Author: Peter F Hamilton
647 pages • £18.99
It’s possibly the greatest moment in Father Ted. Dougal and Ted are out buying priest socks, the blackest socks known to man. Buy other “black” socks, Ted warns Dougal, and if you look closely, you’ll discover they are in fact “very, very, very, very, very, very, very dark blue”. Epic science fiction has more in common with priest socks than you might imagine.
Stick with us here. While there are plenty of authors who can do linked stories set in the same universe (dark blue men), few can handle really big, self-contained narratives that play out over a thousand pages (truly black socks territory). But for Peter F Hamilton the latter is practically his default setting: give the man a clear few weeks and he’ll soon be planning an enormonovel, scribbling copious notes and working out how the plot will develop.
Not that we’d want him to stop. Since he found his métier with The Reality Dysfunction, Hamilton has been one of our most interesting hard SF novelists and, at his best, our most entertaining, adept at keeping big stories cracking along with the energy you’d usually find in a 300-page novel. Arguably more impressive still is that having created the hugely successful Confederation universe, he’s stepped away from it to create a second baroque widescreen future, the Commonwealth universe first explored in Pandora’s Star.
This time around, with this first part of the Void trilogy, he’s been cannier. Where the structure of the Night’s Dawn trilogy rather precluded further books, the first two Commonwealth Saga novels were set early in humanity’s expansion into space. All the better for telling more stories, you see?
But what kind of story? Having previously threatened humanity’s existence with the machinations of the alien, Starflyer, how does Hamilton follow that? Like this: fast forward to 4000AD and imagine a huge black hole at the centre of the galaxy. What if that void could expand, gobbling up entire civilisations? And what if religious zealots wanted to fl y a fleet of starships to this void, possibly triggering off its expansion? Who’d have the authority to stop them? Should they even be stopped? What lies within the void?
We’ll have to wait for the next two volumes for definitive answers, but if they’re as good as The Dreaming Void, that shouldn’t be a hardship. Particularly impressive is the way that Hamilton has developed the Commonwealth society. Divergences have occurred over the centuries. At one extreme lies Higher culture, consisting of super-augmented humans. Out on the planet Far Away, though, the descendents of guerrilla fighters mistrust such thinking.
Within this multi-faceted, interstellar civilisation Hamilton’s key players roam. Arguably, characterisation has always been Hamilton’s weakest point, yet here he takes risks with unconventional main players: Aaron is a soldier whose memories have been suppressed by his employers; while Araminta, whose dreams of life in the void are being amplified way beyond the confines of her own head, has no idea that folks from across the galaxy are listening in. So far, so good. Not so good is the familiar Hamilton’s babes syndrome. He really does like sex scenes featuring pneumatic young ladies...
That said, this is a book that arguably nobody else in Brit SF could even have attempted. Epic, multi-stranded, full of wonders. If that’s not enough, try the chapters that deal with life inside the void. They’ve the makings of a first-class fantasy trilogy in themselves. Hmm, maybe we’ve just discovered why Hamilton is so good at big, big, big books…