Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Satanist alien energy field sacrificial slave-gang scouser mass murderers on the high frontier… indeed!

Reading Peter F. Hamilton’s ‘Reality Dysfunction’. It’s a fine book. It’s strange to see the tropes of triumphalist golden age American SF transposed into the cynical postmodern British context. It’s also got some passages which are not strange so much as outright weird, even oddball.

Satanist alien energy field sacrificial slave-gang scouser mass murderers on the high frontier… indeed!

But Peter F. Hamilton really fails at representing religion accurately. His religious characters are weak and often outright culpable. The notion that humanity could split over biotech is fascinating, but not feasible: people are at once more sophisticated and more messy than that.

To his credit his utopian visions have their psychopaths and narcissists. And while he is not casual about evil – indeed he often lingers over the fruits of evil for dramatic effect in a way which is (sorry) just vulgar – he is also not entirely sincere about it, using violence for effect in a way which seem kitschy in the Dickensian sense (the child that sees the dead man’s face with a white worm in its mouth “like a diminutive tongue” is one unforgettably bad turn of phrase), and he relies on liberal dollops of casual sex to convey his characters’ values (ie, good sex to the good characters, nasty painful sex to the bad guys).

Like John Scalzi, Hamilton posits an Earth who is denied advanced technology. But the comparison is revealing: English Peter F. Hamilton sees Earth as denied advanced technology by backwards collectivist belief systems and ecological limitations (people must live in arcologies). American John Scalzi shows Earth wilfully isolated by her colonies to protect her from the social reality of constant interstellar war. Scalzi – and American SF in general one might say – stays close to the competitive and evolutionary reality of US society, and their work benefits. Hamilton shows a regressive and collectivist vision of Earth which is pure Thatcherism.

Hamilton has some moments of the purest Elizabethan Englishness when he takes us to the hedonistic space habitat Tranquillity. High culture, even royal culture, he represents by superb extremes of fatuous wealth, erudition, high art and a wild party scene – Tranquillity is superb. The reason for its founding (a royal’s long term wish to preserve human civil mores) is also revealingly English.

For the Americans, however, every self-reliant man is the center of human society. The notion of a civic center of human civilization is just irrelevant. The US might have a centre of capital (New York), genius (L.A.), or party life (San Francisco), a focus of civic business (Houston) or diversity (Miami) – but culture? “The center cannot hold”, Irish W.B. Yeats wrote, but he did not immigrate to the States to see that fear fully realized.

Anyway, culture aside, it is a fine book.

I remember a fantasy writer asked Sean Williams how long his book should be, and Sean replied “As long as it needs to be to tell the story”. Did Hamilton need so many words to tell his tale? A shorter book might have been more appropriate to the scale of the story itself.

But the condition of entry into Peter F. Hamilton’s imaginative worlds is willingness to take on the long novel. I just can’t believe he wrote three hulking great books in this series, any one of which would have made an ordinary trilogy in size. It must’ve taken years.

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