also capable of offering second chances to old enemies, as he shows with Clarissa Mao in “Nemesis Games”: here, in this glimpse on his troubled past, we learn how he came to be the person he is, what shaped the future Amos and the reasons for his journey down memory lane in the last published book of the series.

The fascinating insights offered by this story and the equally intriguing twist at the end of it make this a must read for all Expanse aficionados: what I find most compelling here is the “special content” quality of the information provided, and the fact that the authors chose to provide it as an aside, without weighing the main story-line with too much detail. It’s a way of fleshing out this universe and at the same time keeping the interest in it alive that I find most satisfying.

THE VITAL ABYSS

This story does not focus on any of the known characters in the main work, and begins as a mystery: a group of people, we soon learn are scientist, is held prisoner in appalling conditions by what appears to be a group of Belters, and the initial description of their plight prompts compassion and a good measure of curiosity about the reasons for such inhuman treatment. Soon enough, though, through the “voice” of the first person narrator, Dr. Paolo Cortazar, we learn that this is the very group of scientist who first studied and then released the dreaded protomolecule on Eros station: this is the moment when all sympathy evaporates, leaving horror and contempt in its place.

Dr. Cortazar’s backstory, interspersed with the main narrative details, follows the same path: he grew up amid economic and social difficulties, and had to witness his mother’s slow death from Huntington’s disease, the very reason that prompted him to scrabble his way up the ladder through academic studies. Once he’s contacted by Protogen though, and participates in the experiments with the alien molecule, his total, chilling indifference toward his fellow beings comes to the fore, causing any empathy he might have engendered to vanish into thin air.  Cortazar is supremely self-centered, thinking only about his own advancement first and, once he becomes a prisoner, about his escape – no matter what or who gets trampled in the process.

What I found fascinating here is the fact that he’s a compelling character despite his total failure as a human being, a testament to the authors’ powerful storytelling and skill with words: in true “mad scientist” fashion, Cortazar not only is able to observe the protomolecule’s destructive potential with a dispassionate eye, he admires the alien construct for its complexity and ability to adapt and evolve – the fact it does so by literally cannibalizing everyone it finds in its path is for him just a part of its fascinating nature. Much worse, though, is his attitude toward his fellow prisoners and particularly the one who becomes his lover during the long imprisonment: once given the chance to be freed in exchange for information on the protomolecule, he accepts these terms and leaves everyone behind him, not for one moment wondering about their feelings or plight, because, in his own words “in the end I didn’t actually care”.

So very chilling…

Overall Rating:


Reviews

Review: THE AMBER ISLE, by Ashley Capes (Book of Never #1)

28241924Ashley Capes is a very versatile author: from the high fantasy of his “Masks” series, to the magic-tinged reality of “The Fairy Wren”; from the eerie ghost story of “A Whisper of Leaves” to the Outer Limits flavor of “Crossings”, I always look forward to his works, knowing I will find something different with each new foray into his different declinations of speculative fiction.  So, when he asked me if I would read the ARC of this latest endeavor, a tale from a work-in progress collection, I jumped at the chance to sample his return to a fantasy realm.

The main character is a man who goes by the name of Never (an intriguing choice at that…) cursed by peculiar blood magic, something he can control only to a certain point and that makes him an outcast and a hunted man – not only for this but also because he stole some precious maps to the Amber Isle, a far-away, weird place where he hopes to find the answers to the mystery of his origins and the source of his deadly powers.

As the story progresses, we understand that the world Never inhabits grew on the remnants of a once-powerful and more advanced civilization, the kind of theme I find deeply fascinating: the main attraction here comes from the tiny glimpses we are afforded of that long-gone civilization, and the way Never’s questions remain mostly unanswered, while many others are added to the mix, creating a fascinating background that simply begs to be explored.

