Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, April 11, 2014

1997: The Neutronium Alchemist (Hamilton, Peter F.)

An impressive task and challenge, more fill than fun (3/5)

Investing time in Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy is heart-breaking. I finished Book 1 in fifteen days during a long holiday, but I polished off Book 2 during a month of full-time work—all 30 days of it. While reading the 393,000 words of The Neutronium Alchemist, I could have read six shorter (and better) novels in the same amount of time. At the same time, I’m trying to make space on my bookshelves; with these tomes will have been completed, and most likely sold to my favorite second-hand bookstore, they will free up some much needed shelf room… though not enough for the 50 books which are stacked elsewhere. Alas, another book, another review, another slot made available on my to-read shelves.

Talking about numbers here, comparatively, Book 1 (The Reality Dysfunction) has 385,000 words and is 1,094 pages long, which is 46 pages shorter than Book 2. As these books are part of a trilogy, they must be read in order, with a behemoth conclusion in Book 3: The Naked God that tips the scales at 1,332 pages and 469,000 words (!). This is a trilogy with a total of 1,247,000 words—be prepared for the battle: focus, focus, focus and frequently consult the “Cast of Characters” appendix (pages 1139-1144).

Rear cover synopsis:
“The ancient menace has finally escaped from Lalonde, shattering the Confederation’s peaceful existence.

On planets and asteroids, individuals battle for survival against the strange and brutal forces unleashed upon the universe. Governments teeter on the brink of anarchy, the Confederation Navy is dangerously overstretched, and a dark messiah prepares to invoke his own version of the Final Night.

In such desperate times, the last thing the galaxy needs is a new and terrifyingly powerful weapon. Yet Dr. Alkad Mzu is determined to retrieve the Alchemist—so she can complete her thirty-year-old vendetta to slay a star. Which means Joshua Calvert must find Dr. Mzu and bring her back before the Alchemist can be reactivated.

But he’s not alone in the chase, and there are people on both sides who have their own ideas about how to use the ultimate doomsday device.”


The aftermath of the Lalonde possession is a spreading wave of possession through the Confederation by Quinn’s cohorts.

A Saldana planet, Ombey, is invaded by a trio of the walking dead, but the swift action of the police force limits the spread of possession to a single town which becomes overrun with the malicious dead-returned. While many of the returned are unscrupulous heathens and sybarites, a handful of them actually have a kind side and take to caring for children, who are not possessed, and taking them back to civilization away from the growing red cloud which hangs over the village. However they channel their powers, the humans are worried… very worried:

The energistic power which was the inheritance of every possessed was capable of near-miraculous feats as it bent the fabric of reality to a mind’s whim. As well as its destructive potential, items could be made solid at the flicker of a thought. It was also capable of reinforcing a body to resist almost any kind of assault as well as enhancing its physical strength. Wounds could be healed at almost the same rate they were inflicted. (181)

The very progressive, technological center of the Confederation is New California, a planet with strong defenses and a strong security force, both of which fall to the man who is possessed by Al Capone. This criminal mastermind of the early 20th century find that, even though 600 years in the future, the basic elements of running a city still run true for taking over an entire planet. For Al Capone, already corrupt, with power comes lust for more power and there’s a galaxy of planets just waiting to be possessed!

But Capone is no dummy criminal. He changes the complete economy of New California, ruthlessly punishes those who stand in his way, and probes deeper into the powers which the possessed have. When the bodiless souls in beyond want to enter a body, Capone converses with the all-seeing souls to gather information about activities from around the Confederation; secrets and plans are revealed to Capone, and an enticing bit of information has come to him: a woman named Dr. Mzu has information about the most destruction weapon ever known to mankind—the Alchemist.

When Dr. Mzu’s planet was destroyed by the Omuta’s thirty years ago, much of her experience was invested in creating the Alchemist. Aside from Mzu, nobody really knows what it does except that it can destroy a star. In the realm of the dead exists souls from every planet, including Earth and Mzu’s home planet; logically, there must exist and assistant of Mzu’s, someone who can help build a new Alchemist if the original Alchemist cannot be discovered. This is Capone’s chance to own the great weapon known to man when he also knows that Mzu has escaped and is attempted to retrieve her deadly device.

