Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, November 6, 2014

2014: The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Hamilton, Peter F.)

Detoured return to the Void of expectation (3/5)

Of Hamilton’s sixteen-book bibliography, I’ve now polished off eleven of the tomes, including the Night’s Dawn trilogy (1996-1999) which I read earlier this year ([1] [2] [3]). Though that trilogy isn’t his earliest work—a sticky -note factoid which belongs to the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995)—everything which made the trilogy a popular success (subjectively, no) can be found is the rest of his work. It’s difficult to boil down the essentials and give it a name, but technology, horror, telepathy, and investigation play a heavy hand in most of his novels—that goes for Great North Road (2012), somewhat. Now, after reading The Abyss Beyond Dreams (2014), I realize that these same themes are becoming redundant.

The Commonwealth Universe series of novels (minus Misspent Youth [2002]) started off with a bang in Pandora’s Star (2004) and continued unabated through more than a thousand pages in its sequel Judas Unchained (2005). I was hyped by the announcement of the Void trilogy (2007-2010) and actually found the storyline in the Void to be more interested than the storyline in the Commonwealth! But after the third book—The Evolutionary Void (2011)—I was getting a bit tired of the bucolic supernatural world of the Void and wanted the sharp tang of a technological fix from the Commonwealth. The conclusion to The Evolutionary Void finished, satisfyingly, on that same note and many overtones for teasers into The Fallers duology.

In my review for The Evolutionary Void, I mentioned four threads which were left hanging, possibly as an enticement for the continuation of the Commonwealth series. Two of these threads turned out to be dead ends in regards to The Fallers duology, but two of the same ones I mentioned hit the nail on the head: What happened to the far-flung colonists aboard the Brandt Dynasty ships? What happened to Nigel and his trans-galactic fleet?

In Judas Unchained (2005), Nigel’s fleet is first mentioned as an escape for his Dynasty from the possible defeat by the Primes:

Nigel had authorized eleven of the vast ships, with initial component acquisition consent for another four. In theory, just one ship could carry enough equipment and genetic material to establish a successful high-technology human society from scratch. But Nigel had wanted to begin with more than the basics, and his Dynasty was the largest in the Commonwealth. A fleet would make absolutely sure any new human civilization they founded would succeed. (622)

Very early, The Dreaming Void (2007) mentions both fleets:

The last major departure had been in AD 3000, when Nigel Sheldon himself led a fleet of ten starships, the largest craft ever built, to set up a ‘new human experience’ elsewhere. It was strongly rumoured at the time that the ships had a trans-galactic flight range. (323)

But Mellanie’s Redemption was a fine ship, she should be able to make the trip out to the Drasix cluster, fifty thousand lightyears away, where the Brandt Dynasty ships were said to have flown. (324)

The Evolutionary Void (2010) also mentions Nigel’s fleet:

Nigel Sheldon had offered Ozzie another way out, a berth on the Sheldon family armada of colony starships. They weren’t just going to the other side of the galaxy to set up a new society. Oh, no, not Nigel; he was off to a whole new galaxy to begin again. A noble quest, restarting human civilization in a fresh part of the universe. Then in another thousand years a new generation of colony ships might spread to further galaxies. After all, as he’d pointed out, this one is ultimately doomed with the Void at the center, so we need somewhere that’s got a long-term future. (410-411)

And then, this fleet magically triples in the timeline of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: “3000: Sheldon Dynasty colony fleet (thirty starships) leaves Commonwealth, believed to possess long-range trans-galactic flight capability” (ix).

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off with a 94-page ordeal of one of the nine Brandt colony ships—the Vermillion. It seems that all of the ships passing near the Void had been transported into the Void universe. Crew are being thawed from their sleep only to suffer unpleasant side-effects of the Void’s technological restrictiveness, just as their ship experiences limitations, but they have all the benefits of the seemingly supernatural telekinesis and other powers Edeard had. Two objects pique the interest of those on the Vermillion: the planet on which they may land and the curious crystalline Forest. The planet, however, isn’t the fabled planet of Edeard. It still looks inhabitable, so the Vermillion aims for the planet while a splinter group investigate the odd emerald crystal Forest—Laura Brandt is among that crew and she absolutely loves the word “bollocks”, which she says twenty-five times in 94 pages. Unfortunately, the crystal resists their persistent probing as automatic probe simply disappear from sight, then even the Vermillion and the planet disappear. Still enticed by its mystery and uncertain of the Skylords’ vague dialogue, they push on to attain a sample from crystalline egg sacs at its extremes. Once the human crew touch the eggs, they become absorbed. Laura, still on the observation ship, later sees them return yet acting oddly. Horror quickly falls upon the observation ship as they devour its human crew, yet Laura miraculously escapes to the surface of the planet. This is only the beginning of her personal horror.

