So, I had this e-mail from Tom Toner in January 2017 asking me if I wouldn’t mind reviewing this, ‘The Promise of The Child’. I was in two minds about this as, being a generally kind sort of person, I was worried that, if I hated the novel, I would have to post a negative review. This has happened before, and I’m sure that I feel far worse about it than the authors involved who no doubt take bad reviews as part of the job and aren’t likely to track me down and give me a good kicking. They haven’t as yet, but I guess there’s still time.
My fears, it transpires, were groundless, as this is probably one of the best debut novels I have encountered since Alistair Reynolds’ ‘Revelation Space‘, which it resembles in some senses. Others have compared it to Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’ , Jack Vance, Moorcock, M John Harrison and various others who have pursued a somewhat baroque exploration of SF. The style has a fascinating history which extends back beyond Moorcock to Vance, Charles L Harness, Leigh Brackett, and beyond there to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. One is impressed to see it so freshly reinvented.
Some twelve and a half thousand years from now, Humanity has spread out into the galaxy, finding no other life (barring the one glaring discovery of two incredibly ancient corpses of what appear to be sentient dinosaurs preserved in the icy cold of the outer Solar System.).
All life outside of Earth is descended from that of Earth, and Humanity itself has splintered into various species which exist in a complex hierarchical system, at the pinnacle of which are the immortal Amaranthine.
The narrative follows several key figures. Lycaste is a Melius, a larger human form that can change the colour of its skin. Lycaste lives in what we presume to be a far future Cyprus, and is famous for being – at least in Melius terms – beautiful. Lycaste is a sensitive individual, deeply in love with Pentas, although the love is unreturned. His life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a Plenipotentiary, Callisthemon, a noble of a higher caste who is, he claims, carrying out a census. Pentas’ attraction to Callisthemon leads inexorably to an event which causes Lycaste to flee on a journey across the Old World.
Sotiris, originally himself from Greece, is one of the most ancient Amaranthine and suffering from a condition to which the older immortals are prone; a succumbing to delusions. There is strife among the Amaranthine. Traditionally their leader is the oldest of them, and a Pretender, Aaron, has arisen who claims to be older than any living immortal.
War is spreading across the Old World, a war in which Sotiris is a principle manipulator, and in which Lycaste gets unwilling involved.
Meanwhile, a machine which could potentially threaten the balance of power across the galaxy has been stolen and, along with its kidnapped creator, is being shipped between the stars through hostile territory.
This is, it has to be said, a work which demands concentration. Much like Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun’, there are some elements only partly explained, at least at first, which the general reader will either recognise or hopefully pick up on later, such as the vaulted worlds. These are essentially planet-sized Dyson spheres, hollowed out worlds with an artificial sun at the centre. One also has to contend with the various branched off species of Humanity, the baroque and complex societies and their equally complex political and social dynamics. It does however reward careful reading.
There are some devices which are hard to justify under rational science, such as the Amaranthine’s ability to bilocate using a planet’s magnetic field, apparently because of the build up of iron in an ancient body. The Shell, or The Soul Machine, has an even flimsier rationale for its operation, although these are minor quibbles.
One would have expected the presence of some form of Artificial Intelligence but, as with Dune (another baroque series infested with aristocratic class levels) there is a prohibition against creating such things although this becomes an important issue much later and explains some aspects of the earlier narrative.
Toner manages to convey a sense of languid and wistful decadence which pervades the novel, reminiscent of that of Vance’s ‘Dying Earth‘ and Harrison’s ‘Viriconium‘ sequence. The Old World is divided into rigid divisions of class and race, where everyone it seems has learned to know their place. One can also see a sense of Moorcockian entropy in this ancient society with its arcane rules and casual cruelty.
There is a very interesting scene where Callisthemon, the higher level Plenipotentiary visiting Lycaste’s region. discovers that one of Lycaste’s friends and neighbours is gay, although the term is never employed. Pentas enquires of him whether men can love each other in Callisthemon’s region. Callisthemon appears both amused and horrified by the idea, implying that it would never happen, and insists on changing the subject when he is pressed for an answer. It’s a very subtle moment, but it neatlly clarifies for the reader what form of society Callisthemon represents, as is indeed shown in later events.