Also chasing the hermetic Mzu is Joshua, kind of as a favor to Ione Saldana and partly because his duty of gallivanting across the galaxy always includes these kinds of things. With his capable crew (and with Ione unknowingly stowed as a mechanical serjent), Joshua tracks down Mzu’s movements across space and is followed by Confederation Navy spies who also quest for Mzu’s capture and, with it, knowledge of what exactly the Alchemist is capable of.

Not to be forgotten, Dexter Quinn still roams open space with a burning vendetta against Earth. Being his primary target, Quinn shoots for Earth but is quickly deterred by his lack of preparation. Instead, Quinn visits a planet with a long history of strife and war—Nyvan, humankind’s first attempt at colonizing a world with multiple ethnicities. Due to the fractured nature of the social and governmental landscape, Quinn easily pins all the nationalistic forces against each other. Meanwhile, in the derelict asteroids orbiting  the planet, Quinn is planting fusion bombs for a grand spectacle of his vision: Final Night.

Pregnant, frightened, free and rich, Louise Kavanagh, along with her sister Genevieve and the gentlemanly possessed Titreano, head to the Sol system in order to ultimately find a ride to Tranquility. However, their progress is limited by Titrano’s interference with electronics on both the starship and at the Mars’ transfer facility. Louise considers Earth an impossibility but still thinks Tranquility is the best choice for her recuperation.

Tranquility becomes a hub of activity when it’s discovered that Capone is marshalling forces of voidhawks to fight the Confederation. His rate of expansion is impressive, so the Confederation governance takes extraordinary measures to fight the incoming fleet of warships. Their information isn’t exact, so precautions are spread across many regions, a fault which may either hamper Capone’s progress or seal his victory in one decisive battle. Inside Tranquility, Jay Hilton, a young refugee from Lalonde, innocently plays with the xenoc (Kiint) youth named Haile. Haile builds a remarkable sandcastle, a structure similar to one which was viewed by Ione but one which should never have been seen by Haile or anyone else in the Kiint race.

Questions and eyebrows are raised at Kiint’s passive attitude towards the possession of human bodies from the souls of the beyond. They maintain that all intelligent species must face this turn of events with their own fortitude, as each species will have a different solution to their possession. All information is scant about the Kiint’s history as is the reality of the beyond. When some of the possessed are captured and interrogated, reassurance is given to one scientist when he learns that time does indeed pass in the beyond, therefore space exists and so, logically, they dead can be beaten with familiar techniques: “It [the Beyond] obviously exists, therefore it must have some physical parameters, a set of governing laws; but they [scientists] cannot detect or define them” (666). However, the captured possessed have their own ideas of justice and they don’t play by our rules. When the Confederation take the possessed to court, hell breaks loose all over again.


Rather than focusing exclusively on the physical war between the able-bodied humans and the possessed minds of other humans, The Neutronium Alchemist also highlights the metaphysical battle between the two. For the bodily humans, it’s damned if they do join yet damned if they don’t join:

I’m sorry, Ralph, but as I said, you simply cannot threaten me. Have you worked out why yet? Have you worked out the real reason I will win? It is because you will ultimately join me. You are going to die, Ralph. Today. Tomorrow. A year from now. If you’re lucky, in fifty years time. It doesn’t matter when. It is entropy, it is fate, it is the way the universe works. Death, not love, conquers all in the end. And when you die, you will find yourself in the beyond. That is when you and I will become brother and sister in the same fellowship. United against the living. Coveting the living. (165)

The damned, the supposed eternal souls living in the beyond, still live with the “naked emotions which drive us all” and they “know exactly what we are in our true hearts, and it’s not nice, not nice at all” (1079); their intrinsic drive for domination, possession and submission rests in their very nature.

This is an interesting turn on the once uni-faceted possessors who were once only out for two things: bloodlust and domination. It’s refreshing, in light of contrast, to see some figures of the possessed control their emotions for the benefit of the children, for the benefit of the innocent. Though not the majority, by far, at least there is a hint of hope in Hamilton’s prose that allows for some of the possessed to maintain the humane side of humanity rather than the more pessimistic animalistic side which is more often portrayed.

