Back in 2008, I first read Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth series and was blown away by its depth and complexity. Pandora's Star (Commonwealth 1) (2004) held as many surprises as it did characters, really an astonishing feat of space opera. The sequel, Judas Unchained (Commonwealth 2) (2005), pushed the plot full-throttle only to offer a poor conclusion ripe for further sequels: The Void Trilogy (2007-2010). Again, but not to the extent as Pandora's Star, Hamilton craftily constructed a grandiose space opera plot only to conclude weakly with, yet again, enough open ends for further sequels: The Chronicle of The Fallers (2014). This ties in directly with Great North Road because the elements within can all be found scattered throughout the Commonwealth duology and also share the unfortunate concurrence of a weak yet open ending.
Rear cover synopsis:
"St Libra is a paradise for Earth's mega-rich. Until the killing begins.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, AD 2142.
When Detective Sidney Hurst attends a Newcastle murder scene, he discovers the victim is one of the wealthy North family clones. Yet none have been reported missing. And twenty years ago, a North clone billionaire and his household were horrifically murdered in exactly the same manner,on the tropical island of St Libra. So if the murderer is still at large, was Angela Tramelo wrongly convicted? Tough and confident, she never waivered under interrogation, claiming she alone had survived an alien attack.
Investigating this potential alien threat now becomes the Human Defence Agency's top priority. St Libra's bio-fuel is the lifeblood of Earth's economy and must be secured. A vast expedition is mounted via the Newcastle gateway, and teams of experts are dispatched to the planet--along with Angela Tramelo, grudgingly released from prison. But the expedition is cut off deep within St Libra's rainforests, and the murders begin. Angela insists it's the alien, but her colleagues aren't sure. Maybe she did see an alien, or maybe she has other reasons for being on St Libra."
Wealthy North American Kane North thought his personal drive to be so important that he had himself cloned. Considering his war injuries in Afghanistan (141), this was Kane's only option. His three brother-sons (Augustine, Bartram, and Constantine) were born in 2012 and quickly assume command over the North family's growing financial empire. This domestic empire soon expands to other planets when gateways to other planets are opened with their specific interest on St Libra, a massive arboreally endowed planet lacking sentient life, animals, and even insects. Their nearly complete control of the newly founded bioil (bio-fuel) and its distribution to Earth makes each of the first generation of clones trillionaires. However, their intrinsic drive isn't perpetual or specific to the desires of Kane North.
While Augustine and Bartram remain loyal to the family’s affairs, Constantine founds his own community in the orbit of Jupiter due his concerns about the direction of human social inertia: “The dead hand of society’s inertia and the financial interest of the elite minority hold us back as a species. They govern us so they can continue to govern us” (864-865). His brothers chose to work for the corporate behemoth, content with the wealth while Constantine chose isolation in his own Marxist state for freedom and to follow his idiosyncratic fixation on perfectly technology for the benefit of his clan, never to fall into the hands of Earth’s military. Much like their drive for success, each North1 (first generation clone of Kane North) makes further clones, hence a blossoming vested interest for the North2 and North3 clones, but even this cycle fails when genetic degradation becomes apparent with the fourth generation.
In 2121, Bartram North is murdered in his St Libra mansion along with his entire staff, save for one member of his harem—Angela. Her professed innocence and accusation of alien intrusion is ignored with no evidence to free her from suspicion. She serves twenty years for the massacre but is later released when another murder is committed in exactly the same fashion—a five-fingered puncture wound to the chest, scrambling the heart and killing an unknown North2 clone. Angela’s innocence is superficial as her history is cloaked in mystery and deception. Armed with “dark weapons” and able to snoop through the mansion around the time of the massacre, her intention as a well-paid harlot is a shadow of her true cause.
The North2 clone found in the river Tyne stumps the local police, an investigation headed by grade-three detective Sid Hurst. The high-profile murder is kept low-key by the North family and the Human Defence Agency (HDA) wish to keep it that way since the murder was committed using the same method as the one on St Libra twenty years prior, a method never released to the public. Even with an unlimited budget, the investigation hits many snags and soon becomes apparent that the murder was a very professional job. The location of the body dump, the vehicle used in the transfer, the driver of he car, the location of the murder… all are difficult to come by when their tracks have been covered so well.
The HDA convince themselves that a sentient alien race can be found on the planet of St Libra and gather a large force to sample the genetic diversity of the northern continent in order to track down the alien which has consumed their passion. Having never discovered an alien race before, the main objective of the HDA is to monitor and attack any intrusion of the malevolent quantum-blossomed crystalline world destroyer. One planet, New Florida, was destroyed by the Zanth’s quantum intrusion even after the HDA's concentrated effort at nuking its quantum sources. With millions of human dead, the gate was sealed and the world left to the enigmatic Zanth—hostile, uncommunicative, insuperable, and all-consuming: “…nothing evaded to Zanth. Nothing survived. Everything became Zanth in the end” (94).
Largely composed of Gospel Warriors, the staff of the HDA fight a holy war against the Zanth as they see the crystalline entity a monstrosity in the eyes of God, “an incarnation of the devil” (504); they “believed Jesus would protect them, that God would ultimately show humans the way to salvation, and that the Zanth would eventually be broken” (92). This crusade against aliens extends to the St Libra exploration where the Gospel Warriors stand on the cusp of belief/disbelief about the alien’s existence. Their fear and anger are projected on Angela, who had been freed from prison in order to assist the team on tracking the alien so they can capture or defeat it. Given that she’s the only to have seen and survived its assault, her presence is either fortuitous or ominous. When murders begin in their isolated camp, all eyes turn to Angela as the suspect but soon the facts point to a much more ill-omened predator bent on blood-lust and revenge.