Lycaste and Sotiris, despite some excursions to follow events and characters elsewhere, are the central two characters, and one could possibly argue that this is to the detriment of the other players. Some, without giving too much away, are unexpectedly despatched.just as one thought they were going to play a major role in the story.
It’s a tad vexing that other reviews I have seen posted have noted that they read (whatever) percent of the book and gave up. If this is the case, why post a review? It helps nobody, and one can’t be expected to provide a valid judgment having only read a tenth or a fifth of someone’s work. I would suggest that the author cannot be held responsible for other people’s laziness, although that may well be an oversimplification of the situation. There will always be occasions when one starts a book and realises that one is never going to finish it. One really has to ask the question, is it the book’s fault?
In this case, I don’t think it is. As a society we have learned to be spoonfed and we tend to shy away from entertainment (particularly books) that might be slightly challenging. This is challenging, but that’s not the book’s fault. If you can’t get into it, don’t blame the book. Move on. Find something you like.
‘BRAINS WITHOUT SOUL
Giant blonde creatures, they were as curvaceous as the bodies of their dwarf men were shrivelled.
Captain Christian was the only human who’d ever laid eyes on them. And now he wished he hadn’t. They were beauty without heart. Cruel, cold.
And he was their prisoner.’
Blurb from the 1969 Macfadden paperback edition
When the police do not believe the irascible Doctor Fox’s contention that there is a connection between a travelling circus and the decapitation of several leading scientists, he asks his friend, Captain Christian, to help him investigate.
Christian discovers that ‘The Brains’, a trio of dwarfs with enormous craniums, are working at the travelling fair and is subsequently framed for murder.
It’s an odd little novel, slightly American in style, but very British in content.
In some ways the plot can be compared to that of the Time Machine. ‘The Brains’, it transpires, have travelled from the future of Earth, long after the time when Humanity seeded interstellar colonies. The Earth humans did not divide and evolve along lines of class structure, as Wells’ humans did, but of gender, Men grew more intelligent than women while women lost their intellect and grew merely huge, blonde and beautiful. While an unlikely premise, it shows at least an awareness of sexual inequality at the time.
One woman of the future, Alma, displays intelligence and is hunted like an animal by the male Brains and the giant females. Luckily, the rest of humanity has evolved to a state of sexual equality and have confined the Brains and their females to Earth. The Brains’ aim is to change history so that mankind did not reach the stars, leaving their own race to conquer the galaxy.
Fortunately, Captain Christian is there to save the day, having been kidnapped, taken to the future and battled the Brains and some giant mutated insects before making contact with the enlightened humans who help him to rid his own time of the Brain menace.
He returns to find that Doctor Fox has married Jo the dwarf woman from the circus (as perhaps some weird symbolic reverse metaphor of future developments on Earth).
Recently republished as part of Gollancz’ ‘Space Opera’ Collection (a gorgeously designed set of paperbacks with beautifully thought out black and white cover illustrations made from photographed paper sculpture and cut outs) this was a novel far ahead of its time when first published.
Stapledon, a communist and atheist it appears, here takes us through the twentieth century and then in leaps and bounds through Mankind’s sometimes enforced evolution, the downfall and eventual rebirth of civilisations, until mankind reaches a pinnacle from which one of the Last men reaches back through time to record this history through the pen of a 20th Century writer.
It had been a common convention of writers for some time previous to this novel’s publication to provide a rationale or a link to reality for their work, in order to give it a certain verisimilitude; an explanation as to how we could be telling a story of the future, or of another world far from ours (see also Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was a regular proponent of this practice).
It has to be said that the initial chapters that detail the way world society progresses in the 20th Century is woefully off its mark and seems to have been employed as a platform for Stapledon’s personal politics.
He has been criticised elsewhere for his extrapolation of US Society although in some ways his warnings of the dangers of Capitalism have been borne out.
Sadly, these chapters are a little tedious, and new readers should be encouraged to persevere, since once Stapledon moves away from the world with which we are familiar the novel accelerates and takes flight into the future.
Not many authors can communicate a sense of understanding of vast passages of time but Stapledon carries it off with aplomb.
One also has to consider that he is writing of subjects such as evolution, genetic engineering, even the concept of viruses as vectors for changing DNA sequences (although obviously it is not described in those terms) in 1930, at a time when most other authors were in the genre were zipping about in unobtainium powered speedsters and carrying American values to the four corners of the Galaxy.
Stapledon takes a more cautious approach to interstellar travel. His evolved men see travelling to another star as being impossible or at least not an option worth exploring. Interplanetary travel is another matter, since Humanity – after a protracted war with gestalt entity Martians lasting thousands of years – is forced to move to Venus when the moon begins to close its orbit on the Earth.
Later (a slight scientific faux pas on Stapledon’s part) Humanity moves to the surface of Neptune when the sun begins to swell and here mutates and evolves into an entire biosphere of human descended wildlife before one of the species again rises to an intelligent level.
Again, in an astonishingly prescient concept, years before Heinlein or Blish employed the idea, Stapledon had the Last men sending out ‘seed ships’ into the galaxy packed with micro-organisms which would be pre-disposed to eventually evolve into a form of Humanity. Man himself, by a fluke of the laws of physics was doomed, but there is always the chance that he can be reborn elsewhere in the Cosmos.
Despite the ending containing some dubious talk of spirituality and immortality, the novel ends leaving the reader enervated and acutely aware of the insignificance of our tiny planet, and how brief our lives upon it are.
It’s a stunning piece of work.
‘The dominion of the Tanu has been broken. In the aftermath of cataclysm, Aiken Drum seizes his hour to grasp control of the Pliocene world.
There are those, human and Tanu, who rally to him – and those who fear and hate him. The Grand Master, Elizabeth… the mad Felice… the goblin hordes of the Firvulag all thrust into a violent and stormy struggle for irresistible power.’
Blurb from the 1983 Pan paperback edition
In the third volume of May’s ‘Saga of The Exiles’ we join our heroes in the aftermath of the flooding of the Mediterranean basin which decimated the Tanu and upset the power balance within The Many Coloured Land.
Aiken Drum, the diminutive trickster, is quick to seize control of the situation and of the Tanu throne, taking as his bride, Mercy Rosmar, widowed since the flood in which her husband Nodon Battlemaster disappeared, his body never found.
Meanwhile in Pliocene Florida we join – for the first time – the exiled Rebel operants, led by Marc Remillard, disgraced Grandmaster of the Galactic Concilium.
Man has been attempting to discover a world where a race has developed a Coadunate Mind in order that he and his children can be rescued by them, after which they plan to stage a coup.
The rest of the rebels do not share Marc’s faith on the search and his children are secretly planning to travel to Europe in order to create a device at the Time Gate capable of taking them back to Twenty-Second Century Earth.
Elsewhere, further evidence is discovered that suggests that the Tanu and Firvulag, through interbreeding with humanity, will become the progenitors of the Human Race itself.
Old taboos are breaking down. Sugoll, leader of the mutated Howlers has resettled his people in a less radioactive area and, on the advice of a Tanu geneticist, allowed a thousand of his single women (gross mutations who cloak themselves in psi-generated visions of voluptuous beauty) to mate with itinerant humans who literally have no place to go following the ransacking of a Tanu city by the Firvulag.
Many of the traditionalists are predicting the coming of the Nightfall War, which signals the end of the world.
Nodon, it transpires, was not dead, but was washed ashore in Africa and tended by a crazed human/Firvulag hybrid, who manages to seduce her paralysed patient and becomes pregnant.
Like Peter F Hamilton, May is a consummate juggler of the multi-character storylines and simultaneously manages to seamlessly weld what is in effect a fantasy setting (providing a scientific rationale for the gnomes, trolls, ogres, elves and fairies of legend) with the people and the scientific marvels of the Twenty-Second Century. There is also a fair amount of humour, which cleverly serves to accentuate some of the horrors which all three races perpetuate upon themselves and each other.
One could argue that this is perhaps the weakest of the four books and perhaps suffers from a surfeit of characters and political machinations. On the other hand one cannot fault the characterisation since even the minor characters appear as fully rounded characters with histories and tales of their own.
I suspect these novels, along with the superb ‘Intervention’ which tells the tale of the emergence of human metapsychic abilities and the perhaps weaker trilogy which takes us through the Metapsychic Rebellion, will be reassessed as an exemplary body of work, ingenious in its concept and construction.
Written around the same time as Harrison’s close friend and colleague Aldiss’ ‘Hothouse’ this is a relatively uncomplicated adventure, but one which breaks some ground, and which has a surprising longevity and almost cult popularity. It has spawned two immediate sequels and recently it seems Harrison collaborated on several Russian language Deathworld novels which have not (as yet) been released in an English translation.
So, Jason da Lint, bored interstellar gambler and psi practitioner is approached by Kerk Pyrrus, a man who wants to use Jason’s unique abilities to win a lot of money in a casino. The money will be used to aid the human society on Pyrrus. Jason agrees on condition that he is allowed to visit Pyrrus. Using his psi abilities, Jason amasses a dangerous amount of winnings and the pair barely escape with their lives. Jason has already discovered that Pyrrans are tougher, faster and more serious than most of humanity, partly due to their 2G planet, but also due to the fact that all animal and plant life on Pyrrus seems determined to wipe them out.
Once on the planet Jason senses that there are secrets the Pyrrans are not sharing and feels duty bound to solve the mystery of why the planet wants all humans dead.
It reads very much like a novel of the Nineteen Seventies, which is when I first read it myself.
Certainly it is very refreshing to find a tough female ship’s captain such as Meta back in 1960, although perhaps it would have been far more daring had Kerk’s role been a female one, since it is the diametrically opposed views of Kerk and Jason that are the driving force of the narrative.
It would have added a great deal of sexual tension to the dynamic had Meta been given Kerk’s role in the novel.
Harrison employs the concept of telepathy here very lazily, in that it is merely a literary means to an end; a convenient plot device. There is no attempt made to describe how it might be possible or what psychological consequences may occur.
Given that, as mentioned earlier, Aldiss was working on ‘Hothouse’ one would have imagined Harrison employing more imagination in his speed-evolved ecology. One also might have imagined his protagonists to have been a little more contrite over an apparent act of genocide when a race of possibly sentient beings are wiped out in a bombing raid on a volcano cave-system.
Yet, despite its now obvious flaws, it has dated well and is a worthy addition to any self-respecting SF library.
NB: There are apparently suggestions that Deathworld exists within the Stainless Steel Rat universe. That’s a debate for the Harrison experts.
‘In a world where a terrifying Ultimate Weapon is just about to be perfected, a scattered handful of people are on the brink of making a giant evolutionary step and becoming more than human. The Rose is the story of two such mutants, one man and one woman.
On their foreheads, strange horn-like growths sprout. On their backs, disfiguring humps grow. Together they fight in anew and deadly version of an ages-old battle, all the time seeking the mysterious Rose that will resolve the puzzling enigma on which the future of life itself depends…’
Blurb from the 1969 Panther paperback edition
Weighing in at a scant ninety-nine pages this is a surreal and complex gem of a book. Anna van Tuyl is a psychiatrist recently afflicted with abnormal growths to her head and upper back. Simultaneously she has been plagued with dreams of the score of a ballet called ‘Nightingale and The Rose’ which takes as its theme the story of a Student who desperately needs a Red Rose and can find only white. The nightingale pierces her heart with a thorn in order that her blood dyes the rose red and gives the Student what he needs.
Ruy Jacques, an artist similarly afflicted with the growths, becomes fascinated by Anna’s score. At the same time, Jacques’ wife, Martha, a National Security Scientist, recruits Anna to help her husband, who, it seems, has lost the ability to read and write.
Martha has her own great work in progress, the development of Sciomnia, a set of nineteen formulae whose schematics form the shape of a red rose and which will, when complete, form the basis of the ultimate weapon.
It’s a highly idiosyncratic book, atypical of SF of the fifties, although in some ways it can be compared to the work of Alfred Bester.
It examines the relationship between Science and Art, Science in this case being represented by the cold and ruthless Martha Jacques whose deeply complex feelings for her husband force her to kill those who come between them. It’s an ironic point of the novel that this most insecure of women is a leading figure in National Security.
The forces of Art (a subject on which Harness seems extraordinarily well-versed) are represented by Anna and Ruy, who come to discover that their condition is a natural process and that people like themselves are destined to communicate through Music and Art.
Their evolved pineal glands (their third eye) which has grown to form the rudimentary horns on their foreheads, has given them a certain prescience and the score for the ballet, which Anna has been dreaming and subsequently annotating during her waking hours, turns out to be symbolic of future events.
The dialogue is somewhat dated and stilted in places, but one feels that this only adds to the highly surreal nature of the entire work, packed with grotesque characters such as the people of the carnival where they have all the ‘queer side-shows and one-man exhibitions’.
The book also contains two short pieces; ‘The Chessplayers’ and ‘The New Reality’, the first giving an amusing insight into the psyches of chess-players and the politics of chess clubs, the members of which are lost as to what to do when a professor (who is also an illegal alien) turns up with a chess-playing rat.
‘The New Reality’ is a variation on the Creation myth, in which a Dr Luce (i.e. Lucifer) has constructed a mechanism which can reshape reality. He is thwarted by agent A Prentiss Rodgers and his female boss, ‘E’.
It comes as not much of a surprise that the A in A Prentiss Rodgers stands for Adam and E is Eve. It is a well-constructed and well-written piece however, and superior to most others of the time exploring the same theme.
If there was such a thing as God – Hamilton is oddly ambivalent on this point, although souls and spirituality have been themes in his work – I would no doubt thank him for Peter F Hamilton, since his work, for the most part, provides me with hours of extreme pleasure. Some more than others, but then, that is to be expected.
This second volume of the Void trilogy tangles us further in the politics and machinations of various factions of Human Society, such as Living Dream, the religious fanatics who wish to take a pilgrimage into The Void in order to fulfil their destiny, and the Accelerators, who have an as yet unspecified plan to boost human evolution.
Interspersed with this is Inigo’s received dreams of the life of Edeard the Waterwalker, a hero of the world within the Void. Edeard succeeds in ridding his society of crime and corruption by mysterious and unorthodox means.
It is probably a deliberate act on Hamilton’s part to make the Edeard sequences so linear and straightforward. Although he experiences tragedy, Edeard seems almost destined to follow the path which has been set for him.
Justine Burnelli decides to attempt to enter the Void and persuade the Skylords to halt the Void’s expansion.
The Second Dreamer – after an appeal by Gore Burnelli – manages to contact a Skylord who opens the Void to let Justine through.
Elsewhere the Ocisen Empire fleet is enroute to intercept Living Dream’s Pilgrimage convoy. Paula Myo is on the trail of the Accelerators and Justine’s son Kazamir – in charge of Earth’s defences – discovers that the Ocisens have allied themselves with Primes, the terrifying aliens of ‘Pandora’s Star’
As always, Hamilton throws us into a sexy, escapist rollercoaster and I always find it difficult to get off and return to Earth. That’s about the highest compliment I could pay to anyone.
The author’s explanation for how this manuscript got into his hands is that it was stuffed into a vacuum flask by the original author and ended up on the shores of North America.
The journal is written by one ‘Bowen’, a man who is inadvertently captured by a German submarine during World War I. His fellow captives eventually manage to overpower the Germans but find that they can dock nowhere, and are fired on by ships. Lost, they find themselves at a land mass surrounded by cliffs, one which has a subterranean river leading to the interior.
This is standard fare for Burroughs. ‘The Lost World’ in essence, since there are plenty of dinosaurs. The central mystery however and what distinguishes it from Conan-Doyle is that there are men on the island who seem to range from pre-human ape-like creatures at one end of the land to the level of modern man at the other. It is suggested that these humans are moving through various stages of evolution during their lives and moving across the island to live in the various communities as they develop.
It’s an interesting concept which Burroughs puts aside to examine further in the remaining volumes of the trilogy.
‘In the fourth millennium, the Heliothane Dominion rules triumphant in the solar system. But some of its enemies have escaped into the past, where they are still capable of wreaking havoc across time. By far the worst of them is Cowl, an artificially forced advance in human evolution – more vicious than any prehistoric beast.
Innocently embroiled in this galactic conflict and fleeing for her life, Polly finds herself dragged back through time, era by era… towards the very dawning of life on Earth. meanwhile, her relentless pursuer, Tack, discovers that the ‘tor’ fragment imbedded in his wrist is of crucial value to the mysterious Heliothane – a truth that is soon brought home to him with bloody abruptness. As a twenty-second-century, vat-grown, programmable killer employed by U-gov, he is no stranger to violence, but his harrowing journey into the Heliothane’s lethal universe is only just beginning…
All the while the torbeast, Cowl’s pet, is growing vast and dangerous and shedding its scales wherever its master orders. Scales that are themselves organic time machines designed for bringing human samples from all ages back to Cowl.
Then the beast can feed…’
Blurb from the 2004 Pan Macmillan Tor paperback edition.
Abandoning his Polity universe temporarily Asher takes us on a trip forward and back through time.
In the far future the Heliothane and the Umbrathane are at war. A human genetic experiment, Cowl, has travelled back through time in order to make his own genetic pattern the dominant one in the possible futures he will create by travelling back to the dawn of multi-cellular life.
In the nearer future, Nandru, a soldier, has encountered a monster and somehow obtained a scale from its hide. Knowing that the authorities are after him he drugs a young prostitute, Polly, and provides her with an implanted AI called a Muse. The monster is Cowl’s creature which is feeding on life in various timelines. The scale, which Polly picks up and which binds to her arm, is a tor, a one-way time-machine which will take the bearer back to Cowl at the Nodus, the beginnings of life on earth.
Tack, a cloned and programmed assassin, is sent to retrieve the tor and although he manages to kill Nandru, Polly’s tor jumps her into the past. Nandru, in dying, managed to upload his memories into the Muse and can converse with her.
Tack has also been infected with a tor, and is kidnapped and reprogrammed by the Heliothane to be sent back in time to kill Cowl.
If that isn’t complicated enough, things get far more complex and the main characters all get embroiled in the machinations of Cowl, the Heliothane, the Umbrathane and Cowl’s sister, Aconite.
It’s a fast-paced, page-turning yarn, but not much else. One’s belief is stretched by Polly managing to bump into both Henry VIII and the Emperor Claudius while time-hopping. Also, Nandru – who seemed quite happy to have Polly killed at the start of the novel – is a far different kettle of fish when he’s an AI, and is friendly toward her.
Similarly, Tack does a complete U-turn when he is eventually released from his programming.
The question one has to ask – given that this is a stand alone novel by Asher separate from his Polity novels – is whether this is trying to say anything.
Perhaps there was a lost opportunity in not examining more deeply what an evolved human may become.
Certainly there are points raised as to whether – in our contemporary global society – we are weakening the race by keeping our weakest members alive, producing stronger antibiotics and therefore creating drug-resistant diseases.
Cowl is a survivor, a ruthless sociopath. Perhaps, in order to survive, this is what humanity needs to turn into.
Asher does not go far enough in examining the choices we need to make as a species. Can we be both strong and compassionate? Does one automatically preclude the other? Being strong as a race we would need to make difficult choices about our weaker members; those who cannot contribute fully. Should they be allowed to have children themselves? These are areas Asher could have examined more intensively, while at the same time showing us a little more of the personality of Cowl who ultimately comes across more as the movie monster hissing alien rather than the hyper-intelligent evolved human that he is supposed to be.
‘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.