This review was originally published in Strange Horizons.
Returning to his Commonwealth universe, first presented in the duology Pandora's Star (2004) and Judas Unchained (2005), Peter Hamilton has now delivered the newest entry in a subgenre I have no choice but to call Fat Science Fiction (FSF, not to be confused with F&SF). Kevin J. Anderson has been taking advantage of this relatively new niche for several years, with his Saga of the Seven Suns, starting with Hidden Empire in 2002. He explicitly set out to bring the sort of thing he enjoys reading in long fantasy series to SF, and one can see its potential in terms of granting an author a large, imaginative canvas. A precursor to this trend might be David Brin. In hindsight his Uplift universe, and particularly the latest trilogy in that universe, had galactic scope, a large number of plots, and significant page counts, although not quite up to The Dreaming Void's level. Between the page count, the legion of viewpoint characters and plots, and the epic scale of his story, Hamilton too is bringing science fiction fans the sort of gigantic texts that have been enthralling fantasy fans for decades.
The size of Peter Hamilton's novels has been gradually increasing over time. His first novel was a normal-sized near-future SF mystery, Mindstar Rising (1992). The second book in what became a trilogy, A Quantum Murder (1994), was similarly themed and sized, but the third book, The Nano Flower (1995), was quite different, bringing in all sorts of out-there not-near-future SF elements, and also being roughly two hundred pages longer (in paperback) than its predecessors. Next up was the more overtly space-operatic Night's Dawn trilogy, each individual book of which was so long that they were split up into three duologies when published in the US. A return to shorter length extrapolative SF with 2003's Misspent Youth (which laid some of the conceptual world building ground work for the later books set in the Commonwealth universe) went more or less unnoticed by a large segment of Hamilton's usual audience. Then came the relatively enormous volumes of Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, which were not split for the US market, and their sales success, and one might say that Hamilton's course is now firmly set.
This is not a bad thing. There may not be much poetry in The Dreaming Void—mostly the sentences exist to convey information, to fill the spaces between dialogue, and to move the plot from A to B—but one doesn't read Hamilton for the language. One reads his books for the world building and the plots. In this case, the world building is meticulously done, and the epic scope gives Hamilton more than enough room to allow his imagination to run rampant. The Dreaming Void takes place roughly a thousand years after the events of Judas Unchained, and he makes sure that Void's future is much different than that of Judas, more advanced and more tech-magical. The human race has met more aliens, restructured itself politically a few times, and gone through several technological paradigm shifts. For readers who want to see futures that are detailed and lived in, this is a great big playroom of joy. Hamilton's characters come from different class backgrounds, and the multitude of characters allows him to show a broad spectrum of the possibilities available in this society.
Since we last saw them, the oldest human worlds have been losing population and seeing increasing numbers of people migrating into an AI society, ANA. ANA is divided into several factions, each with their own representatives and agendas. Within ANA, humanity is heading towards something like a technological singularity. Outside of that community, people are headed in many different directions. For those still embodied, there are various levels of body modification available, resulting in Naturals, Advancers, and Highers, each with their own set of ethics. You've also got multiples, who share a single consciousness among many different bodies. In this diversity you can see one of Hamilton's great strengths, and the way that the FSF format enables him to showcase his talents. He can show how the progress of technological development will not be monolithic—much as in the present day, we in the West enjoy computers and almost ubiquitous internet access, but many people in developing countries still lack access to reliable electricity. Progress does not progress at the same rate across all of humanity. Often in the past SF has ignored that truth, showing all of humanity existing at roughly the same level of technology at one time (consider Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, or go back to Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, for instance). This may sometimes stem from a lack of imagination, but it may sometimes stem from a lack of space. If one must concentrate on only one or two major plotlines, one cannot show a wide diversity of technological adaptation. In the epic form, where the more POV characters the merrier, one has the opportunity (still sometimes squandered; really only one POV character here is from the lower economic class, and she quickly uses her native talents to move up in the world) to show a broader range of human experience in the future.
The driving force of this trilogy, though it is rarely center stage, is a cult. Using gaiamote technology, cult members share visions from the First Dreamer, Inigo, and envision a paradise for themselves within the Void at the center of the galaxy. Many alien races have been keeping an eye on this Void, a space surrounded by seemingly impenetrable defenses that has been known to expand and devour solar systems from time to time. As the action of the story starts, the leadership of the cultists decides to take steps towards a massive migration of believers into the Void, and their actions make all the other factions very nervous. The aliens in particular worry that this will cause the Void to enter another expansion phase and destroy the galaxy. They start moving to block the pilgrimage, and thus does our multitude of plots get underway.
That would be enough for a Space Opera, perhaps, but for a Fat Science Fiction story you need more. So you also have people out looking for Inigo, who has gone into hiding from his followers; more than a few people searching for the Second Dreamer, who is sending out new dreams of the Void into the gaiafield; people playing espionage games for the various ANA factions; plus two seemingly unrelated threads. One of these is the story of Edeard, a young boy coming of age in a society that seems feudal, except for its members' rather remarkable genetic engineering capabilities and telepathy. As he grows up and changes come to his town, he discovers that he has unusual powers. The other thread belongs to Amarinta, who on another world has finally gotten a settlement from her ex-husband and is trying to make a go of it as a one-woman real estate developer. As she becomes more successful and confident, she moves through her society experiencing many of the social and sexual behaviors available in this future. So there are multiple quest narratives, some fulfilled at the end and some not, along with two coming of age narratives, for a total of nine major plotlines to keep track of. Structurally this is very similar to many fantasy series, and one simply has to wonder why it took SF this long to really start picking up on that story telling formula. Hamilton makes it look very natural, playing on the strengths of both fatness and SF.
