Night without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
London: Macmillan, 2016
XIII + 766 pp.
Peter F. Hamilton is renowned for big books about big ideas and here he does not disappoint with another journey to the distant planet Bienvenido. This is a planet we know well from earlier issues in the Chronicle of the Fallers series of which this is part (and there will evidently be at least one more to come). It is stuck in the Void, which is a mysterious region of space that has been explored previously. On the planet, the citizens have become locked in mortal combat with the Fallers, who are tree-based life forms who fall unexpectedly from the sky and take over the bodies of unsuspecting people, rendering everyone a potential enemy and generally having a negative effect on trust among people and social relations as a whole. Planetsiders have an ambivalent attitude towards the Commonwealth, which is the Earth-based intra-galactic government that appears more oppressive to some than to others. As a result, the few Commonwealth assets on Bienvenido have to act in secret.
However, there are many other actors in play here, ranging from ancient alien artifacts, human geniuses with extensively prolonged life expectancy resulting from becoming welded to a spaceship and ne’er-do-well drug dealers and thieves. A variety of characters pursue their individual storylines within the overall plot with vim and vigour. Hamilton always takes time in his narratives to describe the entirety of a society and a subset of all the kinds of people who are needed to keep it going. He is also acute about the uneven distribution of technology and the equivalent of the digital divide than can provoke, as well as the jealousy and resentment that can give rise to crime. In addition, he has a member of tropes which tend to recur and Hamilton bingo requires spotting whichever of them pop up in any particular book. Here he has the young man who gets to sleep with a woman who is well out of his league, the external observer who can see a bigger picture than any of the characters involved in the action and the corruption that might be found in the heart of the bourgeois household. There is also, of course, a lot of action and a lot of cool new technology people can use either to slice each other into pieces or for more constructive purposes. This being the Commonwealth rather than the new USA, technology is typically designed for the good of society as a whole rather than for privileged individuals and so we have trains and public transport rather than individual flying belts and civil servants who try to play be the rules rather than routinely acting the maverick beyond the reach of a rotten system. At the same time, powerful and charismatic individuals can single-handedly affect the nature of large societies.
I have read, I think, all of Hamilton’s major works and I will be happy to continue to do so as long as he cares to write them. His plots always zip along at a good pace – quickly enough that the reader is not tempted to dwell on possible plot holes – and enough of the characters are sufficiently engaging as to be enjoyable companions. I do recall him being reported as saying during the writing of his first big trilogy, The Night’s Dawn, that he made the story up as he went along and that would explain a certain shapelessness about the books individually and as series. However, this is not a serious flaw for a science fiction writer who has demonstrated the ability to keep in control of his creation. Let’s see how many more episodes he needs to write before wrapping up this chronicle.