Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, March 31, 2014

1996: The Reality Dysfunction (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Delectable SF space opera with hard-to-swallow premises (3/5)

I’ve plowed through most of Hamilton’s tomes, excluding the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995) and The Night’s Dawn trilogy (1997-2000). I’m not a big fan of series, so I’ve always held off reading these expansive sets of books. I haven’t heard much about the Greg Mandel series but The Night’s Dawn trilogy seems to be the stuff of legend, whispers passed about its length and depth. Considering I’ve liked everything else Hamilton has written, including the collection of Manhattan in Reverse (2011) and his most recent novel Great North Road (2012), I finally decided to procure the weighty volumes and delve into the first tome while on 2-week holiday. This turned out to be excellent timing as it ended up taking fifteen days to polish off the 1,094 pages.

One additional note, in case you weren’t already aware, is that the original US edition of The Reality Dysfunction is split into two volumes: Emergence (1997) and Expansion (1997). The later edition combines them, thankfully, into one large volume… the same volume which is featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
In AD 2600 the human race is finally beginning to realize its full potential. Hundreds of colonized planets scattered across the galaxy host a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures. Genetic engineering has pushed evolution far beyond nature's boundaries, defeating disease and producing extraordinary space-born creatures. Huge fleets of sentient trader starships thrive on the wealth created by the industrialization of entire star systems. And throughout inhabited space, the Confederation Navy keeps the peace. A true golden age is within our grasp.

But now something has gone catastrophically wrong. On a primitive colony planet, a renegade criminal's chance encounter with an utterly alien entity unleashes the most primal of all our fears. An extinct race which inhabited the galaxy aeons ago called it "The Reality Dysfunction." It is the nightmare that has prowled beside us since the beginning of history.”


Joshua Calvert hopes to one day refurbish the inheritance of his father’s starship—the Lady Macbeth. His intuition for discovery proves fruitful in the decimated ruins of an xenoc (alien) orbital. The resulting dust ring, which orbits a gas giant, is picked by scavengers and the finds sold to a nearby research facility. The most significant finds are often intact leaves, trees and daily objects. When Joshua is pressed by opportunistic scavengers, he retreats in a large piece to debris only to find the mother lode: a ice-encapsulated computer core. The sale of the core allows Joshua to become a local celebrity, upgrade his ship’s systems, and even bed a few broads in the process.

One of his prized notches on his bedpost is bedding the Lord of Ruin, a title given to the bitek (organically grown) orbital’s ruler, whose bloodline is shared with the regal Saldana family, of which Alastair II is the reigning king over the Kulu Kingdom. Though part of the royal bloodline, the Lord of Ruin, Ione, and her affinity-linked (mind/message-linked) named Tranquility operate outside the sphere of influence of the royal family. Tranquility was originally established as an outpost to research the Laymil artifacts.

The facility researching the Laymil artifacts also investigates what caused the catastrophic demise of the entire massive orbital body. The leading theories include suicide and attack, but with centuries having passed since their destruction, the only source of new information will come from the data core which Joshua found. The researchers discover that stores amid the data are sets of sensory recordings, memories of the extinct xenoc race.

One of these researchers is Dr. Alkad Mzu, one of the few survivors of her homeworld’s utter destruction by antimatter by the hand of the Omuta navy. Her homeworld of Garissa is now but a memory, a memory which burns deeply with a sense of hate, revenge and justice that spans her 30-year confinement on Tranquility. Ione’s father made it his prerogative to keep Mzu within Tranquility so that she is unable to seek out that revenge with her fabled Alchemist weapon of purported unimaginable power. The weapon is hidden relic of the navy from Garissa who once wanted to strike the genocidal blow to their enemy the Omuta, who have only now started to emerge from their own 30-year quarantine. The Confederation of human worlds welcomes the genocidal brutes back into the fold of human affairs but the allegorical sins of a father are carried as a burden by the son.

Nothing is as burdensome as settling a new colony, like on the newly opened EuroChristian-ethnic world Lalonde. Emigrating from Earth, fine families gamble with their lives to have new beginnings, but wasters from Earth’s acrologies, the chaff of humanity, also tag along for hopes of a better future… or a darker non-future like Quinn Dexter hopes for. Gaining trust among the innocent villagers, Quinn establishes a separate house for the hard-working cons but Quinn is also gaining respect through fear by the other cons, who see him as a necessarily brutish leader. Quinn and his men’s brutish sexual acts of shamelessness reflect their growing infatuation with releasing the Serpent from themselves, inviting the Light Bringer into their lives.

