Tuesday 27 March 2007

Peter F. Hamilton: The Naked God (1999)

Published: Pan, 2000

Night's Dawn may well be the longest work ever published as a trilogy. Each volume is as long, if not longer, than many trios of science fiction novels - the classic Foundation trilogy is less than half the length of The Naked God. With that length (which is the most obvious distinguishing feature of the series), there is a concomitant vastness of scale: hundreds of characters, spanning several universes and thousands of light years. The subject matter is weighty, too: an invasion of human occupied planets not by aliens but by people possessed by the spirits of the dead; a huge scale zombie attack with semi-serious philosophy behind it. The series is about what might happen to us after death, how we might be able to return to a kind of life, what a spirit or soul might be, all dressed up as exciting space opera.

To summarise a plot of such scope in a few words is hard; indeed, several attempts to review earlier novels of the trilogy foundered on this rock. There are various groups of humans seeking, in various ways, to contain or counter the threat of the possessed; at the same time, the reader begins to see the possessed as people in their own right, with differing motives and interests (though they continue to include the psychotic Quinn Dexter) rather than as evil monsters with strange powers. The important thing is not the details of the plot, but that Hamilton makes it work. The reader does get pulled in, and cares about the characters even if they are somewhat sketchily depicted.

The general success of the series, and of this novel within the series, doesn't mean that it is flawless. The length is clearly going to be a problem for many readers, who will be unwilling to put aside the time to read almost four thousand pages - a recent survey showed that the first lengthy Harry Potter novel, the Goblet of Fire, was among the books most likely to be left unfinished by British readers. A certain familiarity with the common ideas of the science fiction genre is assumed, as is often the case with more recent works in the genre. These ideas, such as faster than light travel, are more or less taken for granted, and are not treated in a particular imaginative way; writers in the genre have spent many years mining the nuances of these ideas, and Hamilton has other concerns. This is something that may be off-putting for this who are not fans of the genre, but, as I have mentioned, Hamilton is hardly unique in this respect.

A more serious flaw is the evenness of the tone of the writing, which dilutes the potential of certain events; some very nasty things happen, but they have little emotional impact on the reader. Perhaps having so much to say encourages levelheaded exposition rather than visceral storytelling, but this detached style is something I have found in other stories by Hamilton. The story is interesting enough to keep me going to the end, at least, but a bit more excitement might be nice.

The Naked God is of course space opera, part of that subgenre's re-emergence over the last decade or so. Hamilton's ideas and big canvas generally seem to go back to earlier writers such as Isaac Asimov, while many of his contrmporaries (such as Alastair Reynolds) concentrate on smaller details - how cosmic events affect small groups of individuals rather than tackling the cosmos as a whole. So the trilogy could be considered old fashioned, and not particularly innovative; but it is very well done for any reader willing to put in the time required to read such a long story.

Tuesday 13 March 2007

Ann Granger: A Rare Interest in Corpses (2006)

Published: Headline, 2006

A Rare Interest in Corpses initially appears to be something of a departure for Granger. She is best known for her Mitchell and Markby series, and has also written several novels about amateur detective Fran Varady; both these series are contemporary crime fiction (in the sense that they are set in the modern world; the Mitchell and Markby novels are rather old fashioned in tone). Here we have her first historical crime novel, set in Victorian London - not as popular a time and place as might be expected, probably because it is so strongly associated with Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the writer I was reminded of by A Rare Interest in Corpses was not Arthur Conan Doyle, but Anne Perry.

The central character, Lizzie Martin, is a doctor's daughter from the Derbyshire coalfields, forced to take a position as a companion to an older rich widow in London when her father's death leaves her penniless. When she arrives, she discovers that the woman who previously acted as companion to Mrs Parry went missing, apparently eloping with a lover, but, it now turns out, murdered and her body left in the huge building site that would become St Pancras station. Lizzie feels an obligation to a woman who had been in the same situation as she now finds herself to try to find the murderer - a task in which she is much aided by the reluctance of key witnesses to speak to the police.

I have in the past discussed an issue I have with a lot of crime fiction. The genre is very much dependent on plot construction, and in particular on the construction of plots where particular points remain obscure to the reader (though fairly presented) until the very end: the reader has all the clues, but should still be surprised by the revelation of the murderer. Constructing such a plot is quite hard, and a shortcut which is often used is to use a coincidence - an unlikely happening which is not justified by the rest of the plot (it is one thing for an mysterious lost cousin to turn up just at the time of the murder, but much more acceptable if the murderer lures that person there so they arrive on the scene in time to be implicated in a murder they would benefit from). Even when unmotivated coincidences are left in a plot - and it is true that coincidences really happen - they usually have some meaning in the plot itself, whether actually helping to point the way to the solution of a crime, or making it harder for the reader to see the real solution. Sometimes coincidences are used to promote the continuation of a series, as where a character finds a body in novel after novel. At the beginning of A Rare Interest in Corpses, there are two coincidences which really serve no purpose whatsoever. The first of these is that Lizzie, taking a cab from King's Cross station to her new home, is delayed by police removing a body from the half-demolished slums which were Agar Town and would become St Pancras (which is, for readers not familiar with London, immediately next door to King's Cross): this is the body of Madeline Hexham, her predecessor. The second is that the police inspector assigned to the case turns out to be someone she already knows, despite her belief that she is a stranger to everyone in London: he met her when he was a small boy working in a coalmine, where her father was helping with the aftermath of an accident; her father paid for his education, which he put to use in joining the Metropolitan Police. The second establishes a certain bond between Lizzie and the policeman, but not one which could not have been developed in other ways, while there seems to have been no motivation at all for the first.

I found these coincidences, which come very close together near the beginning of the novel, a big hindrance to enjoyment of a book by an author that usually I like a lot. Although I got more into it by the end, I still feel that A Rare Interest in Corpses is Granger's least involving novel. This is partly because the character of Lizzie Martin is not very different from either Meredith Mitchell or Fran Varady, though the forthright attitude they share is interesting in a Victorian pre-feminist context (though it is hardly original in historical crime fiction set in the nineteenth century: as well as characters in Anne Perry's novels, it is also shared by Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody).

A competent historical crime novel, but by no means Ann Granger's best work.