Reviews

SciFi Month 2016 Review: MINDSTAR RISING, by Peter Hamilton (Greg Mandel #1)

1306956After 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…

My Rating:


 

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12 thoughts on “SciFi Month 2016 Review: MINDSTAR RISING, by Peter Hamilton (Greg Mandel #1)

  1. I’ve never read Peter Hamilton but this one sounds interesting. I love psi powers so that right there got my attention. 🙂 And the true prescient- that’s a neat idea. I’ve always enjoyed the concept of how mind powers might affect the user- sounds like that’s touched on here. I do share a little apprehension over the female characters though- I think I’d feel the same. Too bad that had to bring the story down. Why does it always have to come down to looks??

    Anyway nice review and sounds like a good read although the conception of the female characters needs some work. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was Hamilton’s first novel, so I’m inclined to be less judgmental than I usually am.
      In the first book of the Night’s Dawn trilogy you can find women with agency and real power alongside the more stereotypical figures, so I guess he did improve on that score.

      As for the effect of mind powers on the individual, I think you will like what the author did with Gabriel and her prescience. Hope you enjoy the book!

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  2. Since you said it was his first published novel, I went to look up when it first came out because the year might give insight into the pattern of how the women were portrayed. Goodreads says it was first pubbed in 1993…which doesn’t actually seem that long ago! Perhaps, as you say, his earlier stories may have been plagued with more stereotypical figures, maybe from his own experience with sci-fi works before the early 90s. It’s why I find it hard sometimes to go far back into an author’s backlist, especially if they’ve been writing for a while, and they’ve had years of experience and polishing their talent since. I’d love to read Hamilton one day, but I’ll probably start with his more recent stuff 🙂

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    1. If I had not read one of his later novels first, I would have been much more disappointed, although there are some shades of this “backward” outlook in his more recent work, as well: for example, one of the main characters seems to be irresistible to women, and all fall for him almost at first sight. Thankfully, in the grand scope of the story, and with all that happens, it’s a detail that becomes almost buried under more substantial details. 🙂

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  3. It’s a good thing this wasn’t your first experience of the author otherwise it could have put you off. I don’t think I’ve read anything by him before but I will definitely avoid the earlier work given this review.
    Thanks
    Lynn 😀

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  4. I haven’t read Hamilton before, mostly because I think of him as mostly a writer of military SF (I could be totally off about that). But authors tend to (hopefully!) get better and better, the more they write, so I guess you’re sort of taking a chance going back to the beginning of their career.

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    1. What I read so far, besides Mindstar Rising, is the first volume of his Night’s Dawn trilogy and I would not define it as military SF: it’s rather space opera, with a vast, galaxy-spanning outlook and an even vaster set of characters. A big book (it’s around a thousand pages, and I’ve read that the two other books in the trilogy are even longer than that), but an intriguing one.
      And taking chances is, after all, what we do every time we open a book, isn’t it? 😉 😀

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        1. Oh… I was already disturbed by what happened to Katharina at the hands of the rival tycoon, but if there is more of the same – and worse – I don’t think I will read any more books in the series. It’s not so much a matter of being squeamish, but rather of drawing a line between the needs of the narrative and a perverted frame of mind.
          Thanks for the warning!!!!

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