The Reality Dysfunction on a trip to my girlfriend's family in Norway. These books are ideal for travel. Huge but not taking up too much space in the suitcase. Although I was not overly impressed with the first novel in the Night's Dawn trilogy, my compulsion not to leave series unfinished kicked in so I decided to give him another shot. The Neutronium Alchemist is most certainly not free of the things that annoyed me in the previous novel, but I must admit it is as compulsively readable as the first one. It is still bloated though. In fact, the page count of this volume is even higher than that of the previous book. This series could have been so much better if it had been a bit leaner.
The dead are returning from a horrible limbo called the beyond and take over the living's bodies. The souls of these possessed are locked away in the recesses of the mind, always aware, but unable to influence matters. This horrible fate is bad enough, but the returned dead are also able to manipulate matter in ways science can't explain. They are extraordinarily powerful and have no intention of leaving or dying again. Faced with the double threat of an invasion of angry deceased and religious turmoil caused by the revelation of a horrible afterlife, the various factions try to pull together and come up with a strategy to deal with the greatest existential crisis in human history.
The situation is quite dire at the beginning of this novel. Possessed are overtaking one planet after another, usually wrecking them in the process. They are far from unified though. To illustrate that, Hamilton gives us three major points of view of possessed characters. Two of them are historical figures. Al Capone, whose syphilis wracked mind resumes to working order after being inserted into a healthy body. He has no clue how society developed since his death, but what he does understand is power. Soon he becomes a force to be reckoned with. Christian Fletcher, the Bounty mutineer, is pretty much his opposite. Well mannered and thoughtful where Capone is crude and decisive, he has quite a different view on what the possessed ought to be doing in the universe. A third, more chaotic point of view is presented by Kiera Salter, who is locked in a struggle for power with the mind of a habitat in orbit around a gas giant.
There is another possessed with a big role in the story. Quinn is turning into the Gollum of the series. He is clearly evil, but not aligned with any of the parties. He is in fact so purely bad that he is by far the most boring character in the book. He will use and discard anyone and anything to get nearer to his goal, which appears to be turning Earth into a satanic planet. Where Capone is building something, corrupt as it may be, Quinn just leaves destruction in his wake and doesn't look back. I hope Hamilton will find a better use for this character in the next book.
On the other side of the conflict it would appear most of the characters are busy chasing what appears to be a side plot. Captain Calvert is busy chasing a rogue scientist who knows the location of a weapon so powerful it can snuff out whole suns. He has half the intelligence officers of several other human factions on his tale. While I don't doubt this weapon, The Alchemist as the characters call it, will be important somehow in the next book, it seems like Hamilton is spending an awful lot of words on it while there are clearly other pressing matters to attend to. One good thing about this quest is that Calvert is too busy to have sex though. The apparently inevitable sex scenes are moved to Capone's sections, which I have to admit is somewhat in character, if still very much a male fantasy.
What bothered me most about the plot is how Hamilton tiptoes around the big philosophical questions his premise raises. There is a proven afterlife and apparently it isn't pretty. The two main branches of humanity each face their own challenges. The Adamists take their name from the patriarch of the large monotheistic relations. Their holy books will require some rewriting. The Edenists view death differently. They digitalize their personality and live on in the Edenist habitats. If their souls end up in the beyond anyway, what does that mean for the programming they leave behind? There is some interesting material here to explore and yet pretty much every character consciously ignores these questions. You'd think that somewhere in the 1,200 pages of this novel, a bit of reflection on these things could have been inserted. It would certainly have added a bit of depth to the novel.
Hamilton raises the stakes in The Neutronium Alchemist, as a middle book is supposed to do. It does more or less suffer from the same problems as the previous novel though. Bloated, repetitive and not very demanding. Although Hamilton tries to make it a multi-faceted conflict, he avoids the really big issue in the story in favour of politics and battles. That might be fine with some readers. I would have liked a little more from this novel but after The Reality Dysfunction, that was hardly what one could expect. Another beach read then. I think I will save the final volume for the next trip abroad.
Title: The Neutronium Alchemist
Author: Peter F. Hamilton
Publisher: PAN Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1997