Originally, in my review of The Reality Dysfunction, I had a difficult time accepting two premises of Hamilton’s trilogy: (a) the very nature of dead souls living in the Beyond and (b) the nature of the Edenist affinity link which has a genetic source for its non-interceptable mental transmission (as for the Kiint [1089]). Considering the created universe of The Night’s Dawn trilogy is 600 years in the future, you would think that everything which could have ever been observed in the universe, all that which is affected by laws of electromagnetic forces of other forces in the predicted unified theory, would have already been predicted and/or observed. Therefore, the affinity and Beyond are part of the physical universe, in one way or another, and should easily have been predicted, observed or measured.

Yet, there are some not-so-subtle hints about the reality of the beyond: “[T]hey [scientists] sought out the elusive transdimensional interface” (800). There are also vague, unquotable inferences that both phenomena have quantum origins, perhaps non-interceptable because of quantum entanglement (or as Einstein had called it, spooky action as a distance [spooky… possession… get it?]). This theory of mine is merely a self-assurance that Hamilton has everything neatly planned out and won’t leave any loose science ends hanging; I’m assuring myself that The Naked God will herald all the answers to all the nagging questions in my mind.

One huge improvement in Book 2 is its typographical consistency. In The Reality Dysfunction, particularly in the second half, there were many abbreviated inconsistencies, changes in font, missing bold face and compound adjectives. I’m happy to report that The Neutronium Alchemist is much better in these regards, but still isn’t perfect; granted, you can’t exactly expect it to but still I, one reader, can point out at least things:

a) Helium-3 is used as fuel for the ships in the Confederation’s fusion reactors. Rather than use the lengthy term “Helium-3”, Hamilton understandably uses the accepted He3 abbreviation for the isotope. This would be fine but he also occasionally uses subscript for the “3” as in He3: notably, on pages 1049, 1050 and 1096 (three out of eighteen isn’t so consistent).

b) Hamilton’s use of the word prone greatly annoys me. Though the definition of the word is commonly used to imply a recumbent, flat resting position, the actual definition of the word prone suggests that the subject in laying “face downward”, in contrast to the word supine which means “having the face upward”. Hamilton’s disuse of supine and his awkward uses of prone are curious:

i. “Black figures were lying prone on the feed roads” (66);

ii. “The sidewalk was littered with prone bodies” (99);

iii. “He gingerly positioned Gerald’s buttocks on the side of the bed, then lifted his legs up and around until his charge was lying prone on the cushioning” (106);

iv. “The captain was lying prone on his acceleration couch, unconscious. His fingers were still digging into the cushioning, frozen in a claw-like posture, nails broken by the strength he’d used to maul the fabric. Blood dribbling out of his nose made sticky blotches on his cheeks.” (174);

v. “[T]he four crew members lying prone on their bulky acceleration couches” (328);

vi. “Two ceiling-mounted waldo arms had been equipped with sensor arrays, like bundles of fat white gun muzzles, which they were sweeping slowly and silently up and down the prone body” (445);

vii. “They even perceived Dariat and Tatiana lying prone on the escape pod’s acceleration couches” (960);

viii. “Alkad Mzu was lying prone on one of the spare acceleration couches” (1104).

For the most part, The Neutronium Alchemist paddles along at a fairly even pace with a predictable lengthy action scene towards the conclusion. Yes, there’s a car chase scene but the hitch is it’s exacerbated by the coming of a megaton asteroid. Like a 100-car freight train crossing the Midwest (something I have familiarity with), the hulking mass of the plot moves along steadily, surely and with one hell of a momentum; once it gets rolling, it’s hard to interrupt or shift. Hamilton should stick to his complicated, interweaving plots rather than dabble in occasional and horribly awkward poetic passages, such as: “He was sure that someone had been watching the incident. A spoor of trepidation hung in the air like the scent of a summer flower” (812).


With a few minor annoyances, a few premises which are unbelievable, a few typographical errors and a rather lengthy stretch of mediocrity (though the length is impressive, the performance is not [wink], wink]), The Neutronium Alchemist, and the entire Night’s Dawn trilogy as a whole I assume, is a moderately enjoyable task rather than a continually adventurous excursion. I need a break from the series so, while on another long holiday, I’ll be dabbling in some other, hopefully, more profound literature.

No comments:

Post a Comment