Great North Road by Peter F Hamilton

September 26, 2012

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, AD 2142, Detective Sidney Hurst attends a brutal murder scene. The victim is one of the wealthy North family clones – but none have been reported missing. And the crime’s most disturbing aspect is how the victim was killed. Twenty years ago, a North clone billionaire and his household were horrifically murdered in exactly the same manner, on the tropical planet of St Libra. But if the murderer is still at large, was Angela Tramelo wrongly convicted? Tough and confident, she never waivered under interrogation – claiming she alone survived an alien attack. But there is no animal life on St Libra. Investigating this alien threat becomes the Human Defence Agency’s top priority.

The bio-fuel flowing from St Libra is the lifeblood of Earth’s economy and must be secured. So a vast expedition is mounted via the Newcastle gateway, and teams of engineers, support personnel and xenobiologists are dispatched to the planet. Along with their technical advisor, grudgingly released from prison, Angela Tramelo. But the expedition is cut off, deep within St Libra’s rainforests. Then the murders begin. Someone or something is picking off the team one by one. Angela insists it’s the alien, but her new colleagues aren’t so sure. Maybe she did see an alien, or maybe she has other reasons for being on St Libra… 

When it comes to science fiction its hard not to be blown away by Peter F Hamilton – five pages into Great North Road and we’re on the winter streets of future Newcastle and have already discovered the technological delights of identity masks, e-i (e-identities) and bodymesh. Later, there are clones, galactic sized conspiracies and very possibly first contact with another sentient species? Through it all, Hamilton’s writing feels like you are getting a genuine glimpse into the future, everything comes across as being so damn plausible. This is the best kind of sci-fi, the kind you buy into entirely.

The North dynasty are at the very centre of a huge galaxy spanning commercial enterprise. Their web of control stretches across the stars, but with such a large fiefdom it is hardly a surprise that there is jealousy and corruption everywhere. Is the murder just a schism in the North family or is there something far more sinister afoot? Like many other Hamilton novels there are layers upon layers of plot to explore, nothing is quite what it seems.

Peter F Hamilton has this canny knack with his characters. I immediately warmed to Sid Hurst, his pragmatic approach to 22nd century police work is refreshing. He understands the rules of the game, the politics versus the procedure, but never loses his focus. He remains steadfastly committed to solving the murder irrespective of where the evidence leads him.

The other main lead is a convict called Angela Tramelo. She has spent the last two decades locked away for a crime she maintains she did not commit. As her story unfolds it becomes evident that there is far more to Angela than first appearances would lead you to believe. Why is she so keen to journey back to the scene of her crime? What is driving her to take so many risks? How does this all fit in with the original murder that occurred so long ago?

Now there is no getting around the fact that, as with many of his previous novels, Hamilton’s latest offering is another massive doorstop sized tome. Nine hundred plus pages is quite a commitment. That said, I never felt the novel to be bloated or over long. I think that Hamilton just delights in the details, he obviously takes great effort to fully flesh out every aspect of the worlds he creates. I’m always going to have much love for any novel that manages to mention the motorway services at Scotch Corner and also takes the time to inform regarding the best choice of socks to be worn in a humid jungle environment. Irrespective of all that, the plot still manages to move forward at a reasonable pace and builds to a spectacularly epic conclusion.

Way back when I was first introduced to Peter F Hamilton, I read The Reality Dysfunction, the first couple of chapters were a little bit off putting. The scope of the plot was just so vast, I felt like I was immediately on the back foot in the midst of a huge intergalactic space opera. It was quite hard work initially and took me some time to get into the story. For the record, I am very glad that I persevered with it. No such issues with Great North Road though, it’s far more accessible and the murder investigation works as a very effective hook.

The two main narratives in this novel cover what I guess could best be described as wildly different ground. Detective Hurst’s murder case plays out like a futuristic who-dunnit, while on St Libra, Angela’s story shifts things to a tale of revenge and conspiracy. I’d be hard pressed to admit which strand I liked most, both are suitably engrossing.  Ok, if you’re putting a gun to my head I think I preferred the action that plays out on the streets of Newcastle. The futuristic police procedural really captured my imagination. Though on second thought, the story on St Libra does read like some fantastic hybrid of Predator and The Thing. See? I told you, if I’m honest I still can’t decide. Both are great and the way that Hamilton manages to weave these seemingly disparate elements together is truly masterful.

Great North Road is published by Macmillan on 27th September.

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