(2014) Peter F. Hamilton, Macmillan, £20, hrdbk, 676pp, ISBN 978-0-230-76946-5
Most of the action of this novel – the first of two – takes place within the Void, a region of space-time at the centre of the Galaxy where the rules, particularly the laws of physics, are different from our own; they favour psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis while inhibiting high-energy technology and electronic communication: they allow loops in the flow of time. The Void is penetrable only with difficulty and exhibits some signs of sentience, being able to reach out and grab passing colony starships; what it takes it never gives back, so its expansion threatens all star-faring races. Indeed one such, the Raiel, sent an invasion fleet into the Void a million years ago and lost it. In 3040AD the human race officially joined the Raiel in keeping watch on the Void…
In the 34th century Nigel Sheldon (the co-inventor of wormhole technology in 2050) is called upon to help investigate a new development: a semi-religious movement based on dream revelations of life in a mediaeval society on a planet within the Void, one of whose cities is apparently based around one of the Raiel starships lost a million years before. The Raiel cut a deal with Nigel and send a clone of him into the Void to investigate.
There are only two habitable planets in the Void, and once in there Nigel's ship is forced down on the other planet, where the lost human expedition was deposited by paranormal entities called the Skylords. There, the society which has evolved is stuck in a late 19th century rut of steam power and riverboats but with the difference of enhanced psychic powers and still-operational biotech, which is jealously guarded by a corrupt aristocracy of the first settlers' families. They are harassed by alien eggs which fall from the sky, lure people to them by psychic means, absorb them and spit malevolent duplicates back out. (Think of the Threadfalls of Pern merged with Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) A disaffected soldier who has lost an arm is driven to lead a Marxist-style revolution, while out in the back country the Nigel-clone is building his own enclave, dedicated to getting his ship back into space and back on with his mission….
Now, I am at a bit of a disadvantage because the only Peter Hamilton novel I had previously read was The Reality Dysfunction, and that quite recently. That novel is the first of the 'Night's Dawn' trilogy, while this two-part story is set in a different fictional universe, plugging a gap between the 'Commonwealth Saga' and the 'Void Trilogy'. My chance juxtaposition of them is unfortunate because in both, much of the action is set in backward human settlements spread along large rivers, and in both, the existence of the human soul is taken for granted as an entity which can be possessed and harvested, as here, or subject to hostile takeover (in both). Judging by the reviews online, regular Hamilton readers will not be troubled by those similarities because they will have read many more of his books in the meantime.
Other reviews say that all space-opera fans will love this one, and I think they will, even though the steam-and-biotech alternative technology does not have the loving detail with which others such as Keith (Pavane) Roberts would have portrayed it. Hamilton's real interest is in the process of revolution, so much so that Book Three is titled Revolution for Beginners, and he does not shy away from what can go wrong with it, with echoes of Stalin and Winnie Mandela being heard towards the end. It makes an interesting contrast with Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress... and as that was something of a bible for at least one student faction in Slovenia, during the break-up of Yugoslavia, one wonders where The Abyss Beyond Dreams will be studied and how much influence it will have.
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