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The Reality Dysfunction Peter F Hamilton (Macmillan, 16.99, 960pp, hc). January 1996. Cover by Jim Burns. [Published in two volumes in the US, as: The Reality Dysfunction, Part One: Emergence (July 1997, Warner Aspect); and The Reality Dysfunction, Part Two: Expansion (August 1997, Warner Aspect).]

Previously, I concluded a review of Peter Hamilton's The Nano Flower with the words, 'I was left feeling, well yeah, but what else can this guy do?' What he's done is The Reality Dysfunction, all 960 pages of it.

My first reaction when a book this size lands on my doormat is to ask, 'Why?' Does the writer really need this much space? In the time it takes me to read this I could read 3 or 4 slimmer novels, the total impact of which will nearly always be greater than that of a single novel of this size. That single novel would need to be a hell of a book to keep me hooked - and convinced - all the way to the end. (And this is only the first part of a trilogy...)

The trouble is, this one didn't even get me hooked from the start. Which is a pity as, once you're past the first 60 or 70 pages, The Reality Dysfunction is a relentlessly good read. But it opens with a sub-Star Wars space battle which, despite the meticulous description, I found hard to visualise. By page 15 I was thoroughly irritated by the lengthy discourses on planetary dynamics and evolution - another 945 pages of this?

Thankfully, the answer is no. What we have is galaxy-spanning SF, with interplanetary warfare, an innocent transcendental race being drawn into Big Events, an aging starship returning to Saturn to mate and die, a treasure hunt in the orbiting ruins of a long-lost alien civilization. And more, much more.

If the term Golden Age can be used to describe a type of SF, as well as simply a period, then this is Golden Age SF for the '90s. High SF, if you will: what outsiders think SF is all about, without most of the clichés. Plus a healthy dose of devil worship, of course - Stephen King meets Robert Heinlein, perhaps.

Although I rate Hamilton very highly as a writer of rip-roaring techno-thrillers, I had some major reservations about his first three novels. The politics were a largely unconvincing cut and paste job of the '70s Left-Right divide; while his technological extrapolation was top-rate, his climatological extrapolation was rather more dodgy. And, perhaps most crucially, his characterisation was very black and white - the good guys almost unpalatably good, the villains unremittingly bad. The characterisation is a lot more convincing now, but it's still not the author's greatest strength. One illustration of this is sex, of which there's rather a lot in The Reality Dysfunction. Now it's not the quantity I object to, it's the quality: they're always so bloody good - multiple orgasms, hundreds of positions, virtually no recovery time... And it's not even that it makes me feel inadequate. Sex is a complex thing. It involves jealousies, insecurities, misunderstandings, conflicts, and more. It's a wonderful opportunity for the author to explore characters and how they interact (in more than just a physical sense), an opportunity largely ignored here.

Hamilton has a strong tendency to describe every character in detail: personality encapsulated in hair-style and outfit. Indeed, my biggest complaint about his writing is the overpowering compulsion he seems to have to describe everything. He's done an astounding job of world-building, and don't we know it! Every planet is given a full history, every setting described intimately. Every character is given a potted, or not so potted, history. Every time a starship opens a wormhole it's described in detail. This is an incredibly dramatic and powerful scene the first few times it's described, but by page 830 it becomes just a little much.

I'm bitching, I know. It's a hell of a book - any other writer would have mined all the ideas contained in The Reality Dysfunction for three or four novels. But, as with Hamilton's earlier novels, I feel a little cheated. It could have been so good... At 700 or 800 pages, with the over-description and perhaps a few unnecessary sequences removed, this would have been one of the finest SF adventures I've read. As it is, I ended up feeling that there was something missing. Or that there should have been something missing, if you see what I mean.

Note. It's wise not to be too harsh about Hamilton's work: a reviewer who was somewhat critical of Mindstar Rising has a cameo role in The Reality Dysfunction - as an ugly, cruel, troll-like monster. Mind you, even a friend appears as a corpse...

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 6 April 1997