Book Review

As part of Writing201, I’ve decided to write a book review as for my opinion piece.

Book Review: Manhattan in Reverse
Author: Peter F Hamilton
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Short story collection, single author

In brief:

I’ve always been curious about Peter F Hamilton’s work, with book covers reminiscent of Blade Runner and other classics. He’s been touted as Britain’s Number One Science Fiction Writer. If that’s the case, then Britain’s sci-fi is in a bad state.
It’s not that it’s a terrible collection of stories, it’s just…unsatisfying. Disappointing for the most part.

The whole story:

Manhattan in Reverse is a collection of Hamilton’s shorter stories and a couple of flash fiction pieces. I assumed that the technology and universe the majority of the stories are set on would already be familiar to his regular readers; with their Commonwealth, biononics and wormhole trains. I don’t really have a problem with any of them. It’s the outcome of most of his plotting that left me feeling I should have read something else.

To be fair, there are two really good stories which stood out for me in this collection: If At First… and Manhattan in Reverse. Footvote was also more honest with characters you could relate to.

If At First… was the first story I read. It’s a stand-alone without all the usual Hamilton descriptions and technology. I enjoyed it immensely. Unfortunately, it set a very high bar which his other stories failed to reach. Footvote began with a good premise and had a sense of ‘Britishness’ familiar from the sci-fi/dystopia of the 1980’s. It remained true to itself for the most part, then ended with the glow of a wormhole. It evoked a satisfying sense of nostalgia.

Britains no1 bManhattan in Reverse, the last story in this collection, is set on a frontier world. It is the first story, in this collection, which features an other-world lifeform which exhibits intelligence. It also features Paula Myro, the investigator who has been bred to be the ultimate investigator – a regular, it would appear, of Hamilton’s stories.
While this specially written story was one of the best, it was also very disappointing when it came to the crux of matter: why the settlers would value such a substance? This was the last story which I read. It appears to belong to the same universe as all the other stories featuring Paula and a humankind with biononics and related technology – a universe in which (Hamilton previously mentions) matter – for conversion into anything that you might need – is the most precious thing in the universe. To me, it didn’t make any sense, leaving a damp squib where there should have been a lightbulb moment; cheapening the whole story, if not all the worlds of Hamilton’s creation. Can Hamilton cannot keep track of his own universes and the rules he’s generated to govern them?

This damp squib ending was even more prominent in Watching Trees Grow. In this parallel world story, a Victorian murder mystery unfolds across a few millennia with astonishingly quick advances in technology. While the premise of the story is quite thought-provoking, its execution is not.
I never really connected with any of the characters, especially the tenacious investigator, Edward Raleigh. He has to be tenacious because that is all that he has going for him in this story. His lack of intelligence is distressing. The big reveal of whodunnit, even more so. But it is not the fault of Edward Raleigh and his limping (though visually spectacular) quest that is to blame, but Peter F Hamilton himself. It’s a classic case of twisting characters, events and a standard plot through a labyrinth of events created only to reach a word count – or so it reads. Vital questions failed to be answered. We keep being told that there could only have been five suspects, the murdered Raleigh’s closest friends; yet I kept asking myself: what about Justin Raleigh’s lecturers? What about Francis Raleigh himself? Why were these avenues never explored. Instead, we keep being told that there could only ever be five suspects. Hamilton should have known better.
And the murderer? The motive was weaker than a house of cards (without glue). The character’s motivation to commit such a violent act shows much laziness on the part of Hamilton. He had decided that this was the murderer and did not carry any other valid trains of thought to their conclusion. The fact that Edward Raleigh took over a century to solve this mystery, just makes it even more sad. I recommend Hamilton read Elizabeth Peters to learn just how such murder mysteries should work.

A good murder mystery does not hinge on its setting, dazzling though they may be, but on the strength of its characters and plot. Neither of these elements are allowed to grow (or evolve) even though over a century of time and a millennia of human experience is covered in this story.

I must state at this point that Watching Trees Grow was the third story which I read, The Forever Kitten being the second. I did not think much of that either. But on the strength of If At First… and Hamilton’s reputation of being Britain’s Number One Sci-fi Writer, I decided to persevere and give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, I was a new reader to his work and style, and perhaps needed a bit more familiarity with his worlds to get the most out of his stories. So I began to read the stories in book sequence. I can’t say that it helped much.

Blessed By An Angel was a little darker than the others, but again seems to miss a vital ingredient. Once again, I felt nothing at all for any of the characters. It was also confusing at times as to whose arrival on the planet was being described.

The Demon Trap was the second to last story. This was the story in which I was introduced to Paula Myro. She’s a stronger character than most other Hamilton ones. This, upon reflection, seems to be by default, because whenever she comes across a difficult issue she tends to deal with it in a manner typical to this one found in the final story:
…Doubt unsettled her. It wasn’t what she was supposed to feel, not with her psychoneural profiling. Everything should be clear cut, with no room for messy little emotional distractions. Perhaps the geneticists who designed me didn’t know quite as much about DNA sequencing as they thought they did. (Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F Hamilton pg 218)
While The Demon Trap starts off promisingly enough, it soon goes the route of Watching Trees Grow as you read on in the hopes of it all reaching a satisfying conclusion. It didn’t for me.

So what did I learn from this whole experience?

I learnt that Peter F Hamilton writes engagingly – up to a certain point. He can reel you in with wormholes and spectacular scenery, but then leaves you floundering with an illogical, ill-thought out denouement which erases any good impressions he had made previously. His characters are flawed, but not in a good way.
I also learnt that I will not be reading any of his novels or other works. They are large tomes requiring a vast amount of time and money, neither of which I am willing to spend just to be left at the very end with a huge feeling of disappointment.
But most of all I learnt that I should avoid top British sci-fi as lauded by MacMillan until they reach the quality of the rest of the world. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read hardcore sci-fi and I might have missed the point on this one. So maybe I’ll stick to the older classics which had real food for thought and where truer to both science, imagination and good storytelling. Or explore newer writers who might be more deserving of that accolade.

Rating: 2.5/5
Recommend: Only to Peter F Hamilton fans

Leenna is currently writing her second sci-fi novel (or novella) The Incident At Wolfe Creek (link), and is therefore now very hypersensitive when it comes to parallel world stories, plots and empathetic characterisation.

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