This opening premise is a great start because it captures the imagination with the “lost fleet”, the idea that a fleet of humanity became stranded and experiences the hardships of its locality. This location isn’t a desert island with cannibals, but it’s The Void in all its weirdness. All readers of the Void trilogy are aware of Edeard’s planet named Querencia, but it was just an assumption that this was the only planet it the void. Also an assumption, people believed that the Skylords were native to the Void and that they were the only bizarre manifestations within the Void. It’s a bit of a stretch for the reader to experience two new revelations from the Vermillion: there’s another planet and there’s another oddity; also, that oddity had the oddest of qualities and is perhaps even the key to understanding the Void and—boom!—it’s right on their doorstep.

The vigilant Raiel maintain a million-year sentry post around the Void, fearful of its ever-consuming growth. The Raiel are able to enter the Void universe, but their mighty warship fleet had never been heard from again. They tracked the Brandt colony ships across space and become concerned about their possible penetration into the Void, a rather odd development considering it has never happened in one million years. Though powerful in innumerous regards, they need the help of one man to unravel the mystery of the Brandt fleet’s disappearance: welcome back to the scene and the series Nigel Sheldon!

For some reason (nostalgia, perhaps?), Nigel invites Paula Myo along for the Void mission. However, she’ll stay aboard the observation vessel along with Nigel’s original self. Nigel’s clone is the one who must do the dirty work and investigate two things: What happened to the Brandt colony fleet? How can the Void be destroyed? As the cloned Nigel in the Void experiences the planet of Bienvenido, his “dreams” are broadcast to the original Nigel in the normal universe. Just as Edeard and the crew of the Vermillion have extra-sensory powers, Nigel, too, wields the same; Nigel is most aware of Edeard’s powers because he and Paul had snuck in and witnessed all of Edeard’s dreams, stolen from Inigo the Dreamer and cult leader of Living Dream. This also seems like a stretch, a hastily included act to set the precedence for Nigel’s infiltration to the Void. So, while the initial 94 pages are an intriguing start to the novel, the next section where Nigel, Paula and the Raiel plan their infiltration is a bit of a hasty rush, something which I’ve never said for any Hamilton novel… slow and steady, that’s typically his pace until the conclusion and only then is it a hasty retreat.

The novel opens up a third story, which remains the focus of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Planet-bound on Bienvenido, Slvasta is a simple commanding officer for the regiment in charge of protecting the village of Cham from bandits and Fallers. Bandits may be a daily fear, but the Fallers are a three-millennium long fear engraved into the conscious of every human on Bienvenido. Slvasta’s squad is called to investigate one such Faller alert. Though the scientists regard the green Forest in space as the source of the Fallers, they have no way to track their movement toward Bienvenido and are only alerted when they streak groundward. They know a few other things, too: (1) the heaven-fallen eggs enrapture humans near it thus drawing them into it, eggsuming them, and creating an evil twin which cannibalizes living human bodies and (2) they can be destroyed in egg form or ersatz human form.

This is, again, all a curious development because Edeard’s city and planet were never hampered by these falling demons from the Forest. The Forest and the Fallers are both an entirely new development which was never mentioned in any of the three books in the Void trilogy. Again, this seems like a desperate attempt on Hamilton’s part to explain the mysteries of the Void after already having developed the mysteries without the answer… kind of like BSing on an exam. Taken by itself or taken in context with the other Commonwealth books, this book is just odd as the majority of the storyline (other than Nigel, the Void and the Raiel) does not reflect its predecessors.

Thereon, in itself a good story, Slvasta makes some revelations about the need for progress and change through revolution—the seed for this revolution was planted by Nigel himself when they crossed paths on the riverside while Slvasta was out seeking Fallers. Nigel, wise for more than a thousand years, impresses Slvasta with the kernel of truth: Bienvenido will not change itself nor will it change from the top; it will only change from its core—the people. After Slvasta is given a seat of power so that he can stop the culling of modified animals (remember the genistars from the Void, mind-crafted animals for a specific purpose?) because they are easily controlled by Fallers and a clear threat to humans, he doesn’t lie still for long. Witnessing the turgid bureaucracy of his government, Slavasta realizes he is in a position to make those changes that Bienvenido needs—a revolution is at hand!

