I’ve always found Peter F Hamilton to be at his best when he cross-pollinates the space opera with other genres. The settlers in ‘The Reality Dysfunction’, like something out of a John Ford movie, or the reincarnation of Al Capone in ‘The Neutronium Alchemist’, lending ideas-driven sci-fi the vibe of a 1940s Warner Brothers gangster movie.
In his new stand-alone novel ‘Great North Road’, Hamilton gives over almost half the narrative to a police procedural. It’s a style of writing he’s used before and to good effect, in the excellent novella ‘Watching Trees Grow’ and the sections of his Commonwealth Saga that feature the emotionally aloof but intuitively brilliant Paula Myo.
In ‘Great North Road’, the detective shenanigans are intercut with a military-scientific mission into the uncharted depths of a planet semi-colonised as a paradise resort for the über-rich. The deeper these gung-ho types penetrate into dense jungle, the more dangerous the mission becomes. Something is picking them off one by one.
Yup, we’re in ‘Predator’ territory. Hamilton spins out these sequences for all they’re worth and the further into the novel’s 1,080 pages you plunge, the more derivative it seems. What prevents this element of the narrative from being a wholesale rip-off is the presence of Angela Tramelo, one of Hamilton’s more intriguing female leads.
First introduced serving a life sentence for a mass murder – her defence, quite understandably ridiculed, was that an alien did it – Angela is pardoned with the caveat that she join the expedition as an advisor when it transpires that an identical murder has occurred. Boasting the incredibly watertight alibi that she was in prison at the time, Angela’s story is given new credence.
Hamilton sketches in Angela’s backstory teasingly, leaving the big reveals until the last hundred or so pages. Other characters are rendered equally lovingly, but just as many remain ciphers. Hamilton’s adolescent fixation with ludicrously rendered soft-core sex scenes carries over from his other door-stoppers – likewise his fixation with hardware. But the sheer intensity of the storytelling speaks for itself. ‘Great North Road’ might look gargantuan enough to require annual leave just to finish the first chapter, but you’ll be surprised how quickly a thousand pages speed by.