What They Say:
Space is not the only void…
In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature’s boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary spaceborn creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialization of entire star systems. And throughout inhabited space the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp.
But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive colony planet a renegade criminal’s chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it “The Reality Dysfunction.” It is the nightmare which has prowled beside us since the beginning of history.
After Peter Hamilton worked on his Greg Mandel trilogy of books in the early 90’s, he went and began something more ambitious. Enough so that this particular style has lead to two other trilogies of books, unrelated to the trilogy that makes up Night’s Dawn, where he’s managed to one-up himself each time with the complexity of it. A lot of his core ideas are formed in this trilogy though which spans just over three thousand pages in this digital edition we picked up from the Sony eBookstore as a special which is sadly no longer available. The individual books are still there though and it’s one that definitely needs to be on everyone’s reading list if you like solid space opera with a great dose of hard science fiction thrown into it as well.
As a sprawling epic, the series is definitely one of the best as it introduces us to the 27th century where mankind has branched out into the stars in a believable way using ships that allow them to jump across great distances. A strong Confederacy has been built up that handles the core planets, deals with a separate but involved Kulu Kingdom and interacts with the subset of humanity that has partially evolved called Edenists that form a communal mind within habitats the cultivate He3 from gas giants and maintains their own fleet. The Edenists use specialized technology and affinity communications to build their bonds but these things are generally not allowed on other areas, which is why the main thrust of humanity has taken to being called Adamists.
The series introduces quite a range of characters and settings to it, from Earth with its supercops that have controlled events there for centuries to a stage one colony world. Even amongst the Edenist habitats there is one place that is separate from the rest and has ties to the Kulu Kingdom which has forbidden all Edenist technology. Most Adamist worlds are very ethnic based, something that happened once the diaspora became easier to manage as it allowed very diverse groups to avoid conflicts. Some are very distinct such as Norfolk which has taken to an English style pastoral world. Most don’t down that route, trending more towards the modern age and all that it entails.
What threatens all of this and the progress of mankind is simply an event that happens earlier than it should. Mankind has made contact with other aliens and they’re generally benign if somewhat strange and unusual. One alien they come into contact with is on a backwater colony world which opens a gateway to a place called the Beyond. It’s this contact, something that mankind should have not had to deal with for centuries more, that upsets the balance as it allows human souls from there, thirsting and hungry for the physical world, to invade the bodies of people and take them over. And it grants them incredible energistic powers to reshape themselves and the world around them. And a very strong desire to take entire worlds out of the universe to someplace they feel is safer for them so they can build the world of their true dreams.
And from there the power struggle is born as chaos flows through the Confederacy and beyond. Hamilton weaves his story across several very distinct cultures with a strong cast of characters. Much of the first quarter of the book allows us to view the planets and systems as they are, to see their strengths, the xenocs that they interact with and the weaknesses as well. The narrative is quite strong in presenting the reader with very well thought out worlds and societies. It shifts from colonists who make that first contact, which includes an exiled prisoner who believes he’s bringing Lucifer to the galaxy through his encounter with the possessed, to the kings and queens of worlds, rulers of habitats and the Edenist consensus that holds the thoughts of all of those who have passed on themselves.
Where the fun of the book lies is in the way it descends to the chaos. It’s not a problem free galaxy by any means, but the possessed are like a virus that spreads and causes innumerable problems as time goes on. While most are focused only on their pleasures or hiding from the sky that reminds them of the beyond, a select few have greater ambitions. Interestingly enough, one of the souls to come back is that of Al Capone who ends up taking over a world and in a way ruling over many of the possessed through tactics that few other possessed even think of. Capone provides an interesting difference from the rest as he manipulates events and really gives the confederacy a run for its money. Capone and the others that are brought back is where a lot of the mystery lies in that those who have been stuck in the beyond, billions of souls apparently, aren’t exactly the nicest of people. There are some that come through but the time spent there has driven many of them mad and when they achieve some form of control over their host bodies, they go wild with their abilities to shape everything to their whim.
Hamilton takes the surreal nature of events and blends it well with the space opera aspects and the more serious science elements. The number of subplots and characters going on here can be difficult to keep up with at times, but some of them end at different stages which helps since it was originally presented as a trilogy and there are jumping off points for certain characters and arcs. The core ones that carry through the entire book are the strongest though and since they’re there from the start, they provide solid anchors when everything goes pear-shaped. And it goes that way pretty hard at times with so many things going wrong. What’s really fascinating about the book is that it does draw in from the past that comes before the events taking place here. Several characters have a very lengthy history that plays into these events, but not in ways you’d expect, that it keeps you guessing and keeps it all very fresh.
While the book is full of big and fun ideas, it’s also dealing with things in a way that feels real. The characters aren’t saints and puritans, though there are puritanical areas to be sure, as they curse, have sex and discuss views on the way events are playing out. The return of souls to the the real world is something that impacts humanity in a fundamental way and it challenges religion. It also gives mankind a real problem to deal with in that if you understand that when you die you go to the beyond, what good is life and what you go through. That kind of oppressive thought permeates the book as it moves along and when the characters involved aren’t running for their lives. The straightforward look at things at key places and the way the characters act like they can make solid cognitive leaps rather than be surprised by the smallest things are big advantages to Hamilton’s writing. They’re not like characters in a horror movie who have never seen one before and can’t imagine what might come next.
The Night’s Dawn trilogy is not without its flaws however. The first is that like many series of this nature, when it gets towards the final couple hundred pages out of the three thousand it runs, it starts to lose steam. Events turn darker and darker as the threats rise, but as the remaining pages get smaller and smaller, you wonder more how it can all end in a way that makes sense. And that’s part of what else is a bit of a flaw. While we’re introduced to a few xenoc races at the start of the series, the further in it gets the more xenocs come in out of the blue that add more strange and surreal ideas to the book. It becomes too much in a way and then you start to fear that Hamilton will pull something out of the ether in order to give it all closure. It does all end admittedly well, though it can be seen as disappointing a way, and we get a good amount of closure which is difficult for any series of this scope.
The Night’s Dawn trilogy was my first exposure to Peter Hamilton’s work and it’s made me an immense fan of him. Few writers tackle this kind of scale without getting bogged down in the details so much that it ruins things. I’ve often enjoyed more serious hard SF material, but Hamilton is able to blend the space opera elements, the realism of people without dumbing it down for a clean audience, with the harder side of the science to make it work. The characters are almost all really engaging and he even makes it work with Capone and Fletcher Christian coming back to life. It’s an amazing work overall, one that has a really great take on things and keeps it so that you’re continually guessing, continually surprised and always wanting to read just a few more pages to see what’s next. Few books I can reread without all of it flooding back but returning to this book after a decade has been a great experience that I cannot recommend enough.
Novel Written By: Peter F. Hamilton