Wednesday, 28 September 2011

‘Manhattan In Reverse’ – Peter F. Hamilton (MacMillan)

Looking back over what’s been posted here on the blog, it swiftly became clear that there is a very large ‘Peter F. Hamilton shaped hole’ on these pages. Ok, there are some cover art posts as well as bits of news and maybe even an old competition here and there. What about reviews though? While Laurell K. Hamilton gets a mention here and there not a single one of Peter F. Hamilton’s books have featured at all which is a real shame seeing as his name is the one most mentioned when you’re looking for some quality science fiction to read (having enjoyed the ‘Nights Dawn’ books, although this was years ago, I’d agree with this).

I’m going to have to fall back on the same excuse here, the one that has claimed the likes of Steven Erikson and Robert Jordan over the past few years. Peter F. Hamilton’s books are not just big, they’re huge and we all know what happens to big thick books in my house. They get filed under ‘I really want to read this book but I’d have to buy it its own travel card for the commute...’ I know I’m missing out on some great reads here (and am hoping to redress the balance when I next go on holiday) but that’s the way it is.

Until now.

Talk of Hamilton’s latest book had me sighing wistfully and idly wondering if I could use up some annual leave to get it read. That was until I realised that ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ is only two hundred and sixty pages long. Two hundred and sixty pages! Now that’s more like it :o) I didn’t hang around in cracking ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ open and starting to read. It was duly polished off in a couple of nights, not only because of its brevity but also because it’s a book full of interesting ideas that I couldn’t help but chew on. It’s also a book that I found incredibly easy to get into, to the point where I’d surface for air and wonder where the time had gone. ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ is a collection of short stories and some of these are set in Hamilton’s ‘Commonwealth’ universe, a series that I haven’t read at all. People who have read these books should get a lot out of seeing certain characters back on the page. I missed out on that but these stories were no less accessible for that and have got me thinking that I really should go back and check out ‘Pandora’s Star’ and ‘Judas Unchained’. It feels like I haven’t been this excited by science fiction in a long time and it goes without saying that I’m recommending this book very highly indeed.

‘Manhattan In Reverse’ bills itself as a ‘intriguing look at what makes us enduringly human’ but I’d say this is only half the case. This collection is more of a playground where Hamilton can relieve the immense pressure on his brain and let some of his big ideas come out to play. And there are some pretty huge ideas rampaging around here as well, possibly more than a little familiar to long time readers but thoroughly detailed and refreshing to a relative newcomer like me. There’s a real sense of depth to what are, in some cases, very short stories indeed. Hamilton’s earlier work on the ‘Commonwealth’ books probably helped him a great deal here but it’s still a lot of fun to dive in and immerse yourself in such a thoroughly realised world, even if it’s just for a short while. I’m thinking of the first story in particular, ‘Watching Trees Grow’, where you get to see enormous technological advances made that somehow never lose their credibility despite how quickly they happen.

The offshoot of all these big ideas running around is that we do get to see how humanity endures in the face of technological upheaval, whether it’s in the short term or over a period of centuries. Hamilton displays great faith in the fact that while humanity might fracture into separate parts, as a whole it will still hold to what made it human in the first place. Having said that, Hamilton’s stories are just as likely to show humanity in a negative light as they are a positive one. I like that even handedness and not just because it makes for a great story; Hamilton comes across as a guy who really knows what he is writing about.

Here are the stories that you will find in ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ with my thoughts on each. Not all of them worked for me but I had fun with them all and the overall read was definitely a good one...

‘Watching Trees Grow’

Part detective story, part ‘alternate history of mankind’; ‘Watching Trees Grow’ does a great job of getting you to turn those pages right away with a compelling mystery set against a sprawling backdrop of change. Edward’s refusal to let the case drop, no matter what, adds a nice human touch and Hamilton springs a nice surprise on us by exonerating all the suspects beyond all doubt... and then revealing that one of them was guilty all along. Technological advance is the key here but it’s the human characters driving this tale (and the exploration of a pretty fundamental split in humanity as a whole) that makes ‘Watching Trees Grow’ worth the read.


