Angelo Tramelo is the sole survivor of a Manson Family-esque massacre. Wrongly convicted of murder, she is finally released after twenty years of incarceration. Forced to work alongside her former torturer, a zealot from the Human Defence Alliance, Tramelo joins a mission of exploration into the world of St Libra, in the Sirius system. Previously, it was believed that no animal life existed on St Libra. Now evidence is mounting that something is lurking in the planet’s unexplored jungles: some kind of monster.
‘Monster’ is the operative word in Peter F. Hamilton’s latest novel, Great North Road. Weighing in at over a thousand pages, it is a monster in almost every way. The scope of the novel is huge, with the setting moving across several worlds and taking place over decades.
It is an enormous effort and Hamilton’s control of time, place and character is immaculate. Readers who only see the UK cover might expect a militaristic chase through deep rain forests, so it comes as a surprise that the opening chapter is set in Newcastle on the night of 13 January 2143. As a body is fished out of the dark waters of the Tyne, it is clear that this future Newcastle retains much of the grit and industrial squalor of its twenty-first century homologue.
A murder hunt then begins, led by world-weary detective Sid Hurst, just coming back from suspension. Hurst is a great character who has a huge belief in his job at the same time as blithely taking backhanders from the local powers-that-be. His home life and struggles with moving house and bringing up two children ground the book in reality. Hamilton uses this domestic setting as a launch pad to begin a galaxy-spanning saga of terraforming, exploration and conflict.
Alongside these two murders twenty years apart, Hamilton describes a society which is very different from our own. Earth and her colonies are now powered by ‘bioil’, harvested on other worlds and transported home through interstellar gateways. A new global economy has built up, and one of the big winners are the Norths, a family of clones who have their thumbs in almost every profit-making pie.
Being clones, it is difficult to tell the various members of the North family apart, a problem which is exacerbated by them having very similar names. Considering that the total cast of characters took up several screens of my Kindle, it’s hardly surprising that it was often hard to remember who was who out of Augustine, Abner, Ari, and Aldred North (and that’s just one branch of the family).
In addition to this, Great North Road is unapologetically hard-core science fiction. Hamilton goes into great depth when giving descriptions of machinery and transports. However, far from being a drawback, this wealth of detail is a big part of his appeal for many readers. He is an author who does not hold back on the science.
With its extraordinary scope and complicated plot, Great North Road is also unlikely ever to be made into a movie. Nevertheless, Hamilton takes full advantage of the longer form to explore his new worlds and his very realistic characters. Angela Tramelo in particular is fascinating as we witness her determination to carve her way through life despite immeasurable difficulties.
In many ways, Great North Road is a bit like one of those doorstep novels from the Victorian era, a sort of space Dickens with added action, technology and mass murder. In the same way that the great Victorian novelists were fond of coincidence, Great North Road also has an ending that was a bit too neat, but that is a minor qualm after such a epic journey through our solar system, and beyond.