Archive for October, 2010

Peter F Hamilton: Evolutionary Void

October 4, 2010

The Evolutionary Void is the final book in Hamilton’s “Void Trilogy”, and the fifth book in the “Commonwealth” series that started with Pandora’s Star.

The setup is that an alien intelligence has created a device that allows attuned people to go back and reset history in their own personal timeline. If you don’t like how something turns out, you simply go back and reset the Universe. This device exists near the galaxy’s center and in the trilogy only one person, living on a planet close to the center, has figured out the reset trick. Unfortunately the reset trick requires a staggering amount of energy – so much that each use consumes tens of thousands of star systems each time it is used. When humanity finds out about this place where one can just undo any mistake, a large group of them want to go and live there. The problem being that if resetting one person’s life a few times ends up consuming a decent percentage of the matter in the galaxy, you can imagine what the constant resetting of millions of lives will do.

Like the Reality Dysfunction series, the Void Trilogy is let down by its third act. Whereas the Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained duology was tightly paced, the Evolutionary Void is a little listless and the conclusion ends up a little damp. The solution seems to be to have the characters go up to the device and ask it to “turn itself off”, which is a lot like the end of The Naked God where the protagonist asked a hyper-intelligent entity to flick a button and make everything better. There are a lot of pages to read to get to a point where everything is tidied up neatly by another unknowable superintelligence.

One of the charms of the Commonwealth series, for me, was the idea of no-one using spaceflight as all the worlds in human space were interconnected by permanent wormholes and train lines. No one bothered with FTL starships because it was generally easier to travel by train to everywhere that was settled or open a series of wormholes if you wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t a permanent gateway. In the Void trilogy, everyone hoons about with very fast FTL drives – which makes the series feel more like a “generic sci-fi setting” than the more unique “get on at this station, go through the wormhole, get off, change platforms, ride on another train through a wormhole to get to your destination” setting of the earlier books.

Hamilton is an excellent universe builder, and he didn’t really play to his strengths in the Void trilogy.

If you’ve already started this trilogy, you should slog on to the end. If you are new to Hamilton, read Pandora’s Star / Judas Unchained, stop, and then go back to the Reality Dysfunction and Greg Mandel books.

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Charles Stross: Fuller Memorandum

October 3, 2010

Let me start by saying I’ve got all of Charlie Stross’ books and I regularly read his blog. I find him entertaining and interesting. I am looking forward to his next book (Rule 34, sequel to Halting State) and will buy it soon after it has been released.

The Fuller Memorandum is the third in the “Laundry” series. Ostensibly the book follows Bob Howard, a public servant in a British government department tasked with fighting paranormal threats foreign and domestic. The prior two books, The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue had a strong dose of sardonic wit and plenty of geeky in-jokes. They were reasonably well paced, put the characters in believable (or unbelievable) jeopardy, and made me smile at their cleverness.

With that said, this most recent book, “The Fuller Memorandum” feels unfinished. This book lacks the polish of some of his other works and the plotting and pace seem vaguely off. The climax didn’t feel entirely climactic. The geekiness was confined to some commentary about how shiny a new iPhone was. It seems to me that it would have been more in character for the geeks working in The Laundry to be going ga-ga and reprogramming an Android phone (or some other phone with a highly customizable and reprogrammable OS). A book released in mid 2010 with Howard using an iPhone for the first time seemed to strike a wrong note. Howard seems like the sort of guy that would take it all matter of fact by this stage. William Gibson did a far better job in Zero History of reflecting the “SmartPhone Zeitgeist” then Stross did – which is kinda surprising because Stross is probably far geekier than Gibson.

It isn’t about the phone, but the approach to the phone is part of the discordant chime that echoes through the novel. The novel doesn’t have the joy in embracing the lead character’s geekiness that the previous two did. There isn’t as much nerdiness in this book. When you take away Bob Howard’s geekiness, but don’t really replace it with anything else, the character becomes more two dimensional and less interesting. Howard also repeatedly made odd and silly mistakes, something that again seemed out of character given previous behavior. It was the repeatedly part that got me. At one point I was thinking “you are kidding, he only realises that he’s up shit creek after not paying attention again?”

Perhaps my ambivalence about Fuller Memorandum also comes from reading China Mieville’s Kraken at about the same time. Both are published at around the same time and there are some thematic similarities between the two books – both involve a groups of British Civil Servants defeating a paranormal induced apocalypse (though in Mieville’s it is a unit of the Metropolitan police and they aren’t the main characters). Mieville’s is far more literary and he brought off the paranormal apocalypse near-miss in “oughties” London with far more panache.