Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton
Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton (Del Rey, 2012) is a remarkable work of fiction. It runs to 951 pages plus prefatory timeline and cast list. This makes it one of the longer books on the market. So before you even think of buying it, ask yourself whether you have the time and patience to read it through to the end. Even at my probably higher than average reading speed, I spread it over three days. This leads me to make a somewhat facile point. There’s a phenomenal amount of detailed work involved in writing a book this long. First you have to devise a plot with enough complexity to unwind in an unforced way but hold the reader’s interest. It must be peopled by reasonably credible characters and what they do must make sense in the context. Second, this is both a police procedural and an interplanetary dispute involving the themes of colonisation, cloning and life extension, with potential aliens waiting to strike. This requires the creation of future technology to make the medical breakthroughs, support law enforcement and develop the hardware to transport humanity to different planets “out there”. More importantly, there has to be a sufficient link between the homicide investigation in our future version of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the events happening elsewhere (and elsewhen), i.e. the identification of the murderer on Earth has to have a pay-off in interplanetary terms. In all these purely mechanical features, I can report a modest triumph. The investment of effort by the author has produced a stunningly coherent plot with the twin narrative arcs intertwining most effectively as we build up to the climax and the emotionally satisfying epilogue. Unfortunately, this demonstration of writing craft does not prevent the book from growing rather boring for all it tends into “alien monster” and space opera territory.
At this point, as a Geordie, I should disclose my interest in books that purport to show Newcastle and its culture. For the record, the Great North Road is the route taken by coaches out of London heading north. For a while the old A1 used to follow it but, as towns and cities were bypassed, few today will remember it. Making allowances for this novel being set in 2141 AD, it keeps the layout of the city substantially in line with current reality and, albeit somewhat repetitively, it replicates some of the speech rhythms and uses some of the more common endearments and expressions. This came as a slight surprise since I’m reading the ARC of the US edition. I’m not sure what American readers will make of some of the dialogue. Not that it needs subtitles, of course. It carefully avoids anything that might take us into the dialect (the little that remains of it today). But some of the speech pattern is captured and it might be a little “alien” to modern ears. To be honest, I’m not sure this is a success. I think southerners should stick to writing in a language they know.
Anyway, we start off following Sidney Hurst as he picks up the political hot potato of a murder involving the North family. This is a multigenerational family of clones that have come to dominate the world economy by developing an oil substitute on the planet called St Libra. Using “gate technology” the family is pumping some 60% of Earth’s needs as the book starts. The enduring problem for the detectives is their inability to identify which of the clones has been killed. Despite their best efforts, all they manage to do for the early part of the book is to identify where the body was dumped into the River Tyne using one of the fairly anonymous taxis as transport. However, it’s the murder method that sets alarm bells ringing. It matches a multiple homicide just over twenty years ago on on St Libra. At the time, a woman who was initially considered a survivor, was later convicted of the murder. Since the method is identical and the woman is still in prison, the file has to be reopened. She has always alleged that an alien was the killer. This has never seemed very likely because, apart from extensive vegetation, there’s no life on St Libra. Equally, there’s no obvious way an alien could have come to Earth for this killing. Indeed, since local gang members were actively involved in dumping the body, it seems even less likely an alien could have recruited them. The more probable explanation is some kind of corporate dispute between different factions in the North clan. Except. . .
So on a safety-first basis, our convicted murderer is given the chance to go back to St Libra on a search for evidence that there really are aliens in the jungle. At a stroke, we therefore have the potential for a rerun of Predator (1987) on St Libra and Predator 2 (1990) in Newcastle. Both films have the great virtue of relative brevity as the humans are whittled down to Arnold Schwarzenegger or Danny Glover. Unfortunately, after 200 pages, we’re still chasing taxis in Newcastle. Hardly the same level of economy to get us into the thick of the action. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this would have been a great novel at half the length. Even when we do get ourselves to St Libra and the sun begins to misbehave, the jungle encampment and forced withdrawal sequence is interminable. I stopped caring who the different characters were. The rather strange religion of some government officers is also an unnecessary complication. Although I understand the slightly paranoid stance of the Earth government, their doomsday approach is a nonstarter if this means affecting the substitute oil production on St Libra. Earth cannot so casually threaten to cut off 60% of its fuel supply. There’s also a strange disconnect between the unstoppable terraforming performed by the Zanth and the immediate problem. Although it does tie together in a somewhat ironic way as part of the climax, I’m still not quite sure whether the threat of the Zanth was actually resolved. There’s a hint on the last page that it is, but it would be nice to have a little more detail.
Overall, I rose to the challenge and read it all. I don’t think the test of my patience made me a better human being. I ended up feeling frustrated that I was being buried in a morass of potentially relevant information but without any certainty that it would all be important in any way. If you like a slow but steady read with a lot of political and economic background to flesh out the setting for the action, Great North Road is for you. If you prefer a page-turner thriller set in the future with guns blazing and crazed aliens leaping murderously out of the jungle, watch Predator again.
The artwork from the UK edition is by Steve Stone and rather beautiful.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.