Hamilton, Peter. Great North Road.

NY: Del Rey, 2012.

I was hesitant about committing myself to a science fiction novel of nearly a thousand pages, by an author with whom I was not really familiar. I’m glad I finally took the plunge, though. This is, in every way, a remarkable book.

The setting is the very near future. Kane North, who literally started it all, was injured by an IED in Iraq, and the cloning experiments he began are already, in our present time, secretly under way. Augustine, Bartram, and Constantine North, who will become the most powerful men in the solar system over the coming century, are toddlers in 2014.

And, a very few years from now, a Chinese genius in physics will present a theory of “trans-spatial connection” that will allow us to go to the stars, and without crossing the space in between. This is obviously a world-changing discovery.

Most science fiction stories on the theme of instantaneous teleportation to other planets — stepping through a “gate” — posit various sorts of benign, voluntary colonies, and most assume an world government to maange them. In Hamilton’s near future, however, Earth is still divided among its many current nation-states and colonization is generally mandatory for certain groups of people. The nations of our world use the gate as an easy way to rid themselves of their insufficiently productive citizens, as well as minor infractors of the law. If you’re on welfare, or you’re caught shoplifting, off you go. They’ll give you a hectare of land, a sack of seed corn, a tent, and a small box of tools, and leave you completely on your own to survive or starve. It’s the “Australia solution” with a vengeance.

The story actually opens in January 2142, in the ancient Northumberland port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a rather gray place at the best of times. Police Detective Sid Hurst is called to the riverside to deal with a very dead body pulled from the water during the night, only to find that the dead man is a North — although, since they’re all clones of the original, he doesn’t know who it is, or which generation of which branch of the family. But it’s a very big deal and he’s not happy to be stuck with what is obviously a murder. The five deep blade wounds that nearly eviscerated the body make that clear enough.

The story starts off, then, as an unusual police procedural, in which Sid and his team of wary investigators are given every resource available to solve the crime, plus the full backing of the ultra-wealthy North family. But the focus soon splits. The method of the murder brings back memories of twenty years before, when Bartram North and all his household were slaughtered in his mansion on the North-controlled giant world of St. Libra — the only colony world not controlled by one of Earth’s national governments. Angela Tramelo, another of the principal characters, was convicted of the crime and has been in Holloway Prison ever since, still insisting, very loudly, that she’s innocent. Well, she has a perfect alibi this time.

And here’s where we meet the third major player: Col. Vance Elston of the Human Defense Agency, the military arm of Earth’s inadequate defense against the Zanthswarm, an extremely alien lifeform that has already consumed a couple of colony worlds, slipping unstoppably through the weave of space-time to attack. The Zanth are a sort of hive-mind entity and they seem not to realize our species even exists; we’re irrelevant to their quest to, apparently, transform the whole universe into more Zanth. They have become the nightmare of all of humankind.

Elston takes on the command of an expedition to the hinterland of St. Libra, trying to discover if the blood-thirsty creature with the five-bladed hands is native to that world, since it’s obvious (now) that Angela really is innocent. He even takes her along, partly to keep an eye on her and partly for her special knowledge. But Angela is a person with secrets, very big secrets, and with special abilities, too. Underestimating her could be lethal.

Often, a long novel includes too much padding — ruminations on the scenery, etc — which could easily be omitted, bringing the book down to a more standard length. That’s not the case here, though. Every page advances the story along one of its several parallel plotlines. Every page held my attention in a way that, frankly, I would not have thought possible. I wondered, at first, why this tome wasn’t published as a trilogy, but it becomes apparent that there are no “stopping points” in the narrative where one could reasonable divide the story. There’s no three-act structure, really. The story just goes on and on, remorselessly.

Another thing about an oversized novel like this is that instead of having to run multiple story lines only in parallel, you can, in theory, run them in serial. Hamilton does that to some extent, alternating chapters or sections with the two main earlier plots, but also bringing in entirely new subplots later in the book. “Later” is relative, though; after the first engrossing 250 pages, you may be startled to find you’re still only a quarter of the way into the story.

Hamilton turns out to be highly innovative at world-building and at imagining the social consequences and derivative technology of the basic inventions and changes he postulates. Nanotechnology means “smartdust,” sprayed by nozzle-trucks on the street surfaces and walls of buildings throughout Newcastle (and in all the cities on all the other worlds), each mote a tiny data-gathering machine. With the constant feed of information they collect, nothing that happens anywhere, indoors or outside, goes undetected — as long as the dust isn’t “ripped” by the city’s gangs, and as long as the city’s maintenance department keeps it renewed. Who needs CCTV? Each citizen in this future also has a “bodymesh,” a scattering of smartcells over their body and especially embedded in the irises of the eyes, which plugs one into the transnet — what the Internet will become. You can query databases, communicate with others, and order actions, and all without a phone. More than that, everyone is always connected to everyone else, all the time. Your body is both your computer and your agent for communication and action. Whisper to your smartcells and it happens. It’s a great tool for police investigation, of course. But more than that, it’s what our “information society” seems destined to become, Hamilton says. It’s a bit unnerving to contemplate in our own here-and-now, but Sid and Elston and Angela and everyone else take it all for granted, of course.

The other great technological advance is the invention of “bioil,” a universal raw material produced in immense algae paddies (especially on St. Libra, where it’s the source of the North family’s wealth) and from which almost anything inanimate can be manufactured — often just by 3-D printing. It’s the threat of losing the source of its bioil, thereby leading to global economic collapse, that leads to Elston’s expedition to St. Libra.

I don’t expect Hamilton will do a sequel to this one — the story is wrapped up very nicely at the end of it all — but it would make a terrific shared world for other authors to base their own stories in. The level of detail and the way all the technological innovation (and the social systems that result from it) dovetail is amazing. I’ve been reading science fiction avidly for sixty years and this is one of the most complex, involving, and believable futures I’ve ever experienced.

By the way, the UK is now just one district of Grande Europe, and all the major decisions come out of the bureaucracy in Brussels, but it’s interesting that Hamilton’s Tynesiders still speak pure Geordie. Some things, it appears, will never change.


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