Review: THE REALITY DYSFUNCTION, by Peter Hamilton
NIGHT’S DAWN TRILOGY – Book #1
If 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! 🙂