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A Second Chance at Eden by Peter F Hamilton (Macmillan, £17.99, 431 pages, hardback; published 9 October 1998). Cover by Jim Burns.

Like Stephen Baxter's two recent collections, Traces and Vacuum Diagrams, Peter Hamilton's first collection cover scanof short fiction spans his career: from an early small press story, through a first professional sale to a brand new story and novella, with three other stops along the way.

At first glance, A Second Chance at Eden might appear to form a fourth volume in the ­­ quite literally ­­ monstrous Night's Dawn trilogy (the first two volumes of which are reviewed elsewhere on this site: The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist). In truth, the collection presents a mix of early explorations of the Night's Dawn "affinity" biotechnology and stories written to plug the early gaps in the timeline ­­ a step back from the main storyline. Where necessary, the earlier stories have been adapted to slot more smoothly into the backdrop of what became the trilogy. So perhaps it's better to view this volume as related material, then, rather than an integral part of Night's Dawn.

Or maybe you should just sit back and enjoy the ride...

The heart of this book is the title story, "A Second Chance at Eden" ­­ indeed, this is a short novel in its own right, and one of two stories that really do plug the gaps in the Night's Dawn timeline.

It opens with world-weary ex-cop Harvey Parfitt heading out to Jupiter orbit to take over the security of the young bitek habitat, Eden. This author's characters tend to be upbeat, or at least spunky and defiant, but the character variation works well here: Hamilton does jaded well.

In his introduction, the author explains that "A Second Chance at Eden" was written as a straightforward act of revenge on all those critics who had dared to suggest that his earlier sf whodunnit A Quantum Murder might have been a touch predictable (covered briefly in another review, ahem, elsewhere on this site...). With this new short novel, Hamilton takes the classic closed room murder to new heights: in a living space habitat that can see and hear all that happens within its fleshly confines, how can a murder be apparently unsolvable? Hamilton backs away from the challenge just a little (the escape clause for the all-seeing all-hearing habitat is that it wipes apparently unnecessary information from its memory after a certain time, and therefore can't see far enough back to explain the mystery) but with this story he has quite clearly answered his critics: not only is "A Second Chance at Eden" an effective and satisfying mystery, it's also a pivotal piece of backfill in the Night's Dawn future history. A major achievement, and one extremely good reason to buy this volume.

The rest of the collection is a little patchy.

Other high spots include:

  • The novelette "The Lives and Loves of Tiarella Rose" (an earlier form of this was published as "Spare Capacity" in David Garnett's New Worlds 3): a former revolutionary on the run learns that his idyllic retreat is, inevitably, more complicated than he initially assumes, in a strong story that builds to a clever and neat resolution.
  • The novella "Escape Route": a gripping tale of space exploration featuring the spaceship Lady Macbeth captained by the father of Joshua Calvert ­­ names familiar to readers of the trilogy.
  • And "Candy Buds", another adapted New Worlds story, about the early days of affinity bonding: a compelling story, marred slightly by a hurried ending.

It is, perhaps, natural that the weaker stories should be the earlier ones:

  • Unfortunately the future historic timeline dictates the running order for this collection, so "Sonnie's Edge" ­­ both the earliest in the historical chronology and the earliest in the writing ­­ must come first. The story opens slowly, with a gauche mix of 80s slang and clumsy backfill; later on, the characters make long data-dumping speeches to each other. And eventually something actually happens, but it takes a long time. Adding to the story's problems, it's told in the first person, but with a twist that requires an abrupt jump near the end to another first person viewpoint ­­ a distracting way of handling what is, in fact, a brilliant twist. It's a story that occasionally flickers with Hamilton's awesome facility for making future technology meld into the everyday, but he would have written it far, far better today.
  • "Deathday" is another early tale -- the story that, when it appeared, led to publishers Pan approaching Hamilton to see if he had, by any chance, a novel available. Another story with a neat resolution, it's a slow piece, with little sense of a complete backdrop.

Oddly, the weakest story of all, "New Days, Old Times" is the other original: an angry response to the way the atrocities of history seem inevitably to repeat themselves in a relentless, atrocious cycle. Admirable sentiments, but it's an overlong one idea story ­­ an over-fat vignette, rather than a complete short story ­­ that adds little to the collection.

A Second Chance at Eden is an interesting artefact -- plotting, as it does, the first seven years of the career of one of this decade's great sf discoveries -- and it is one that is highly recommended by infinity plus for the heights it scales. But it does show where Hamilton's strengths lie: where his novels are two or three times the length of those by most other authors, so too is his short fiction, and it appears that he's more comfortable with novelettes and novellas than with genuine short stories.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 14 November 1998