January 9, 2013

Review: "Great North Road" By Peter F. Hamilton

In reading Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road I certainly stepped out of my reading 'box', but then I've been doing that a lot over the past few years.  This massive tome--nearly 1,000 pages--is a rock-solid and riveting example of the sub-genre of science fiction known as 'space opera', and I have to say that I enjoyed every moment reading this book.  I had never read anything by Hamilton before, but I am quite sure that I'll be looking at some of his other fiction in the near future.

Simply put, Great North Road is a tale that takes place approximately 150 years in the future, and is a wonderful combination of a police-procedural murder mystery and the story of a military expedition and exploration on the new and strange world of St. Libra, an Earth-like planet, orbiting the Sirius star system (about 8 light years from our own Solar System).  St. Libra is a planet that is mostly covered with water, but with several large land masses that contain a dense and virtually impenetrable jungle.  St. Libra also happens to be the location of a large "bioil" facility that manufactures petroleum products created from algae that is 'farmed' in large paddies.  This oil is then transported through a "trans-spacial connection", or gateway, back to Earth where it is used by European countries in what is now known as "Grande Europe" (a nod to the current European Union, I'm guessing).

Much of the police procedural elements of the novel are centered on the city of Newcastle in England, where there is a corresponding 'gateway' that allows instantaneous travel and transportation of people and equipment from Earth to St. Libra.  Many countries around the world have also established gateways to other worlds and have either created quasi-Utopian settlements, or have engaged in economic- or ethnic-cleansing and have transported their undesirables to these new worlds (i.e., much like the English used to transport criminals, and others, to penal colonies in Australia in the early 19th century).  Additionally, there is the added tension throughout much of the novel of the risk of invasion and attack by a truly horrific alien life-form, the "Zanthswarm", which has attacked and destroyed several of the human settlements on other worlds with millions of human casualties.  The Human Defense Alliance (HDA) exists to protect all humans (and the gateways) from alien threats, and kind of reminded me of our NATO alliance today, or even the U.S. Homeland Security Department.

Hamilton's world-building and his information-dumps are well handled through the use of a timeline that hops back and forth over a span of a century or more, and seen through multiple points-of-view of the various characters in the novel.  There are also some really well thought out notions associated with human cloning, and gene modification (if you have the money) that slows and even reverses the effects of aging, some seriously cool and advanced medical procedures.  I also really found fascinating Hamilton's vision of how artificial intelligence (AI) and information technology is used in this novel.  People are essentially hard-wired into the 'world-wide-web' and can pull up and utilize their own personal 'net' to communicate and access and process all kinds of information and technology--pretty much all 'virtual reality'.  Obviously, this technology allows the police to accomplish some pretty amazing things when it comes to trying to solve crimes, and the soldiers on St. Libra to coordinate and stay linked together as they search for a dangerous alien entity that may, or may not, be involved in the murder that occurred back on Earth.

While some readers may balk a bit at the slightly ponderous pace of the first third of the novel--mostly involving the murder mystery and the Newcastle police--I encourage readers to stay with it as the pace picks up dramatically as characters and plot-lines begin to converge, and then one finds oneself fully engaged as the book roars to its very satisfying conclusion.  I have to say that I was mightily impressed at the overall tone and tenor of the novel and its subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, moral messages that invite the reader to periodically stop and reflect upon a whole of host of issues, including things like population and emigration/immigration control, medical and bio-ethics, control and use of nuclear and biological weapons, and environmental stewardship and the harvesting and utilization of natural resources.  Without being 'preachy' in the novel, I think Hamilton wants his reader to think about these issues and the moral and ethical responsibilities that humans--as an intelligent species--have, and that as we move forward in exploring our Solar System that we do so in a thoughtful, deliberate, and responsible fashion.

The Great North Road is an excellent novel on many levels, and I unhesitatingly recommend reading it.  If you like scifi you'll probably love the book; and even if you don't, the plot and science elements in Great North Road are still close enough to our time frame such that it makes sense and isn't too abstract.  For me, Great North Road is a solid four out of five stars.  A good read indeed!

Great North Road
By Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2012
948 pp.
ISBN 978-0-345-52666-3 


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