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Monday, July 14, 2014

Peter F Hamilton On Sticking To Your Principles

A sign cries out to passersby in Oxford, England

MURDER. It was the Banner scored big and bold across all the street corner newspaper placards, most often garnished with adjectives such as foul, brutal, and insane

In "Watching Trees Grow," a novella in Peter F. Hamilton's short story collection Manhattan In Reverse, Family Investigator Edward Raleigh travels to Oxford, England in AD 1832. In this alternative world, the Roman Empire never collapsed. With technology evolving faster in this world than in ours, the average human lifespan increased significantly. Yet one person will not enjoy the benefits of a long life, enhanced technological resources, or centuries of fine English cuisine. That person is Justin Ascham Raleigh, who is found murdered in his Dunbar College dormitory. 

Despite the violence associated with our historical Roman Empire, Hamilton's alternative world doesn't condone murder under any circumstances. While Edward is shocked by the violence of the crime, he nonetheless pursues the clues, and investigates all the suspects. These include Peter Samuel Griffith, Justin's roommate who reported the crime, and his six close friends. As Justin's dormitory apartment yields no immediate clues, Edward adjourns to Oxford City police station, where he assists the detectives with the questioning. The greatest suspicion falls on Alexander Stephen Maloney, who had dinner with Justin on the evening of his death. Alexander has frequented gambling clubs of late, and been losing heavily. While Justin had no money that Alexander might have stolen, Justin had been pursuing a scientific idea in physics and spectrography that he believed would have guaranteed him a professorship. Might Alex, or someone else, have murdered Justin for the potential monetary value of his idea? Alas, Edward and the police detectives find no documentation to back up this hypothesis. Faced with a dearth of clues, Justin's death goes unsolved.

In AD 1853, Edward flies into Newark aerodrome in Manhattan City. While traveling on Raleigh family business, he snatches the opportunity to utilize advances in forensic techniques to link the DNA of one of the suspects to a cigar butt the police discovered during their investigation. 

"For Mary's sake," the suspect exclaims. "It's been twenty-one years."

"Yes. Twenty-one years, and he's still just as dead."

The evidence Edward collects is insufficient to solve the crime, and so sixty-seven years later, in AD 1920, Edward takes a scramjet-powered spaceplane from Gibraltar spaceport to Vespasian, a space station in orbit around Earth. From there he endures a three month journey aboard a spaceship powered by low-temperature ion plasma engines to Jupiter, and then a shuttle down to a spaceport on Ganymede, one of the gas giant's moons. From there, he travels by bus to the city of New Milan. 

All the buildings were free-standing igloos whose base and lower sections were constructed from some pale yellow silicate concrete, while the top third was a transparent dome. 

During his six-month stay on Ganymede to conduct Raleigh family business, he visits another of the original suspects. 

I waved a hand at the curving windows, with their thin reinforcement mesh of carbon strands. That particular carbon allotrope was the reason the glass could be so thin, one of the new miracles we took so much for granted. 

Carbon 60, as it is known, was discovered ten years previously by one of the murder suspects. Edward wonders if it might have been the idea Justin was working on, and the murderer killed him to pursue it instead. Alas, the interview yields no definitive proof, but Edward is assembling clues from the available evidence, and utilizing increases in technology to solve this century-old murder. 

Fast forward to AD 2038. A deep-flight ship exits a wormhole portal and lands at a habitat orbiting Eta Carinae. It has taken Edward over two hundred years, but he has finally forged a water-tight case. Standing on this massive space station orbiting a distant star, he arrests the person responsible for Justin's murder. Under questioning, the person admits to the crime. In a way, Edward feels as uncomfortable with arresting this person as he did about Justin's murder, as this individual has developed Justin's idea to radically advance human expansion to the stars. But Edward finds murder as unacceptable now as he did two hundred-and-two years ago, when he had just embarked on his career as an investigator for the Raleigh Family. 

"You took Justin's life away from him," I said. "We can produce a physical clone of him from the samples we kept. But that still won't be him. His personality, his uniqueness, is lost to us forever."

In killing Justin, the murderer steals Justin's idea, and uses it to create the kind of future that most of us can only dream about. In sticking to his principles, Edward persists with an investigation that most of us would have given up on, and thus preserves a future in which everyone matters. As to which individual contributes the most to his society, and the betterment of mankind, Peter F Hamilton leaves the reader to decide.

Dragon Dave

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