SciFi Month 2016 Review: MINDSTAR RISING, by Peter Hamilton (Greg Mandel #1)
After greatly enjoying Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the first volume of his Night’s Dawn trilogy, I wanted to read more about this author, but without committing to one of his more “monstrous” novels yet, and I settled for Mindstar Rising, again a first volume in a trilogy and, from what I understand, Hamilton’s first published novel.
The setting of this story is very interesting: midway through the 21st century England underwent a great deal of changes: global warming flooded many of the coastal areas, forcing massive migrations with consequent overcrowding, and climate became more like that of Mediterranean lands. Politically, the country is emerging from a ten-year long rule by an extreme-left coalition, and swinging in the opposite direction, with mega corporations slowly but surely taking control.
One such corporation, Event Horizon, just discovered a conspiracy to undermine one of their key products and calls in Greg Mandel, the main character, to uncover all the ramifications of the plot. Greg is ex military, part of the elite Mindstar Brigade, whose member were subjected to physical augmentations that enabled them to gain psychic powers: Greg, for example, possesses a high level of psi abilities and can sense when people are lying, and even catch the drift of their thoughts, even though he’s unable to actually read them. When the now-deposed dictatorship took power, Greg and his comrades were left to their own devices and now he’s hiring himself as a private investigator and sometimes strong-arm (or outright assassin).
As Greg’s investigation for Event Horizon goes on, we discover more about the deeply changed world in which he lives, and this world makes for a fascinating background to the escalating threat against his clients, whose ramifications extend in many unexpected directions, as the story unfolds with a good, sustained pace that held my attention from start to finish.
Greg Mandel’s character is presented in an intriguing way: as a disillusioned ex-soldier who was abandoned to fend for himself, he does not fall prey to the usual problems one might expect in these cases, like substance abuse or inability to relate to the rest of society, on the contrary he has found himself a quiet niche where he can exploit the abilities he’s been gifted with, while maintaining something of a low profile. He enjoys an extensive net of contacts in every stratum of the community, especially in the diverse and bizarre underworld that developed after the fall of the previous regime, and has learned how to make the best of what he is. All things considered, he looks like an ok guy, one that’s reliable and can command the respect of those he comes across in his line of work, but… Yes, there is a “but”.
All through the novel I could not shake the feeling that under that “nice guy” veneer there was an exploitative streak that did not go hand in hand with the fairer surface appearance. For starters, being as near a telepath as he is gives him an unfair advantage: if that can be an asset in the line of work, it’s also a dishonest leverage in day-to-day dealings with other people. That’s quite evident in his encounter with Eleanor, a girl who just escaped from a sort of cult group: the mental “nudges” Mandel employs with her can be considered cheating at best, and far worse under a closer scrutiny: in my opinion little does it matter that in the end he starts a serious relationship with Eleanor and seems to care deeply for her – the fact that he resorted to a form of “mind rape” in the beginning is no excuse.
Mandel’s less-palatable personality traits come to the fore again when, in the course of the investigation, he asks for the help of a former Mindstar comrade, Gabriel: a true prescient, she can predict the future developments of any situation, the immediate future of any person she comes into contact with. Such a gift means of course a great deal of strain, and for this reason Gabriel has chosen to keep to herself as much as possible: only leaning heavily on the ties from their shared past can Mandel convince her to come out of her self-imposed isolation and lend him a hand. I enjoyed very much Gabriel as a character, her snarky wit, her tired disillusionment, and her way of looking at her companions as somewhat unruly children: unlike the other female characters in the book she does not need her looks to project an air of competence, or to stand out – and here comes another of the details that made me sit up and do a double take. Because strong-willed, smart and capable Gabriel is “guilty” of the sin of not being beautiful: on meeting her again after several years, Mandel notices she’s let herself go, that she’ dowdy, frumpy, overweight – and it’s not just one instance, which might have accounted for the shock of seeing huge changes after so much time, it’s a leitmotif that’s repeated now and again in the course of the story.
Julia Evans herself, the granddaughter and heir-in-training of Event Horizon’s founder, seems to epitomize all that I perceived as wrong in the depiction of female characters in Mindstar Rising: she is gifted with high intelligence, an analytical mind and the willingness to learn how to lead her grandfather’s empire, but still most of her inner dialogs focus on her lack of a boyfriend, and on the unrequited attraction for a particular boy. To add insult to injury, we see her find several key elements in the unraveling of the scheme against Event Horizon, elements she finds through her highly enhanced analytical powers: when she does, she tends to lay them at Mandel’s feet, like a puppy waiting for an acknowledging pat from its master, instead of using them as the manager she is training to be.
Do really women come only in two categories in this novel? On one side we have Gabriel, gifted with agency and strength, but sadly lacking in the looks department. On the other we have Eleanor – beautiful but needing to be saved; Julia’s friend Katharina – beautiful, wanton and easily corrupted; Julia – beautiful and capable, but suffering from a sort of daddy complex. I might be wrong, but I think there was a pattern there…
That said – and as I write it I realize how much I needed to take it off my chest – the story remains a solid, intriguing one, particularly for the kind of world it describes, the changes that have encompassed it and its inhabitants. One of the most fascinating details concerned the various gangs that have taken over part of the cities, and the microcosm they have created in their little enclaves. For these reasons alone I might read the other novels in this series, in the hope that what so disturbed me here might be toned down in the next books…