In his perilous voyage toward the mythical Isle, Never teams up with some treasure hunters searching for the lost riches of the past, and together they face the dangers of the journey: hungry monsters attacking from the sea depths, unsteady rope bridges linking the chain of smaller islands that runs from the continent toward the fabled Amber Isle, weird amphibian humanoids that my mind kept picturing as very similar to the Monster of the Black Lagoon. And again, the traps left by the Isle’s original inhabitants in the temple that’s the hunters’ goal – or maybe not so much traps but long-lost technology that the group simply does not know how to deal with…  The increasing pace at which these events unfold makes for a quick, compelling reading, and one I recommend as a good sample of this author’s work for all those who have not yet read his books.

It goes without saying that following Never’s peregrinations will be an involving journey: certainly more comfortable for us readers than for the protagonist, but still filled with harrowing and suspenseful moments.

My Rating:


 

And since The Amber Isle will be published in March, you will have the opportunity to read it by winning one of the five e-copies that Ashley Capes offers for a giveaway hosted on his site. To participate go there and follow the link for the contest.  Remember this is only the first installment in the series, so more will come in the near future.   Good luck and… good reading!

Reviews

Review: A SECOND CHANCE AT EDEN, by Peter Hamilton

45257This second “taste” of Peter F. Hamilton’s short works was even more intriguing than the first, and since it introduces many of the elements of his massive novels – in particular the Night’s Dawn trilogy – it encouraged me even more to take the jump or, as some of my fellow bloggers defined it, to overcome author intimidation.

A Second Chance at Eden is a collection of short stories, but the one that truly fascinated me is the one from which the book draws its title: once more I encountered a murder mystery, as was the case with Watching Trees Grow, but it was completely different, starting with the background in which the investigation takes place.

Eden is a peculiar habitat created from  bitek – genetically engineered living matter with the ability to adapt to specific uses and to grow like any living creature, to the point it can develop sentience and can communicate with its human population through affinity, a bond that is created through the insertion of specialized material in any given subject, or genetically programmed in a fetus. Affinity allows a form of telepathic communication between humans and the habitat’s personality, and the control of servitors – specially bred monkeys devoted to al menial tasks.

At the start of the story, Earth is a place devastated by climate upheavals, where life is possible only in arcologies – city enclaves shielded from the fiery elements, where however crime is rife and the quality of everyday existence is poor. Harvey Parfitt is the new Chief of Eden’s police force: he arrives at the habitat with his estranged wife and two teenaged children, and is immediately confronted with the murder of one of the habitat’s founding scientists, a very unbelievable murder, since it was committed by one of the chimp servitors – something no one had though possible until that moment.

Through Parfitt’s search for the guilty party we learn about this “brave new world”, a fascinating place of wonders, a new frontier for humanity and – as the title suggests – the opportunity to do things right, and correct the mistakes of the past. No paradise is free from snakes, however, as the murder shows with merciless brutality, and human greed is always there to spread its taint: at some point someone says that there will always be need for enforcers, human nature being what it is.

What makes this story stand out, though, is the effect that such technological advances are going to have on humanity, and the division they create between opposing philosophies: such contrasting points of view are embodied in the Parfitt family, where the chief’s teenaged children take to the new way of life like fish to water, while their mother – a staunch believer in the Church’s edicts – rejects anything “unnatural” as affinity or even the new surroundings, with poor Harvey caught in the middle.  I liked how Hamilton presented all the sides of this new era at its very beginning, and the way he showed the different paths humanity would take from this point on: a brief search confirmed that I would find many of the elements presented here in his more complex work, and this made me quite eager to start this… adventure.

At the end of the day, the murder investigation takes second place and I found myself more interested in the social and technological changes engendered by the discoveries presented here, rather than finding out who was the real murderer, even though I must admit that I did not expect the final twist concerning one of the main characters, a choice that was both saddening and baffling.

After this intriguing experience, I was more than ready to tackle Hamilton’s more hefty novels: I will post a review for The Reality Dysfunction in a short while…

My Rating: