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Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Madness of Peter F. Hamilton

When I first saw the paperback for The Reality Dysfunction: Part 1 in the bookstore, I was intrigued by the front cover, and soon found myself captivated the idea of the story.  Recommendations from such noted authors as Dr. Gregory Benford, whom I’ve mentioned many times in this blog, no doubt secured my interest.  I read the six-hundred page paperback, and found it so satisfying that I picked up Part 2.  Little did I realize that Peter F. Hamilton's story, entitled The Night's Dawn trilogy, would extend over two more novels (and four more paperbacks).

Like its predecessor, The Neutronium Alchemist was released the following year in two paperback volumes.  Each was slightly longer than the two halves of The Reality Dysfunction.  Counting the pages of those first four paperbacks yields a total of around 2500 pages.  When you consider that a normal paperback runs 300 to 400 pages, the scope of Hamilton’s story, and the greatness of his vision, become clear.  Yet, while reading the two halves of The Neutronium Alchemist, a curious fatigue set in.  I loved Hamilton's story, but I also yearned to immerse myself in the fiction of other authors. 

Peter F. Hamilton had published several novels before, but such a grand idea as the return of the dead, intermixed with the big ideas of Space Opera, landed him on the Science Fiction radar in the United States.  His publisher here responded by releasing the final novel in the trilogy, The Naked God, in hardcover.  This gave me the perfect excuse to take a break from his story, and read other authors.  But in the additional year I waited for the final two paperbacks to arrive, my recollection of the events, characters, and worlds in his story faded.  When I finally picked up The Naked God: Part 1, I struggled to immerse myself once more in Hamilton's story.  I utterly failed to summon up sufficient enthusiasm to read Part 2

When asked why he wrote such a long story, Peter F. Hamilton admits that he didn’t carefully plot out the story in advance.  An idea occurred to him, and struck him so powerfully that he simply had to develop it.  At roughly 4,000 pages (when counting all six paperbacks), we hardly need for Hamilton to tell us that he didn’t plan on the books being so long, or taking him six-and-a-half years to write.  But they capture our imaginations, and summon up a galactic spectacle he likens to The Battle of Britain.  As he lives in England, one can imagine how he was inspired by the terrible trials and tragedies Hitler visited upon the British during World War II.  But still, Hamilton: 4,000 pages?  That’s the equivalent of ten stand-alone novels!

Many readers might have given up on Hamilton after a few years, and cleared space on their bookshelves for other authors' books.  But every time I saw those six books on the shelf, I remembered how much I enjoyed The Reality Dysfunction, and how much I wanted to know the way his grand saga ended.  So in June 2010, I reread both halves of The Reality Dysfunction.  In September 2010, I reread both halves of The Neutronium Alchemist.  After a longer interval, in July 2011, I finished The Naked God: Part 1.  It took even longer to begin Part 2, but I finally started it a couple months ago.  Naturally, I had trouble re-immersing myself in Hamilton's story, and for various reasons took several breaks from the book to read other novels.  In the latter third of the book, I experienced an entirely different problem.  Every evening, I had to limit myself to twenty or thirty pages of Hamilton's book, and then read something else, or I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep.  Imagine the riveting climax of a grand saga that lasts for several hundred pages!  That’s what you get with a 4,000 page story.  But I finally finished The Night's Dawn trilogy this month.  Hooray!

It seems rather strange that Peter F. Hamilton should have created such an insane work of fiction.  To all outward appearances, he seems like an imminently sensible writer.  He lives in Rutland, one of the smallest and least populated areas in England, and the county in which he was born.  Despite the fame and fortune his novels have brought him, he hasn’t moved to a busier place, or adopted an extravagant lifestyle.  He lives in a 350 year-old cottage, and during the winter months feeds his log-burning stove and worries about getting snowed in.  He has a strong work ethic: according to his son Felix, he “works all day every day.”  In fact, he’s so devoted to his craft that, on at least one occasion, Felix has complained to the staff of his U.K. publishing house that “He’s soooo boring.”  Hamilton still writes long novels, but he’s also begun to expand his horizons, and try his hand at new markets.  Like Roald Dahl, who first perfected his craft by writing adult fiction, he has recently tried his hand at a children’s novel.  The soon-to-be released novel is entitled The Queen of Dreams.  He based the primary characters for the story on his children (including his son Felix) and their two friends.  So, there are many reasons to admire the man.

I can’t tell you how many times I have wished that Hamilton had planned out The Night’s Dawn trilogy ahead of time, and reduced the number of characters, settings, ideas and pages to a more conventional story length.  But had he structured his novels differently, there’s every chance that he wouldn’t have captured my interest so strongly.  Had his novels been less powerful, I might not have thought of them so fondly and frequently throughout the past fifteen years.  I enjoyed rereading the first five paperbacks, and finally learning how he wrapped up everything in the sixth volume. So perhaps there was reason to Peter F. Hamilton’s madness, and I should be grateful he wrote it in the form, and at the length, that he did.

Now, the only question facing me is whether or not to keep all six paperbacks, so that one day, perhaps another ten or fifteen years from now, I can embark on the saga once again.  But then, I suffer from my own particular form of madness.

Dragon Dave

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