Tuesday, November 20, 2012

'Great North Road' - Peter Hamilton

There are certain staples to Mr Hamilton's world-building: lots of worlds, usually ethnic or settled by countries or US states; wormholes (here 'gateways') linking them together; and a tough, feisty, gorgeous and uninhibited heroine (Angela Tramelo). Also as usual, there are a vast number of often well-drawn characters, the plot is complex and finely-balanced, and the length exceeds one thousand pages. 'Great North Road' is a fun and gripping read, and the Kindle version is cheap so I would advise you to get out and buy it right now. Here's a bare plot-outline.

The dynastic patriarchs of the novel are the Norths, who have cloned themselves. The A-Norths run the algae-oil ponds on the Sirian planet St Libra, connected to Earth by Gateway at Newcastle-on-Tyne. They supply Greater Europe with its fuel and are stupendously rich. The B-Norths are far fewer and live on St Libra, doing research into rejuvenation and longevity. The C-Norths occupy a habitat-complex orbiting Jupiter (another familiar Hamilton trope) and do advanced science and technology to protect humankind.

There is some kind of impersonal threat - the Zanth - which randomly renders whole star systems uninhabitable: this has led to the formation of the militarized Human Defence League.

The story starts with the mysterious murder of a North in Newcastle. Alarm bells ring amongst the Norths and the HDL as the modus operandi seems identical to another North slaying 20 years ago. There is reason to believe the perpetrator back then was some kind of alien, although the official blame was laid with Angela Tramelo, now in custody.

A large part of the novel is a 22nd century police procedural in the streets of Newcastle. Cop Sid Hurst has the resources of ubiquitous smartdust coating the city, AIs of enormous power, surveillance technologies to dream of .. and yet the case resists solution. Is there really alien involvement or is this just North-against-North corporate infighting? The balance of evidence keeps shifting.

Real lives are uneventful most of the time. To keep the pages turning the characters must continually face problems they can neither solve nor completely fail at. This makes plotting difficult and there are several places where the reader asks 'why didn't they do the obvious and check this, use that technology?' Still, even Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert had shake-your-head-in-disbelief plot lapses so we have to cut the man a bit of slack here.

I thought the most interesting character was Saul Howard, who is smart, reasonable, polite, worried, and irresolute when decisive action is called for. Human really.