Echoing the hugeness of scope of Peter F. Hamilton's recent space operas, but plotted like his earlier thrillers, Watching Trees Grow is, for all its occasional clumsiness of execution, an extremely striking work. The last of PS Publishing's quartet of "Futures" novellas by leading British SF writers, Trees reads like a marriage between the film Night of the Generals and Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, unlike some an amusing and effective union....
Night of the Generals (this is based on recollections of by no means absolute accuracy) featured Omar Sharif in the role of a German criminal investigator during World War Two. What matters for the present comparison is Sharif's unshakable determination to solve the murder case to which he has been assigned: he is ascertaining the identity of a single high-ranking murderer while, around him, Europe collapses, bombs fall, populations perish or are displaced, millions are exterminated, and the enemy closes in. None of this matters, only the case. Imagine this single-mindedness in the context of the accelerated future-historical narrative of an SF novel like Schismatrix: centuries pass, the human species is transformed over and over again, vast technologies flash by the reader with ever increasing exoticism, but a murder investigation, unexceptional in itself, goes on and on.... Such a vertiginous detection is the substance of Watching Trees Grow; and the experiment succeeds rather well.
Hamilton's setting is an alternate Earth--an alternate Solar System, really--in which humanity has achieved a form of immortality by the time of the Industrial Revolution. In a tantalisingly vague manner, Hamilton intimates that, somehow, the Roman Empire of this universe lasted beyond its natural term, and that its Emperors conducted breeding programmes which, in a quest for perfect resilience in gladiators, gave rise to Families of exceptional longevity. These now rule the world, consigning mortal "Shorts" to evolutionary oblivion, and commanding all the Earth's resources in a mixed spirit of competition and co-operation. But at the same time, conservative social values persist, in particular the Catholic Church's proscription of birth control; overpopulation is a dire threat, and a rapid pace of technological innovation is crucial if a Malthusian catastrophe is to be averted. As the novella opens, in A.D. 1832, scientific research is a priority endeavour, at the University of Oxford as elsewhere; but then a student with immense potential is found murdered in his College, and traditional notions of justice are invoked....
The suspects are for the most part members of the emerging technocracy, and their possible motives and ostensible alibis are all subjected to rigorous examination, as in any homicide inquiry. But the victim was a potential immortal, and the death of such a person is regarded with naturally exaggerated horror in Hamilton's scenario; and as the investigator is an immortal himself, he is capable of extremely unusual persistence in his search for the killer. Evidence can be stored for decades or centuries, until technology has become sophisticated enough to analyse it properly; the true perpetrator of the crime can be hunted to other planets and beyond, as the Families' reach grows ever longer. Trees' thriller plot, while compressed into under a hundred pages, extends through astonishing leaps of detective technique, themselves a microcosm of a far more remarkable panorama of relentlessly expanding human capability. Almost anything becomes possible, basic understandings of almost everything change, but still the criminal is pursued with indefatigable commitment. Hamilton's point seems to be that radical transformation is inevitable, but that certain verities--morally, ethically, or culturally relative though they may seem in a posthuman context--must and will remain constant.
Watching Trees Grow is a memorable rendition of the sort of sheer cognitive momentum that only SF can truly deliver. It invites expansion, into Hamilton's next great epic.
(Order from PS Publishing, 98 High Ash Drive, Leeds LS17 8RE, England, or visit www.editorial-services.co.uk/pspublishing)
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© Nick Gevers 4 November 2000