At the beginning of the book, it seems that the Void trilogy will stand apart from the original duology, aside from passing references here and there. After all, in a thousand years history moves on, and even the most worlds-spanning catastrophe fades into the mists of time. That is pre-effective-immortality thinking however, and sooner or later a significant portion of the cast of characters from the duology shows up in The Dreaming Void. I found this a little disappointing. In a future where Hamilton had moved so far forward, realizing what a millennium could really mean in a future where technology is already so far advanced, this seemed like bringing in throwbacks, and also possibly like a sop to fans of the original books. However, their presence isn't overly distracting, and in most cases they are reasonably integrated into the plot lines; and after all, they were some of the best and brightest people around in a time of tumultuous chaos, so they are probably going to be the survivors of history. And they have (mostly) undergone some growth and change in the intervening millennia. Unfortunately, their presence means that this volume doesn't really stand alone at all. In order to really understand the nuances of what's going on, one has to go back and read Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Hamilton makes some attempt to recapitulate what the reader needs to know, but in the absence of ridiculously extensive historical infodumps (although there are a few), a new reader will be missing a lot of subtext.
At the end of The Dreaming Void, as the trilogy structure demands, we begin to see how all the plot threads might relate to each other. Some mysteries are solved but many remain, and some characters are left in shameless cliff-hangers. Hamilton is not a novice at this sort of thing. The epic host of characters, the cliff-hangers, and the multivolume doorstopper novels: this is all undeniably commercial, but just because it fits in with a marketing paradigm doesn't make it inherently bad. Science fiction as much or more than fantasy is a literature of imagination, and there is no reason why an author shouldn't use huge series of books to create a galaxy-wide playground for himself and his readers. When done well, it can also have some thematic heft to it.
For instance, here there is a lot of discussion about the effect of the pilgrimage on the Void. The alien Riel have been observing the Void for millions of years, having suffered losses the last time it went through an expansion phase. Other aliens, and now humans, have joined them in a multilateral observation effort that spans eons. None of them have been able to penetrate the boundaries of the Void—every probe sent has been destroyed, and none have sent back any useful information. There are many theories as to why: black holes at the center, an alien refuge from which intruders are repelled, or even some sort of paradise. None of these theories has garnered any empirical evidence. The only new thing that is known is that at some point, a human ship went into the Void, and after that the dreamers, led first by Inigo, began dreaming of life on a planet within the Void, apparently peopled by the descendants of that expedition ship. Are the dreams real proof of existence on the other side of the boundary? Are they a trick? A test? A hoax? No one can say for sure. So when it comes to the cultists' efforts to move their entire population of believers, numbering well over a millions souls, into the Void, no one knows exactly what will happen. But some of the alien species will fight to the death to prevent it, whatever it is. Mostly they are afraid that an action that dramatic will spawn another expansion phase, dooming thousands of worlds, but again there is no proof that will happen. No one knows what, if anything, caused the last cataclysm. No one knows what may set off another one. The arguments must go on without an accurate predictive model.
All of which seems to be rather cutting commentary on some of the scientific/political dilemmas of today (think of the analogy to global warming, for instance). But this isn't the first time Hamilton has used cultists to drive the action of his stories: in the duology it was the Starflyer cult who kept watch on invisible alien conspiracies that no one else could see. Now there are the Dreamers. True believers have always had a role in history, and it will be interesting to see how these cultists will be portrayed in the next two volumes. Will true belief be rewarded, or will true gullibility be punished? Hamilton does an excellent job of making his universe interesting enough, and his characters empathetic enough, that we will tune in once again to find out the answers to these big questions. It may be commercial, but it is also good craft.
The Fat SF story structure does give an author a lot of room to stretch his or her creative legs, and I suspect that we'll be seeing much more of this sort of thing in years to come. The Fat SF novel shares some qualities with the shelf-dominating media tie-in series novels: both present a consistent universe that can be enjoyed for a long time, with empathetic characters that the readers come to know and care about. FSF books don't have the built-in audience that the tie-in novels come with, but they are free of some of the tie-in constraints: not having to follow an existing canon means that an author can inject more suspense into a tale, and has the liberty to put major characters in real jeopardy, something that the media novels can very rarely do.
So as with all approaches to literature, FSF has its upsides and its downsides. However, it seems to complement Peter Hamilton's specific strengths well. It allows large-scale world building and provides a broad canvas for his imagination. His prose, while not inspired, moves the reader quickly through the different plots, making eight hundred pages of reading seem less onerous, while having the plots spread out over so many viewpoint characters distracts the reader from noticing that perhaps not all the characters are as three-dimensional as they could be. Obviously not every author would get the same benefits out of this kind of framework. Still, for those like Hamilton who have the imaginative volume to fill up this kind of page count (without becoming tedious), it's a framework that seems destined for success.