The Neutronium Alchemist Peter F Hamilton
(Macmillan, £17.99, 996 pages, hardcover). October 1997. Cover by Jim Burns. [Published in two volumes in the US, as: The Neutronium Alchemist, Part One: Consolidation (April 1998, Warner Aspect); and The Neutronium Alchemist, Part Two: Conflict (May 1998, Warner Aspect).]
And so we come to The Neutronium Alchemist, part two of the Night's Dawn trilogy (or, if you're in the US, parts three and four of the Night's Dawn sextet -- apparently US publishers can't handle books on this enormous scale).
Middle novels are, conventionally, the weak link: the first of a trilogy should be fresh and new, the final book should have all the dramatic impact of closing the plot-lines; the middle novel is neither one thing nor the other, and usually suffers markedly by comparison.
It's very rarely better than the first. But then Night's Dawn is hardly your conventional formulaic trilogy...
I approached this novel with serious reservations.
One of these is the sheer bulk of the book: in my review of The Reality Dysfunction (part one of the trilogy, or the first two parts in the US) I argued that it could have been one of the finest sf adventures I'd read, if only it had been two-thirds the size, with a lot of what appeared to be superfluous backfill and over-description hacked away. In general, I'd rather read two or three entirely different novels than one so huge. That criticism doesn't apply to The Neutronium Alchemist -- almost uniquely, this is a novel that actually needs all of its near-thousand pages without flagging at any point. This is one of the finest sf adventures I've read.
A more significant reservation was that the first volume, although it started out as core sf ("Golden Age sf for the 1990s", I called it) it took a distinct turn into dark fantasy. To be specific, due to some kind of rupture in the fabric of the universe the dead started to return, taking over the bodies of the living and spreading their kind through a combination of terror, torture and their extreme 'energistic' abilities (hurling fireballs, creating matter out of nothing, etc). The Reality Dysfunction read as if it had been produced by Robert Heinlein possessed by Stephen King, to use an appropriate analogy.
But despite all the dark fantasy trappings, the Night's Dawn trilogy is science fiction. And that was my problem. We're meant to take all this stuff about possession and miraculous powers seriously... When fantasy tropes intrude into sf territory, the writer is asking us, "What if the universe really works like this?" And it just doesn't.
I'd never argue that it's not the place of science fiction to address the big questions: the meaning of life, the existence or nature of gods, and so forth. My reservations about this aspect of the Night's Dawn trilogy are more specific: I'm uncomfortable with such a literal transplantation of horror tropes into high tech futuristic sf. It just doesn't seem proper...
...But it makes for one hell of a story!
On the planet of Norfolk, a very English, gentrified rural idyll, the soi-disant dark messiah Quinn Dexter is leading a revolution against the established squirearchy. To most observers (and participants) it's a class struggle, disenchanted workers rising against the ruling minority. But it soon emerges that the rebels have been possessed by the souls of the dead. The uprising on Norfolk is the first step in Dexter's quest to bring the gospel of God's Brother to the universe -- to make Night dawn forever, in his words.
Meanwhile, Ralph Hiltch -- a survivor of one of the first major battles with the possessed in The Reality Dysfunction -- leads a security team down to the planet of Ombey. Their mission: to find three people who have been "contaminated" by an "energistic virus" (which is how the authorities initially rationalise possession).
Meanwhile, on the planet of New California the possession is spreading rapidly. Brad Lovegrove is possessed by an apparent madman. (It's become something of a sport with Hamilton's work to spot the in-jokes: his little revenges against the critics, and so on. Does this character really have anything in common with the author's friend James Lovegrove? And what does another character have to do with the author's agent, I wonder? Back to the story...) It emerges that Lovegrove's possessor had died in the early 20th Century of neurosyphalitic madness and is having trouble getting to grips with a healthy brain after all this time. It turns out that Lovegrove's possessor is one Alphonse Capone. And it turns out that Al Capone is really very efficient at leading the possessed to ever greater conquests...
Meanwhile -- and here, we finally reach the plot-line that gives the book its title -- we meet Dr Alkad Mzu, a renegade physicist whose home planet was destroyed thirty years ago in a bitter racial war. Dr Mzu has just escaped after 25 years' imprisonment. Her crime: Dr Mzu invented a mega-weapon capable of destroying entire stars, the Alchemist of the title. And now she is free she has revenge on her mind.
This star-buster is the McGuffin that drives the overall plot of this volume: against the backdrop of spreading possession, all the colonised galaxy's security agencies are intent on tracing Mzu and stopping her from using the Alchemist. And somehow Joshua Calvert, hero of The Reality Dysfunction, gets dragged into the chase.
And it certainly is an exhilarating trip, one that skilfully hauls the reader through nearly a thousand pages of slowly unfolding back-plot: the build-up to the final volume in the series, The Naked God.
Taken at a surface level, The Neutronium Alchemist presents a very grim view of humankind. It seems to be arguing that we are all, at core, capable of the utmost brutality. But as the back-plot unravels -- the more philosophical attempt to understand what is actually happening and how the undead can ultimately be defeated -- it becomes clear that Hamilton is patiently holding back. He doesn't believe that we are really like that (although this trilogy is clearly arguing that rather a lot of us are or could be). What about all the good guys? And just what do his two enigmatic races of aliens know that they won't tell the humans? We have to wait until 1999 for the answers to such questions. We have to wait for The Naked God (or, presumably, The Naked God parts one and two if you live in the US).
Hamilton improves with every novel, so that now even a near-thousand page novel is an engrossing, smooth read, with few of the flaws of his earlier work.
There are, however, considerable practical difficulties in dealing with a single fiction on such a vast scale. The reader has an enormous amount of information to keep track of -- not only from this volume, but through the frequent references to what has gone before. The burden on the reader is increased by Hamilton's strategy of simply picking up where The Reality Dysfunction left off -- we have little backfill to jog our memories. This approach is perhaps inevitable, given the scale of the project, but it will present even bigger problems for readers when the final volume reaches us some time in 1999.
But the fact that so many readers will wait so eagerly is testament to Hamilton's achievement. I've read a number of books for review recently, but this is the only one I've been unable to put down until the early hours of the morning. For one reason or another I finish most review novels with feelings of disappointment. But the only cause of disappointment with The Neutronium Alchemist is that I will have to wait so long for the next thousand or so pages. It really is a superb novel.
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© Keith Brooke 17 January 1998