Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton
Published by Pan MacMillan, October 2011. Review copy received.
Review by Mark Yon
Before we get started properly, just take a look at that page count. No, that’s not a misprint. Peter’s latest book is about a third to a quarter of the size of his usual blockbusting tome. This is Peter’s second short story collection, the first being A Second Chance At Eden in 1998.
As Peter says in his Introduction, ‘I’m not the most prolific of short story writers’, and this does show here, but the good news is that what we lose in length we gain in a little more variety .
There are seven stories here. The first is one of the longest, Watching Trees Grow, which was first published in 2000 by PS Publishing as a limited edition novella. The last is the titular one, written especially for this book. Inbetween, the other five tales have been published from 2004-2008. The other tales are a little more similar, with themes and ideas often developed in the longer books. The Forever Kitten, is a short tale of less than a thousand words and is about an issue already dealt with in Misspent Youth: the sacrifices needed to obtain near-eternal youth. If at First... is a contemporary police procedural tale with a time-travel twist, that reads a little like Edeard’s time with the militia in the Void series. Blessed by an Angel tells us of the origins of the Higher and Advancer cultures and particular the attempts by the Advancers to infiltrate the Commonwealth.
Footvote, about political voting, is a tale that has been slightly revised to bring it more up to date. More contemporary, it deals with the exodus of the masses to a new planet via a wormhole, though it is actually focused around divorcing parents and their children. It is one of the weaker tales in the collection that hinges on a chance coincidence and limits itself by doing so.
I liked Watching Trees Grow when I first read it in 2000: it’s a murder mystery that starts in the 1800’s but in an alternate Oxford, where extended lifespans are norm and the Roman families still rule through a selective breeding programme. Technology has developed to an amazing degree. In these 1800’s we have electric cars, telephones and (almost) the development of atomic power. In this world we have Edward Buchanan Raleigh investigating the murder of a promising student, and major Family, Justin Ascham Raleigh. It’s written in a first person, whodunit style. Think of it as a combination of Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders, but with an expanding timeline. It impressed me just as much the second time of reading. Interestingly, it also reminded me of the Void series, in that the style is very much like that of the Inigo’s Dream sequences of the Void trilogy. Peter really should write more of this.
Manhattan in Reverse is perhaps the key attraction here, being something Hamilton fans have been wanting for a while. It is a forty-three page stand-alone tale involving super-detective Paula Myo from the Commonwealth and Void series. Rather like a ‘What Paula does on her Vacation’ story, it is more linear than the multi-strand spanning storyline of those series. Though a great tale, I did not enjoy it as much as the other Paula Myo tale in the collection.
This other tale, The Demon Trap, is set in the Commonwealth at the time of Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained. A terrorist attempt on one of the major Families seems to be an attempt for independence from the Commonwealth by the planet of Merioneth. The protagonist thinks he is innocent and Paula gets on the case to find that the incident is not as straight-forward as it seems to be. It is exciting and fast-paced with enough detail to show intriguing glimpses of the wider Commonwealth: the relationship between the Families and society, Paula’s home planet and the reason for her need to see that justice is seen to be served.
The stories here show many of Peter’s strengths, highlighting key human themes in a variety of different settings in an entertaining way. There are those great ideas, still: super-technology, evolution, planets connected by wormholes, alien biology and habits. However, here the typical widescreen baroque of those larger epic narratives have been replaced by something a little more focused and intimate, but these are still engaging and fun.
If I had to find fault, it would be that as great as the stories here are, in the end the collection feels a little begrudging. It is ‘just’ the stories, which works as both a strength and a weakness. Whilst the stories themselves are good, there was a feeling at the end that there should’ve been something more. Perhaps some little postscripts or footnotes would have added to the book, explaining the origin of the story or what Peter was trying to achieve in the tale. Watching Trees Grow had a great introduction from Larry Niven in the PS edition, for example.
Perhaps more importantly, the biggest weakness is that many of the stories here only have significance if you’ve read Peter’s other books. Though fans of Peter’s other work will enjoy how these stories fit into his own Future History, newcomers to Peter’s work will not get as much enjoyment as those who’ve been here a while.
In summary, this is definitely a book for the fans, but not perhaps the best place to start Peter’s books. It was good to revisit previous Hamilton universes and the Watching Trees Grow novella left me feeling again that I would like to read more stories in the WTG universe.
If you want a book that has all of these tales from different publications in one place, or haven’t read any of these before, then I would recommend this one.
Mark Yon, September 2011
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