Big is Beautiful

Published in SFX 32 (December 1997).

Taking six years to write, Peter Hamilton's cataclysmic trilogy will ultimately be nearly 3,000 pages long! Mary Branscombe finds out where the author gets his sense of scale.

Peter F. Hamilton is fond of combining disaster with science fiction. He bought his first typewriter in 1987, accumulated "a huge pile of rejected short stories" over the next three years and then produced Mindstar Rising. The book started his career, as well as that of Greg Mandel, an ex-squaddie private detective with a telepathic implant in a tropical Britain flooded by global warming. After two successful sequels (A Quantum Murder and The Nanoflower), he turned to a larger stage -- and much larger books. The Reality Dysfunction (SFX9, A-) is an epic space opera dealing with alien civilizations, convicts, colonists and smugglers plus a nightmare taking over the galaxy -- and it runs to 950 pages. He has just produced the second book, the 996-page The Neutronium Alchemist (SFX31, A-) and promisees the third volume of The Night's Dawn trilogy, The Naked God, before the end of the century. Quite a way from those rejected short stories.

Before he sold Mindstar Rising to Pan, Hamilton was repeatedly told that the book was too close to home and that there wasn't much of a market for "Rutland SF," but as a Rutland man "born and bred!" he couldn't see the problem. "I sent Mindstar to one agent and it came back, 'This is unpublishable, it's too parochial.' Yet, I've just managed to sell the whole Mandel trilogy to America and Tor Books didn't seem to think that was a problem at all. People have been very curious. Why set it in Rutland? Well, why not? I'm sure that if I'd set Mandel and the same problems in somewhere like Los Angeles or even London, people wouldn't have raised an eyebrow but they don't seem to associate countryside England with the future. It's very strange! I can't quite work out why -- it's almost as if they don't expect us to have a future, don't expect us to be and different than we are today."

The other disadvantage was Greg Mandel's politics. As Hamilton puts it, Mandel was "on the side of the right wing at the time" and he starts the book tracking down the corrupt socialists who have brought the country to its knees. Having been vilified on occasion for sharing Mandel's views, Hamilton is keen to point out that such comments are rather wide of the mark. "It's certainly not any kind of polemic -- it's basically a detective thriller series, I wasn't trying to make any great political points at all. The thing with the Greg books was, obviously, once you've got the background you have to stick to it. Mindstar Rising was conceived in the late '80s and early '90s, the days of the Kinnock-Thatcher divide, whereas today we've got Blair and Hague, and who can tell them apart? Quite why they haven't both defected to the Lib-Dems with Emma Nicholson, I don't know.

"If anything, it was a comment on the extremism of the country at that time. If I were writing it today, Europe would be the deciding influence on the political background -- into Europe and out of Europe. It was a child of its times -- as is The Reality Dysfunction. I was doing some great capacious notes for it and that was about the time of the Vance Owen peace plans in Bosnia. It was on the television every single night, this dreadful conflict over there. We were getting reports from the ground, of people fighting, and then we were getting reports from teh toop and the two were completely disconnected. I got very world weary and cynical about all this, which is why I put in all the ethnic streaming planets -- a comment that people can live in their own groups but refuse to live peacefully with different groups as neighbours. It's not a state of the nation novel, but it does reflect what's going on around the writer at the time -- even science fiction does that!"

After three books, Hamilton felt that another Mandel story would leave him "very much stuck in a rut," not least because heroes with superpowers make it rather difficult to come up with problems they can't solve. But is he abandoning Mandel for ever or will there be another book once he's finished the current trilogy? "Everybody asks that! There is a little whodunnit novella on file but The Nanoflower did tie it all up fairly well. If I do ever get round to writing it, it will be set just after A Quantum Murder, I'd like to think I could come back to him some day -- Greg was a great way to start a career."

The hefty tomes of Night's Dawn are set further into the futura and far from sticking to Rutland, they roam right aross the galaxy; by the end of book two we haven't even reached Earth yet. Space battles, fantastic weapons and galactic empires -- there's more than a touch of space opera here. "I vividly remember reading EE 'Doc' Smith when I was about 13 -- probably the best age to read him; I'm sure it would all fall apart horribly now, if I should read him again -- and I always loved his space operas. This gave me a chance to write my own!"

Don't go expecting a light-hearted romp where the hero can't lose, though. Plenty of scenes would fit right in to the average horror novel and every scream is deliberate. "Hopefully none of it too gratuitoous! It is to some extent a merging of the genres, the supernatural versus superscience, supertechnology... To hark back to EE Smith again, the old idea of the evil empire wanting to take over planets from the good guys -- "we're after your women and your gold" -- really doesn't hang together these days. If you have a society as big and as powerful as this Confederation, it really does have to something quite out of the ordinary to threaten such a culture. They have tremendous industrial and military resources available to them, yet they're caught on the hop by this menace."


