The Reality Dysfunction

The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn #1)
Peter F. Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is the Tad Williams of science fiction. I could dig into a comparison of how their early, defining series set high standards for working strictly within the tradition, but I think I will stick with saying that both are graduates cum laud from the Victor Hugo School of Concise Writing. (Alas for Hamilton however, he gets no credit for the origins of the Furry movement. That honor is Williams’ alone.) I am about 15 years late on this, but I finally started into The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. After reading 1100 trade paperback pages and still just one third of the way in, I am prepared to say that this is long. At current pace, I will finish the next two volumes sometime in 2015.

There will be some mild spoilers below, but nothing too egregious. Still, anyone planning on reading this for the first time and hoping to avoid anything that might interfere with maximum surprise may want to stop here. It’s kind of hard to know where spoilers begin though, considering that “the plot” takes maybe 500 pages to kick in. I have read the first books in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), so I had an inkling of what was coming. Every story has a back story, and every character has a past that can be traced back over generations. Let no reader accuse Hamilton of not being thorough – I know more about some of these fictional people than I do friends and neighbors in real life. Whether or not this is a good thing remains an open question.

Long time readers will know my preference for concise, just-the-facts-ma’am prose, but will also know that I am wildly indulgent of authors like Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not sure why the minutia of 2312, for example, fascinates me, while I find myself tapping an impatient foot and urging Hamilton to get on with it, but that is what sometimes happens. I can’t complain too much though, since the world building is flawless and the back stories entertaining. On the other hand, it’s not something I see myself rereading, just because the time commitment is overwhelming. (I remember reading some reviews on Amazon where people talked about how they reacted to plot points the third or fourth time through. I was aghast. Who has time for multiple trips through 3500 pages?) Anyway, I’m not prepared to say that it’s a good or bad thing, but potential readers should probably be aware of the slog ahead.

In hindsight, the most amusing part of Night’s Dawn is the way Hamilton keeps things firmly in the pulp tradition. He has updated the specifics, with anti-matter replacing ray guns and biotech in place of cardboard spaceships hung from strings midst a bad starscape. The prose is also several notches above the average dime store serial, as one would expect from a production as serious as this. Thematically however, Huge Gernsback would feel right at home. In fact, I wish I could have seen Hamilton’s brainstorming sessions for this one. “Bad guys… hmm, alien bugs have been done to death, Von Neumann machines are passe, what should I do? I know! How about THE DEAD!!! And how do we get deceased souls out of Purgatory? Eureka! Satan worshipers! This is gonna be great.”

So, yes, these are both plot points at the core of the trilogy. It’s utterly goofy, but it works. (At least, it does so far. I could see this spinning wildly off the rails, but suspect that Hamilton holds things together.) In true pulp fashion though, we have brave and competent heroes, scantily clad maidens, mustachio-twirling villains, wide-scale pathos, doomed love, and plenty of tough people coming through in the cliff hanging clutch. We also have hundreds of pages about characters whose only reason for existing is to later suffer horrible fates, all of which would have been on the cutting room floor until Niven and Pournelle unleashed doorstop space opera on the unsuspecting world, back in the late 1970s.

I’m making it sound like Night’s Dawn is 3000 pages of Ming the Merciless, something that is not fair at all to the author. He’s working within the idiom, but going very much his own way and operating at a high level. Things are very complex – in Reality Dysfunction alone there are three bad guys (or sets of bad guys), one galactic confederation with numerous independent entities, an extinct race from the distant past, a confident riff on Bruce Sterling’s Mechanist-Shaper dichotomy, an array of planets and stations, each with its own tech level and politics, and the customary Cast of Thousands. I periodically wished Hamilton would stop rooting around in everyone’s past and just blow up a few spaceships, but once the action finally gets in gear, the book hurtles madly. If the next two books keep up the pace at the end of the first, I will be both impressed and exhausted.

So this is an incomplete view of things, covering as it does but one third of the proceedings. I’ve tried to give my perspective of the book in terms of its place in the science fiction meta-dialogue, since I don’t feel right marching into plot analysis and that sort of thing. Later posts will dig more deeply into these aspects of the story, but I have to finish them first. Readers can expect the next installment within the next two years. It might take me that long.


7 thoughts on “The Reality Dysfunction

  1. I have a signed first edition hardback of the last one of this series, which I’m led to believe is now fairly valuable (or at least worth more than I paid for it) because it’s so damn big a sizeable number just broke under their own weight during shipping.

    Has it been 15 years since I read this? Christ, it must be. My memories of the series are mainly of the last book, so I guess I’ll be holding fire for a couple more until you catch up. Word of advice though, don’t leave it too long between instalments or else you’ll just plain forget who everyone is. I think there’s one secondary character who simply disappears halfway through because both author and editor forgot about them, so it’s easily done…

    • If the creator and editor are allowed to forget people, I will hold myself to a similar standard. Now I’m curious who drops out. I’m guessing it’s not one of the nubile maidens.

      Maybe someday when we meet for ocha, you can show me your big book.

  2. You nailed it with this one, both for the good and the bad. I had fun with this series (and I’m one of the people who actually read it more than once, although this is years ago when I reread a lot more than I do now). I think everything you said gets sort of amplified in books 2 and 3 – it’s even more over-the-top in terms of, well, everything. Especially the villains. I’m not sure if I’d enjoy this one as much if I read it today, with a more critical eye, but I had a blast with these books back then.)

    (If you want shorter bites of this universe, PFH has a short story collection called A Second Chance at Eden that consists of prequel stories, starting with the origins of the Edenist technology and going all the way up to that happened to Calvert’s father.)

    • It’s been great fun so far, but I do have to turn my brain off once in awhile. I’ll look for that collection once I finish. I also will someday get into the next books he wrote set in the Commonwealth. (Great North Road? Or something like that?)

  3. I have the entire 3-book series on my bookshelf (since it won’t actually fit IN my shelves). I plan to tackle it back-to-back-to-back next year. I’ve liked nearly everything PFH has written, especially Great North Road and Pandora’s Star. I’m also “wildly indulgent” of Iain Banks; I finally got a copy of Hydrogen Sonata, the last SF novel of his that I have yet to read (also found a copy of Raw Spirit for less than $2 recently!).

  4. Pingback: 2013 Reading List Results | Two Dudes in an Attic

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