The Nano Flower Peter F Hamilton
(Pan Books, £4.99, 566pp, pb). 1995. [Published in the US by Tor.]
Since Peter Hamilton first arrived with a flurry of stories in the late Trevor Jones' Dream/New Moon magazines he has gone on to make a number of appearances in New Worlds, In Dreams and Interzone. His short fiction has been promising - if often a little unfocused - but it is with the publication of his first three novels that Hamilton has really made his impact. Each of the three features the exploits of Greg Mandel, a psi-enhanced ex-soldier; Mandel starts the series as a vigilante, killing off the supporters of the former Trotskyist Government, but his fortunes become increasingly tied to those of Event Horizon, a dynamic company steering the New Conservative Government's efforts to adapt England's economic and political structures to a post-Warming future.
Mindstar Rising, the first in the sequence, was a gripping high-tech thriller, a stunning debut marred only by a few stylistic weaknesses and a particularly naïve and simplistic extrapolation of the politics of Hamilton's mid-21st century England (the UK having long since disbanded). These weaknesses had largely been eradicated by the time of A Quantum Murder (although still bound by the political framework established in Mindstar Rising, Hamilton handled this aspect far more surely - the politics were more credibly a 21st century development of the 1980s Left-Right dichotomy as opposed to a mere transplanting of that dichotomy). My only real complaint about A Quantum Murder was that, for a whodunnit, the ending was telegraphed early on.
The future in these novels is meticulously mapped out: a ballsy post-cyberpunk mélange. The action revolves around corporate warfare where companies defend themselves with enormous security departments and attack their rivals through the less legitimate means of 'ware hotrods, freelance soldiers known as tekmercs and just about any form of corruption you can imagine. Hamilton writes about the beautiful rich in their high-tech, glossy world, on the leading edge of technological breakthrough - all designer clothes and cyber-factories. His grasp of techno-jargon is impressive: his love for lengthy explanation of his innovations would be a major flaw if his powers of description were not so great.
Yet, despite the attention to detail, this future never really rings true. The political rationale matures by the end of book three, but it is still limited by that over-simplistic and old-fashioned - even today - Left-Right split. More importantly, these stories are set in a future where Greenhouse Warming is presented as history, not an on-going process: it led to ten years of dictatorship and was then 'solved' almost completely by twelve years of tough free market Conservatism. Now everything is rosy (and warm ), with cheap, no-consequences energy and a happy, stable society. Although I disagree with the politics, my big argument is with the Warming rationale: not even the most extreme of gradual-change models proposes such a dramatic warming a mere fifty or sixty years from now, yet Hamilton's future England is full of tropical vegetation and 'muggy days of January'.
Climate systems might 'flip', of course - there is already evidence that for the last two years an area in the North Atlantic where the Gulf Stream sinks has been disrupted - but if they do we can be pretty certain the result will not be a uniform warming by several degrees across the entire globe: if the Gulf Stream fails, Britain will become colder, not warmer, we'll have tundra, not lemon groves and bougainvillea.
Hamilton is in many ways an unsubtle writer: his good guys are almost unpalatably good, his villains unremittingly bad. His novels are unashamedly action-packed shoot-'em-ups: with baddies so entirely evil the only solution is to shoot them dead. Indeed, Hamilton's work has a lot in common with the James Bond novels and films (and I mean that as a double-edged compliment: although they are thoroughly flawed, I adore the Bond books); if Fleming had written in the age of the doorstep-sized novel, he would have written books very like these.
For if Hamilton's future doesn't stand up as a believable extrapolation of current trends, it does create a wonderful setting for an action-packed techno-thriller of a very high calibre. The Nano Flower opens with a tekmerc crapping an electronic cockroach and then remotely steering it through the sewers, the start of a corporate data-snatch which doesn't go quite as planned. Meanwhile, a high-class prostitute delivers an exotic flower to Julia Evans, the multi-billionairess owner of Event Horizon. And, of course, our psi-boosted hero, Greg Mandel, is back on his Rutland farm, enjoying the quiet life until he gets the call from Julia: the flower is a message from her missing husband; more than that, the flower has a genetic code so strange it can only be alien.
From here Hamilton can't fail: already we have several story strands to follow, plenty of scope for complications as rival companies vie with Mandel to track down the source of the alien flower. Hamilton is a master of the rollercoaster thriller plot, piling on the twists and conflicts, jerking the reader's strings until the time comes to pull it all together, which he always does in rip-roaring fashion.
In fact, he does it all so well I've started to feel a vaguely perverse dissatisfaction with his work. At the end of each of the first two Greg Mandel novels I was left impatiently waiting for the next installment (not many novels leave me with that feeling, I can assure you). But after the third - his most accomplished yet - I was left feeling, well yeah, but what else can this guy do?
This review first appeared in the magazine Beyond.
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© Keith Brooke 6 April 1997