Salvation, by Peter F. Hamilton (Del Rey 978-0399178764, $30, 576pp, hardcover) September 2018
Peter Hamilton just keeps getting better and better with each book, more assured and more craftsmanly adroit, and more inventive. And to his credit, he wants to stretch and try different things, not just repeat himself. His newest–the first in a fresh cycle–is, to my eye, rather different than any of his previous books. I detect a distinct Neal Stephenson vibe layered atop his own signature Hard SF moves, and surely anyone who enjoyed The Diamond Age, Reamde or Seveneves will find much that is resonant to allure them here, in addition to Hamilton’s more cosmic attractions.
The book’s structure is threefold. Chapters alternate among the “realtime present” of the year 2204; flashbacks a decade or so prior; and a venue we soon determine to be some mysterious future, the “Year 583 AA (After Arrival).” This last timeline will mature through a further ten years of action. And while the characters are consistent among the first two venues, there is an entirely different cast for the third.
What’s the year 2204 like? Pretty amazing and different. The key development is stargates. Connexion Corp, founded and run by one Ainsley Zangari, has made every point in the universe “one step away” from every other. That’s true, anyhow, once a portal is initially planted somewhere and joined to the network. Thus human expansion through the galaxy is limited to sublight speeds. However, once a probe ship reaches, say, Alpha Centauri and opens the door there–bingo, you can build the living room of your house around another star, while your bedroom is on a moon of Jupiter (a “portalhome”). And naturally, the surface of the Earth itself is spiked with portals so that you can live in London and commute to Beijing each morning without a second thought. (Hamilton’s depiction of portal infrastructure is sophisticated and clever; we are a long way from Larry Niven’s innovative but ultimately simple flash crowds.) Oh, yes, this has all given us a post-scarcity setup with infinite power derived from portals tapping the heart of the Sun.
The governing system that runs this, a kind of outgrowth of our own global capitalism, is known as the Universal. They are ruthless in their defense of stability, mandating exile to a harsh world dubbed Zagreus for many antisocial offenses, from terrorism on down. However, there is an alternate culture, the Utopials, which is marked by a modulated pacifism and a key biological difference from the rest of humanity: every Utopial cycles on regular basis through two gender identities, male and female.
All other technologies–weapons, medicine, matter manipulation–are likewise advanced. Medicine received a big boost when the only known alien race arrived in the solar system. Friendly but with a weird philosophy involving the endtime Omega Point, the Olyix gifted humanity with the miraculous Kcell tech, able to extend lifespans and rebuild bodies.
So what could upset this arcadian applecart? The discovery of an unknown alien ship on a distant planet–a ship filled with semi-butchered yet still living humans.
Immediately the Connexion Corp mounts a top-secret mission to Nkya. Helmed by an employee named Feriton, the posse consists of several deadly security experts, masters of dirty tricks and brute survivalism, all dedicated in their varying manners to the perpetuation of civilization: Yuri, Callum, Jessika, Kandara, Alik… While the realtime mission proceeds, we get long detailed backstories on each of these people, bringing their characters fully to life. At the end, the secret of the alien ship on Nkya is disclosed, and we loop–via a highly effective Big Reveal–directly into that strange future we have been getting interstitially.
Our scenario for the year 583-593 AA is this: on the world of Juloss, a team of youngsters is being put through insanely demanding military training exercises to become defenders of humanity. For in this faroff time, our species is not living out the straightline extension of the easy life of 2204, but rather is a hunted remnant, shorn of its old glory. Unnamed aliens have us on the run, and the boy and girl soldiers and strategists–a romantic duo of Dellian and Yirella forms our core focus–are mankind’s only hope for survival–or, even better, kicking alien butt.
Hopscotching among these three segments, Hamilton gives us a tale–or at least the maximally effective start of a tale–that calls to mind such classic sagas as Greg Benford’s Galactic Center series and Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee cycle. Not content with inventing the highly real and tangible future of 2204, he also slathers on the deracinated kicks of 583 AA. It’s a bravura performance from start to finish.
Hamilton is not shy about introducing topical sociopolitical matters. Yuri’s defense of the brutal often extra-legal exile process is highly utilitarian and controversial, and is reminiscent of the way the neo-Victorians in The Diamond Age treated offenders. Likewise, the gender issues and pacifism of the Utopials is sure to provoke discussion among readers, as is the treatment of the child soldiers, a la Ender’s Game. But Hamilton does not shy away from these hot-button topics. Instead, like his pioneering ancestor Heinlein (Tunnel in the Sky, “Coventry,” and Starship Troopers are all relevant here), he lays out the various viewpoints, dramatizes them, and lets the intelligent reader draw his or her own conclusions.
But this is hardly even the meat of the book. The riffs on Fermi’s Paradox, the culture-building and the character interplay are all superior. (Consider the Feriton expedition as akin to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.) The flashback sequences are remarkable, heart-stopping mini-thrillers, kind of police procedurals-cum-spy-capers. Hamilton should really be tasked with doing the script for the next Mission: Impossible film. And, of course, the delicious gadget-porn is shamelessly on order:
Her armor was a skintight one-piece, with five individual protective layers; the innermost being thermal regulation, keeping her body temperature constant. Then a self-sealing pressure membrane for biological or toxic weapons, which also allowed her to function in a vacuum or underwater environment. Another thermal layer, this time to resist both high temperature or subzero exposure; on top of that was a radiation reflector, which could ward off energy beams and em pulses. And then the external layer—four centimeters of kinetic protection armor, which was flexible enough to give her full motion, but would harden when struck by bullets or shrapnel; it was also resistant to monomolecule filament. The helmet was a featureless shark-profile, equipped with active and passive sensors, interfaced with Zapata and providing enhanced vision through her tarsus lenses. Her slim segmented backpack provided life support, power for beam weapons, and projectile magazine storage, as well as a field medic kit. Microdrones clung to the base like a cluster of black beetles. Wrist bracelets contained gamma-laser emitters and mini-grenade launchers, while her left forearm had a vambrace mount for a small magrail rifle, with a projectile feed from her backpack.
In short, Hamilton is juggling chainsaws while simultaneously doing needlepoint over a shark tank. It’s a virtuoso treat, and I for one can hardly wait for Salvation Lost.
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