In the early days of the universe’s formation, an intelligent race of energy being arose to sublime into the vacuum of space. Roaming the empty vacuum for the sake of study, the race of Ly-cilph visit star systems and study the interesting forms of life which are scattered among the stars. Rarely do these physical being interest the energy-patterned Ly-cilph, but some curious humans on Lalonde seem to welcome to energy, hungry for power. The resulting local influence of energy causes an unnatural rift in space-time, whereby the departed souls of mankind cross the gulf between the eternal yet painful observation and longing for physicality and that of our world.

The souls enter willing bodies in anguish. Once subsumed, the mind of the body cringes in the back of the brain while the transported soul becomes the dominant persona, and with it an incredible ability to manipulate matter and energy. White fire flies from their fingertips by their very wish, causing destruction where ever they tread. Not wasting the ability and sympathizing with the bodiless souls beyond, the possessed soon torture other people into begging for mercy, an opportunity which the sinister souls pounce upon and force themselves into the body. Their powers grow greater and more and more of them converge on the same city, manifesting historical wonders from yesteryears and forming an impenetrable red cloud which blocks out the horrible sight of the vastness of space. Happy with their corporal existence, they aim to expand the cloud, vanquish the world and transport the entire planet to a dimension where they can live in bodily form for eternity.

Meanwhile, Joshua is a captain of his own starship and proudly gallivanting about the Confederation looking for trade and tail, both of which he succeeds in snaring. His largest pull comes from collecting the hardest wood known to the Confederation, a special wood from Lalonde, and selling it to the pastoral planet named Norfolk. Norfolk is a planet constitutionally limiting their technology, so Joshua’s gamble of transporting a starship full of wood (ridiculous to many) pays off big time, earning him prime access to two things: a shipload of the Confederation’s finest alcohol called Norfolk Tears (made from a dying flower’s sap) and the young, naïve yet buxom beauty of a wealthy estate, Louise Kavanagh.

When hell breaks loose on Lalonde, the trickle of information from the budding colony eventually reaches the Confederation. Rumors are thrown around on the ground of Lalonde as much as they are across the stars, but an early solid report of the chaos cuts a new facet on the rumors: an infamous rogue Edenist who destroyed an entire habitat is found on Lalonde. Has he anything to do with the demonic possessions? If so, why did he warn secret Confederation agents about the emerging human plight of possession? And if he’s so innocent, why did he send an intense word of warning via affinity when he killed himself? One thing is for certain: “on old Earth they used to say all roads led to Rome. Here on Lalonde, all the rivers lead to Durringham” (985), but the rivers of water aren’t the only streams headed towards Durringham; heavily armed starships are headed to the planet to confront the threat with precise orbital bombardment or, if the threat warrants its usage, strategic nuclear bombs.

The Confederation, though composed of billions of humans and two xenoc species, has never been under such a threat: souls invading living human bodies; to kill the body would send two souls (one sinister, one innocent) back to the bodiless dimension. This is the crux of the problem the Confederation faces; here, there must consider:

Our empathy means never hide from what we feel … the balance is the penalty of being human: the danger of allowing yourself to feel. For this we walk a narrow path high above rocky ground. On one side we have the descent into animalism, on the other a godhead delusion. Both pulling of us, both tempting. But without these forces tugging of your psyche, stirring it into conflict, you can never love. (118)

For a more thorough, accurate plot synopsis for The Reality Dysfunction, see Wikipedia.


One of the basic premises which I glanced over in my own synopsis was the classic division of the human race into two sects: the Adamists (baseline humans) and the Edenists (genetically engineered with the telepathic affinity gene). The Edenists include not only gene-linked humans, but also their massive bitek habitats, their starships named voidhawks, and menial laborers of animal origin. The basis for Edenism comes from the affinity gene, which as mentioned above, links all Edenists together more harmoniously than the baseline Adamists: “with their communal affinity there was no hiding emotions or truth” (24).

I’ve always been skeptical about the reality of telepathy, treating it as a pseudo-science or calling it outright bunk. I find it difficult to swallow the pill Hamilton gives us: telepathy by genetics… not only that, but a telepathy which is impossible to intercept (926). Not completely outside the boundaries of physics, affinity is limited by distance. Certainly, if distance is a limitation, there some sort of signal must travel through some sort of medium—this is the essence of a transmission. I’m baffled by why it’s impossible to intercept its transmissions, as if human genes—little protein messengers—carry a mechanism which defeats the laws of the known universe.

Equally as hard to swallow is the other overarching premise: human souls exist (and are undetectable just like affinity) and reside outside of our normal space-time sphere, all in pain and all lusting for corporeal existence. Whether this is addressed in the remaining two books is unknown (now 75% of the way through The Neutronium Alchemist and something’s been hinted, but nothing solid). I don’t understand the ill intentions and evil motives of the returning dead; sure, some of them had been influenced by Quinn sadism and his lust for power and pain from the Light Bringer, but it seems like our kind human nature is vanquished once we return from the dead. However, this is not a certainty in 100% of the cases, as toward the end of The Reality Dysfunction was come across a noble spirit who assists in a rescue of children from the clutches the returning dead. Further, The Neutronium Alchemist (in at about the 75% point), sympathetic factions of the possessed arise.

