Fallen Dragon – Peter F Hamilton (2002)
‘Deploying invulnerable twenty-fifth-century soldiers called Skins, Zantiu-Braun’s corporate starships loot entire planets. But as the Skins invade bucolic Thallspring, Z-B’s strategy is about to go awry, all because of: Sgt. Lawrence Newton, a dreamer whose twenty years as a Skin have destroyed his hopes and desires; Denise Ebourn, a schoolteacher and resistance leader whose guerrilla tactics rival those of Che Guevara and George Washington; and Simon Roderick, the director who serves Z-B with a dedication that not even he himself can understand. Grimly determined to steal, or protect, a mysterious treasure, the three players engage in a private war that will explode into unimaginable quests for personal grace… or galactic domination.’
Blurb from the 2003 Aspect paperback edition
Hamilton is a purveyor of epic SF, perhaps the contemporary British master of Epic SF, having proved himself with the glorious and rather weighty ‘Nights Dawn Trilogy’, followed up with this,‘Fallen Dragon’ which, although weighing in at a hefty 800-plus pages, reads like there is not a sentence wasted.
His work is very much character-driven and although this novel, like ‘NDT’, is awash with breathtaking technology, everything slots neatly and functionally into its environment. There are no gimmicks or superfluous fireworks. The scientific development is a natural and necessary part of the universe against which the human drama unfolds.
Hamilton here takes the premise that that FTL travel, via wormholes, is achievable, but is not only expensive but time-consuming and uncomfortable.
Earth-like planets have been discovered, but all so far contain life and vegetation the chemical structure of which cannot be broken down by the human digestive system.
The setting up of human colonies is financed by Zantiu-Braun, a mega-corporation which later returns to developed communities with armed troops to collect the benefits of its investment from reluctant colonists.
One critic has described this book as ‘‘Starship Troopers’ as written by Charles Dickens’. Hamilton is far more interested in the characters of his space soldiers than Heinlein is with his rather simplistic and naïve view of militaristic systems. He skilfully exposes the fears and desires of even minor characters. With major characters he goes much farther.
There is a dual timeline structure in which Hamilton alternates contemporary events with the early years of Lawrence Newton, taking us through his troubled adolescence, a time obsessed with his dream of piloting a deep-space exploration ship.
Lawrence runs away to Earth and signs up with Zantiu-Braun. The Earth of the future has been ‘civilised’ and reforested over most of its surface. There are those who resist the vegetarian uniculture which controls the Earth, such as the militant Joona, who feeds Lawrence – without his knowledge – real meat, which sickens and repulses him.
Twenty years on, Newton is a Sergeant of an elite band of asset-realisation startroopers, and for his own reasons has covertly arranged for himself and his men to be posted on an asset-realisation mission to the planet Thallspring.
Zantiu-Braun wish to strip Thallspring of anything which the company might find economically viable; new technological developments, factory output, medicines etc.
The locals, understandably, see this as piracy and to ensure their compliance, the invading force fit a thousand inhabitants with ‘collateral’ collars, programmed to explode if a signal is sent to them.
Denise Ebourn is a prime mover in the Thallspring resistance movement, and one who seems to possess an effective means of opposition since Denise, like Lawrence, carries a copy of personal Prime software which allows her resistance movement to infiltrate and manipulate the Artificial Sentience programmes of Zantiu-Braun.
It is not until very late in the novel that we discover where the Prime software originates.
Unlike the Nights Dawn trilogy, which boasts a huge set of characters, this story focuses on the central figure of Lawrence and the subsidiary characters of Denise and Simon Roderick, whose natures and histories are slowly unveiled. Denise and Lawrence, it transpires, have met before on Lawrence’s first visit to Thallspring when Lawrence saved her sister from gang-rape at the hands of some of his colleagues.
Simon Roderick, the Vulcan-esque head of Z-B, is revealed to be only one of a series of clones, whose temperaments vary with each generation.
In its long-winded way, the novel examines the possibilities and the moral questions surrounding the theme of human transcendence.
Denise’s community have discovered an ancient sentient example of machine life and have reactivated it. It has not only given them a form of symbiotic nanotechnology which has re-written their DNA, as well as the Prime software, but has also taught them of ancient civilisations of the galaxy, now all dead but for ‘the dragons’, the information-gathering and dispensing machine creatures which live in the aura of red suns.
The power that the dragons can offer will give humanity the ability to change not only (quite literally) their shape, but their DNA. Lawrence realises that this is a point where Humanity will diverge and that no one will be able to predict what societies and species will evolve from this point.
Through v-writing (basic genetic modification, available free to all) the general level of intelligence of the human race is already rising but with the power of the dragons’ nanotechnology, humanity can achieve with one step something which would have taken four or five generations.
Lawrence wonders at one point whether this would be eugenics or evolution, a question which the reader has to answer for his or her self. The ethics are well-debated by the various factions involved and it is to Hamilton’s credit that we are not beat about the head with political dogma.