Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Reality Dysfunction - Peter F. Hamilton

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton is the massive first novel in his Night's Dawn trilogy. Hamilton is one of a group of British writers producing what can be considered a reinvented form of space opera. He is usually listed with people like Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter and Paul J, McAuley. I haven't read too extensively in that particular subgenre, the only author on that list whose work I am familiar with is Alastair Reynolds. While I can see the similarities in their approach to science fiction, this novel leads me to believe Reynolds is the better writer. In The Reality Dysfunction the emphasis seems to be very much on the soap opera part of the subgenre.

In the twenty-seventh century, humanity has colonized many planets and made contact with alien species. Genetic engineering has made widespread adaptations to living in space or alien environments possible. Space ships can be grown as well as built. With this increase in technological capabilities, the destructive power of weapons has increased as well. The Confederation navy is keeping the peace however, and a prosperous future for all of humanity is within reach. Then, an indentured criminal makes contact with a truly terrifying entity. It has made contact with sentient species before and caused the suicide of an entire species. This extinct species called the phenomenon the reality dysfunction. A nightmare of galactic proportions is about to descend on humanity.

The first thing that will strike the reader about this novel is that it is huge. I read it during my trip to Norway two weeks ago and its very size is why I picked it. One book that would take a while to finish but doesn't take up much space in the suitcase. My mass market paperback weighs in at 1,225 pages. I think it is probably in the 400,000 words range. In other words, there are trilogies shorter than this novel. It has to be said that Hamilton paints on a large canvas but that still does not excuse the excessive length of it. The novel is in fact severely bloated. So much so that more than a few readers will find it exhausting or even unreadable.

It takes the author about 200 pages to even give us the first hint about the nature of the threat humanity is facing. Most of the first  half of the novel is reserved for worldbuilding and introducing a very large cast of characters. Every location the novel visits is introduced with an  infodump of several pages on the history, settlement, development, society and environment of the planet. Reading a lot of fantasy, I can admire a good bit of worldbuilding but Hamilton manages to make it tiresome in this book. With a bit of editing and a better balance between pace and worldbuilding this book could have been, and should have been, a lot shorter.

The cast is huge but it does have two more or less central characters. The first is a trader and captain of the star ship Lady MacBeth Joshua Calvert. He could have been modelled on Poul Anderson's David Falkayn. Roguish, independent and resourceful, Calvert has a good eye for the best deal and an even better eye for opportunities to fool the authorities. He also has a way with women that is rather grating. Not until the very end of the novel does someone point out to him that he essentially treats them like shit. The sex scenes involving Calvert are another repetitive element that could have been axed to keep the page count down. I had mixed feelings about this character but he is the best developed one of the bunch. Most of the other characters are much more in service of the plot.

Where Calvert can be thought of as the protagonist, Quinn Dexter is clearly the antagonist. Originally from Earth, a place crippled by overpopulation and environmental degradation, he is convicted to indentured service on Lalonde. He is a rather stereo-typical villain. Egoistic (a trait he shares with Calvert), ruthless and determined to carve out a position of power for himself on his new home planet. He does so by any means necessary, until he runs into someone even more dangerous than he is anyway. I could say that there is not much development in his character but that would strictly speaking not be true. He more or less transforms into another person. Going into that would give away too much of the plot though.

Although the threat encountered by colonists on the planet Lalonde is the main conflict in the novel, there is quite a bit more going on in human occupied space. Humanity has split into two branches: the Adamists and the Edenists. The Edenists are extensively genetically engineered humans. They form a mostly atheist society without much in the way of social stratification. The Adamists are more diverse but tend to keep the genetic engineering down to very basic levels, like eliminating hereditary disease. There is a good deal of mistrust between the two, which I suspect Hamilton will exploit in the next two volumes. This dichotomy is one of the many present in the novel. Hamilton likes doing things in two, which does not always result in the most nuanced of visions.

While there were quite a few things I wasn't too impressed with in this novel, I have to admit it is compulsively readable after the first four hundred pages or so. You really want to find out how the story of this or that character continues even if you have to wait a hundred pages for them to show up again. In essence, The Reality Dysfunction is a great beach read. It'll keep you reading while not being overly demanding. There is much better written space opera out there in my opinion, but I can still see why Hamilton has acquired an audience. Maybe I'll even pick up the second volume the next time I'm travelling.

Book Details
Title: The Reality Dysfunction
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Pages: 1,225
Year: 1997
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-34032-8
First published: 1996


  1. I actually liked the second and third books more once I learned to stop worrying and love the trilogy. You just have to go with it and enjoy the good stuff. All of the books are needlessly long, though!

    1. Now that I know what to expect I think the second one will go down a bit more smoothly.