One last piece of the plot annoyed me. While the Edenists’ voidhawks and the Adamists’ blackhawks can traverse space through wormholes, subjectively traveling faster than light, messages are unable to travel in a similar superluminal fashion. Crystal flecks (the standard unit of data exchange) are thereby loaded with information and send in a voidhawk or blackhawk, send across the gulf of stars to a far-off star system where they broadcast the message. For important news to travel around the entire system of the Confederation, great manpower and shiptime must be dedicated to the effort… which, conveniently, plays a part into the spread of the possessed.

Now come the uni-faceted characters: the protagonists of skirt-chasing Joshua and his skirt with a brain Ione; then the antagonist of hellbent Quinn. Aside from these prevalent characters, there’s actually a number of more interesting people who form Joshua’s entourage and some other crew members of other gallivanting ships which were left out of the already lengthy synopsis (again, see Wikipedia for that). For example, Father Horst Elwes emigrates to Lalonde because of his weak faith and when his faith is tested by the seeming resurrection of the dead, his kind god-fearing side comes to the surface. Lastly, Erick Thakrar (a Confederation Navy spy) and Captain André Duchamp (occasional smuggler) provide a great frisson which develops well into The Neutronium Alchemist.

Enough about the plot of this expansive space opera. Now, a word about consistency when using the English language; I’m sensitive to this kind of thing. For example, if you use the word “color” on one page then spell it “colour” on a different page, I’m going to notice… or if you “touchy” instead of “tetchy” then later swap their uses, I’m going to point it out. For Peter F. Hamilton, the one major inconsistency, which probably won’t mar your reading of the book if it hadn’t already been pointed out, is his use of the hyphen, which in this case is used to join words as compound nouns or adjectives (e.g. sun-dried tomatoes or sundried tomatoes, but not both). Consider:
a) “olive-green one-piece anti-projectile suit” (580) and “olive green one piece anti-projectile suits”(613)
b) “space-plane” (1091, line 4) and “spaceplane” (1091, line 6)
c) “thermodump panels” (9 and 108) while “thermo-dump” was more widely used
d) sometimes “combat wasp” is hyphenated, sometimes not as “combat-wasp”.

Even less obvious and easier to miss are some typeface issues or proofreading issue with the lowercase letter-L, the capital letter-L and the lowercase letter-I; for example:
                a) “Ione” instead of “lone” (973, line 4)
                b) “vold” instead of “void” (1031, line 11)

Lastly, the fine-toothed comb found one additional inconsistency: the full stop with the abbreviation of mister. Consider: “Mr Wallace” (1040, line 31) and “Mr. Malin” (1040, line 33) with a number of other examples on the proceeding three pages.


It’s modern space opera; you should know what to expect: lots of transient characters, interweaving plot lines, untold pages going by without hearing from a character or two, loads of proper nouns (planets, ships, cities, etc.), and hints of things to come in a thousand pages or so within the sequel : The Neutronium Alchemist. In these regards, the beginning to the Night’s Dawn trilogy does not disappoint, but I just find it hard to enjoy a plot which heavily relies on gene-linked, physics-defying telepathy and the irrational returning souls of the dead. Having bought all three volumes of the trilogy already (with the inclusion of the third volume, The Naked God), I’m dedicated to finishing this popular trilogy.


  1. Really good review. You certainly have an eye for detail! I didn't really have a problem with the whole affinity/telepathy thing, but like you I certainly found the idea of science-fictional 'souls' a bit jarring to say the least.

  2. Welcome back from holiday!

    I too have a hard time swallowing so-called psi-powers. I really like Alfred Bester's two most famous novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination but find my ability to suspend disbelief flags considerably whenever telekinetics and -kinesis are depended upon. For something that is equally escapist (though told with seemingly less style than Bester), I guess I could read Hamilton's work whenever that urge to read space opera strikes, knowing it didn't accomplish anything greater.

  3. And I forgot to mention: a doorstopper of a review for a doorstopper of a book!

  4. The psi-powers in The Stars, My Destination really put me off, too... as if simply putting more thought or urgency into an ability will actually manifest the reality. With the Night's Dawn trilogy, I hold off ultimate judgement of the pseudo-science slant until the trilogy is complete because there's a few hints, elbow nudges, and foreshadowing which could indicate otherwise (but knowing Hamilton's writing, he sometimes strays and ignores the so-called shadow).