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.

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