Slvasta’s story thread of social upheaval doesn’t garner much interest. Behind this storyline, there are three lurking agents of change which that impinge on the flow of events: (1) The Captain and his mansion, (2) Nigel and his farm, and (3) Laura Brandt and he perpetual descent.

The Captain and His Mansion
More than three thousand year ago, the Brandt colony vessel named Vermillion made landfall and established exactly what it was intended to do, just not in the same universe. The captain—Captain Cornelius—was the first “Captain” of Bienvenido and, three thousand years later through direct lineage, Captain Philious now reigns with an iron fist, quashing any protest or revolt. Under his palace lay the remains the Vermillion, rich with ancient Commonwealth technology but sitting idle as much of it doesn’t work under The Void’s bizarre quantum structure. Much of this is unknown to the commonfolk of Bienvenido, but Nigel knows and Nigels sees opportunity.

Nigel and His Farm
To avoid suspicion from the locals, Nigel establishes a farm on the town’s outskirts. However, being the eclectic man he is, Nigel pushes the limits of technology on this backwater world where electronics don’t work: steam engines are created, unique genistars are produced, and other scientific dalliances abound. He’s definitely up to something. Ultimately, his goal to is destroy the Void and free the humans from the grip of its quantum tyranny, but he must tick off a long list of mental exercises so that he can accomplish his personal goal and as a favor to the Raiel. Once such jaunt is to the Desert of Bone, which is rumored to be piled with bones and watched over by a monster; however, once there, Nigel witnesses a massive heap of expods, the exact same exopod that Laura used to save herself and enter the atmosphere… just multiplied by hundreds of thousands.

Laura Brandt and Her Perpetual Descent
In the back of the reader’s mind, there should rest of curious case of Laura Brandt. She descended to Bienvenido in her exopod with a shattered ankle only to see the exact same exopod fall from the sky on top of hers, whereby she cracks the hatch and kills her new self. Multiply this scene by three thousand years; it’s grisly, it’s cool. The ramifications of this oddity are blurry but enticing, one thread of the novel which had my mind reeling.

And… if you’ve been reading Hamilton’s work for a while, you there some sex stashed away somewhere! I remember a few vivid scenes—not necessarily good scenes, mind you—in the Void trilogy. Abyss only has one sex scene but, boy, is it a doozy. It’s so bad, I actually guffawed aloud and read it to my colleague:

Her hands were fumbling with his shirt. He used his teekay to lift her dress off. They fell back onto the mattress, touching and caressing skin as it was freed from the restriction of clothes. When they were naked, she straddled him, surrounded by bright sunlight pouring in through the bay window behind her. He used his teekay to pull her down, impaling her. The sunlight seemed to flow around her, turning his world to a glorious white blaze as she cried out. Then she was riding him, letting him into her thoughts to reveal her body’s secret demands, pleading with him to perform them. He responded with equal intimacy, sharing his physical appetite. And a completely uninhibited Bethaneve used her hands and mouth and tongue and teekay to delight him in all the ways he’d always fantasized she would. (284)


If you’re familiar with the Night’s Dawn trilogy, a few facets from there will certainly surface in Abyss: the existence of souls and the evilness of those changed. If you’re familiar with the Commonwealth and Void series, you see a few thematic reflections in Abyss: the sexualized young girl who can change the world, the bucolic hardships of the Void, and scientific progress à la Nigel and Ozzie. There’s something recognizable about Hamilton’s writing, in the thematic sense, and it’s becoming apparent that he has a formula that hasn’t changed with the times. This may be because I indulged gluttonously, though not with great satisfaction, on all three Night’s Dawn books this year. But there’s also the expectation of continuing a series without dropping all this new razzle-dazzle on the plate of the reader, very little of it familiar. There’s that word again—familiar. For something of the unfamiliar, try Hamilton's collection Manhattan in Reverse (2011).

So, some element of Abyss are agreeably familiar while others are disagreeably familiar. One might think a one-off novel might stray from this familiarity but even Great North Road suffers from these ubiquitous similarities, though it fared better than Abyss. To-date, Abyss is one of Hamilton’s least generous novels, one that doesn’t match expectations and one that doesn’t ignite the imagination.

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