With 1,087 pages between the covers, the reader would think that the book would be filled with bloated dialogue, verbose descriptions, and rotund rubicund filler. This is to be expected with any Hamilton novel of appreciable length, but what is space opera without the lulls of fanciful world-building? Much like the Commonwealth duology, Great North Road packs punch after punch of gripping plot twists during the lengthy police investigation (easily 5 out of 5 stars for that alone) and the spiraling triple helix of plot threads set for a collision course.
When it comes to world-building, Hamilton doesn’t disappoint in regards to his description of St Libra. The tropical Eden light-years away sounds heavenly, but it’s the terrestrial description of Earth’s status in the year 2143 which disappoints. The European Union has evolved into Grande Europe, a loose relevance to the circumstances developing within the HDA, Newcastle, and the world in general. America plays a small role in Great North Road, only being mentioned I relation to the Zanth-enveloped planet New Florida. As far as Asia or Africa is concerned, the world is limited to Grande Europe and its bureaucratic constituencies. Earth as a background, as a planet is generally ignored in favor of the arboreally rich St Libra, a focus which, given all its wonder, is too drawn out to be of any long-term endearment.
I’ve mentioned the Zanth seven times in this review, as if the Zanth plays a pivotal role in the book’s main plot. Sadly, the Zanth is merely acts a cursor to the xenophobia or HDA and the Gospel Warriors. What the Zanth is why it does what it does is never revealed, which pangs me to think that Great North Road could have a sequel one day in the future. The odd mention on the last page of a “Nuii-Zanth conglobate” (1,087), outside of any context so it’s not a spoiler, tilts the arrow of possible-sequel closer to certainty. But why was the Zanth so underplayed, so underdeveloped? Perhaps the novel was hacked down to a more manageable 1,087 pages and the Zanth become the victim of a merciless editor? And the “dark weapons” were also a failed spectacular. This had been hinted at, menacingly, a few times and when the time came to activate the weapons, I wasn’t at all impressed.
Sid, the detective, and Angela, the once-prisoner, are surely the protagonists in Great North Road. Angela’s deception is ripe for background history and Hamilton doesn’t disappoint as her past is continually brought into focus to explain her actions and her attitude—when it comes to Angela, the frothy tide of her yesteryears is animated with both nuances and grandeur. It’s Angela who ties the whole book together rather than the more prevalent Sid in the earlier chapters. Sid is a family man… that’s about it—he’s simply detective and family man. His ambition for closing the case is obvious but his later actions are questionable in terms of his prior remarks and solace.
The most trialing point of the novel is keeping track of the swathe of different North clones—the powerful North1’s, the middle-management North2’s, and lesser so for the North3’s and the almost non-existent North4’s. It’s hard to breathe idiosyncratic life into a clone who is similar in all regards to its father-brother. Augustine named all of his son-brother beginning with “A” as did Bartram with “B” and Constantine with “C”, yet the sheer amount of clones renders the reader nearly incapable of attaching importance and meaningful characterization to any besides the North1 clones. I finished the book in five full days of reading (my dear eyes ache) and even I was unable to keep track of the North cast without the aid of pencil and paper… not a habit I enjoy when reading for pleasure.
One pleasure found in Great North Road is Hamilton’s attention to detail in surveillance. Smart-dust can be smeared on walls to form a surveillance mesh, molecular trackers can be placed and data reaped when needed, silent drones can be dispatched for discrete scrutiny, and the police station AI can gather this massive amount of data and footage into a complete three-dimensional reproduction spanning days and weeks. The surveillance system sounds secure, but the nefarious elements of the underground gangs wreck havoc on the surveillance as they cover their tracks, rendering simple police work arduously time-intensive with a special need for a clever mind like Sid Hurst. When Sid takes the wheel in the protracted investigation into the unnamed North2’s death, avenues for inquiry are opened time and time again, each line of analysis taking his team deeper and deeper into the truth, whether they, or the HDA or the North’s, like it or not.
If you’ve read Hamilton, you know he’s not timid about including some brash, graphic sex, something which can be found in the Commonwealth duology, Fallen Dragon, and Misspent Youth. The author may have responded to this criticism by adding very little sex in Great North Road. Even explicit words are generally lacking, instead being replaced by the annoyingly ubiquitous curse of 2143: “crap on it” or “crap on that” or “crap on me” or “crapped on from above”—that potty word “crap” is used extensively and irksomely. Lesser so is the use of the word “harvest” which is used to show that data had been collected, but in the later chapters it seems like everything but wheat and corn is being harvested by the smart-dust or molecular snoops.
Of minor note but somewhat important when considering Hamilton’s growth as an author, Hamilton has infused this novel with a bit of cheekiness, something which I can’t recall seeing much of in the Commonwealth duology or the Void trilogy. My smile brightened when I came across Hamilton’s sensitivity to the social sensitization of the once-called “Personnel Department” which has evolved into “Human Resources”, and here Hamilton takes it to a new level: “HR? …that kind of department is referred to as the Office of Personkind Enablement. Resources sounds like something you dig out of the ground” (71).
Great North Road is a great novel with some irredeemable flaws, surely. It’s not the best of 2012 (David Brin’s Existence and Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth as easy competition) but it’s a definite addition to any library of a Hamilton fan. If the reader wants to cliff-hang on the last page of Great North Road, then Hamilton has left the door wide open for a later sequel to further explain the Zanth and its relation to the rest of plot. Like with Great North Road, I’ll be first in line!