Hamilton is fascinated by the possibilities of science, but he likes to mix them in with other genres. At times, the Greg Mandel books are as much corporate thriller as science fiction. "It's not so much that science fiction is mined out, but this cross-fertilisation does bring in fresh angles, fresh aspects which you can use to explore people."

The mix has proved popular. "Somebody called be genre-bending, which is a great phrase. I think if there were complaints, it was 'It's a cliffhanger and it's only volume one!' And this is just the first party of the trilogy -- it's a very long story."

That's something of an understatement. With a case of literally thousands on dozens of planets, thoughts naturally turn to other epics like Dune -- but even Hamilton didn't expect it to be "quite this long." The first book just got away from him.

I started writing The Reality Dysfunction thinking it would be about 750 pages, and the characters and situations just grew... It would up at 950 pages. Which gives you a lot of room to play about with concepts. Overall, it's probably about faith; faith in yourself and faith in human nature. Individual characters make their own progress, almost like A Pilgrim's Progress, with Joshua's travels helping him come to terms with himself. The hero of The Reality Dysfunction Joshua Calvert, is the over-sexed starship captain of the Lady Mac, a man with the gift of luck and an eye for the ladies -- Ed). There was actually quite a lot cut between the manuscript and what you hold in your hands. We snipped about 35,000 words -- my editor spared you that, give him credit!

And, yes, it does take a long time writing that much. We saw the proofs of The Reality Dysfunction in December 1995, and The Neutronium Alchemist should be out this month. "I started off with the plot idea and then I had to build the Confederation and the history behind it, which took three or four months. There's virtually a book of notes on the background of planets and people and history.

"Both The Reality Dysfunction and The Neutronium Alchemist took about 18 to 20 months to finish, and I expect The Naked God will take the same -- and I'm regretting it already! Scheduled publication is 1999 and I'm on chapter four already.

In between, there's going to be a collection of short stories next year. It takes you through the Confederation time-line up to the time of Joshua Calvert and Quinn Dexter. It actually ends with the recent Interzone story, 'Escape Route,' the last fight of the Lady Mac befoth Joshua takes it over. It's set to guide you through Confederation history. There's also a novella which hasn't been published before. It's how Edenism got started. 'A Second Chance Of Eden,' which is a whodunnit. That's to give me a bit of saving grace and let me write volume three!

"It's a wonderful feeling of achievement when you finish something this size, but writing solidly for that length of time is draining. I don't thing I'll be writing this length of trilogy again."

Unlike some writers we could mention, Hamilton isn't pushing up the word cound gratuitously. "One of the reasons I did have it this length is that I'm not entirely concentrating on the heroes and villains. There are little people as well, with intersting stories. How does a conflict of this size and this magnitude affect little people? It's something I think we tend to overlook in the genre -- how people like that are caught up in events."

The "little people" can be just as fascinating as the main characters, providing you remember who they are when they crop up later in the story. Hamilton confesses to making "capacious notes" to keep track of it all. "That's why there's a cast list in The Neutronium Alchemist. It's bound to crop up on something this scale, unfortunately. It's a question of where you draw the line on even the cast of characters list, which goes on for pages. Hopefully, the main plot threads you can associate with and keep remembering." And the background details and the sheer number of characters and locations certainly make it all feel totally real... "It's one of the things I particularly like about Tolkien. There's this impression of background, this solidity."

Tolkien's not his only favourite though. "Well, just take a look at the shelves behind me! I started off with Doc Smith at 13 and probably <missing word on copy> before that and then the usual route -- Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Also, Noven to some extent; certainly his '70s works were excellent, I thought. And some Ben Bova. More recently, it's stuff like Julian May, Joe Haldeman, Tad Williams, Paul McAuley, Ian McDonald and Robert Silverberg. I really liked his Majupoor series."

The latest rumours are that there is "some interest" in doing a film of the whole Night's Dawn trilogy, which could take quiet a while. Hamilton is dubious as to whether they could manage it.

"Well, there's interest in that one production company and one producer have been making enquiries of my agent about whether the rights have been sold and, if not, would I be interested in selling them. We're pretty much at the 'wait and see' stage. I can't quite see them filming the whole series -- I mean, we've all seen Dune... There are sections you could take out of it and film but I thing filming the actual ssstiry is pretty much a no-no, unfortunately. You'd need several hours -- several tens of hours, actually -- and an awful lot of special effects. I think filming the entiry trilogy is out, but you can pick sections out, which is presumably what they'll eventually do."

In fact, he doesn't sound too taken by the idea. "It would have to be mutilated. And given how much I've put into it all... But I suppose seeing bits of it would be better that none at all." However, with his usual ingenuity, Peter Hamilton has the perfect answer -- technology to the rescue. "I think in ten years' time, when you can just feed a book straight into a computer and have it turn it into virtual reality by simple processing power, maybe that's the thing to wait for."

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