This was the story that made me think ‘Hamilton really doesn’t like living in the UK does he?’ Bradley Murray opens a wormhole and invites residents of the United Kingdom to join him in a new utopia on the other side. A story that chooses to end on the middle ground rather than making a hard choice; I wanted it to take that risk but there is a nice dose of tension that builds up in the meantime. I also had to chuckle at some of the things that wouldn’t be allowed on the other side of the wormhole. An enjoyable ride that perhaps ends a little on the flat side.

‘If At First...’

A time travel tale that gets straight to the good stuff without the needless hypothesizing; what would we really do with ourselves if we could travel back in time? Treatment of the answer is plausible enough to make you keep reading, and I liked the twist at the end (predictable as it was) but I had trouble remembering this tale just a day after finishing the book... ‘If At First’ is a little more lightweight than the other stories and suffered for it.

‘The Forever Kitten’

The shortest story of the lot, clocking in at under a thousand words. This tale of the early discovery of a form of immortality packs an awesome punch for a tale that is so short, even with the pretty big clue that you are given along the way. It was also fascinating to see Hamilton’s handling of a man about to do something very wrong but for reasons that you can’t fail to understand.

‘Blessed By An Angel’

This was the only story that didn’t quite work for me, purely because it seemed to tied to its ‘Commonwealth’ setting a lot more than the others which chose instead to go with the story. I liked the way it ended though and I’ve got a feeling that the character we meet right at the end may have a big part to play in the main series.

‘The Demon Trap’

Detective Paula Myo makes her first appearance here and proves to be another reason why I will seek out the first two ‘Commonwealth’ books. Myo is a sensitively handled example of just what a ‘vat grown’ human might end up like; bred to excel in her role but well aware of how this comes across to other ‘normal’ humans. I enjoyed seeing how Myo copes with her role as well as with the demands arising from her being the only human of her kind that left her home planet. The plot is a compelling one as well, highlighting frictions and divisions that will inevitably arise from mankind’s scientific advance. It’s no surprise to know that Myo inevitably gets her man but the real joy is in seeing how it’s done.

‘Manhattan In Reverse’

The titular story is perhaps a little too straight forward (no twist here at all) but I couldn’t help but be impressed at Myo’s methodical and relentless approach to the case at hand. I also appreciated the way that Hamilton could take a character’s throw away remark and make it into a title that sums up the story superbly. ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ ends things on a quiet note but a fitting one nonetheless.

Like I said, I’d highly recommend ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ for fans and relative newcomers like me; I’m really glad that I picked this one up.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

7 comments: said...

You seriously need to read the Commonwealth books (not just the two you mentioned but The Void trilogy as well), they're vastly superior to Night's Dawn (which I liked, until I got to the end and was crushed by the Dues Ex Machina after 3000 pages of build up!). Hamilton's universe building is the best in the business, utterly consistent and endlessly fascinating.

Gwen en Har said...

Your travelcard argument is no longer valid! :-) Peter's Kindle e-book collection is pretty complete, and very reasonable priced too.

And I love the fact that I have a new book on my iPad just 5 minutes after I've heard about it.

Graeme Flory said... - I have the Void trilogy waiting to be read but now I really want to get my hands on the Commonwealth books first as I've heard you should read them first. Might be a little while before I get to them but I will :o)

Gwen en Har - I need to get myself a Kindle first and that's another discussion entirely... Good point though :o)

Anonymous said...

Skip Robert Jordan, you're not missing much - terribly overwritten material that loses the plot half way through. Stick to Peter H and Steve E. You won't regret it. - Ian

Jay said...

Drop everything else and read Pandora's Star & Judas Unchained.

Shame about ths new collection, I've already read all the stories. I was hoping for at least 1 new one.

If you want another batch of short stories by Hamilton, A Second Chance At Eden is really good and all based on the Nights Dawn setting.

Graeme Flory said...

Jay - I've got a few books that I've promised to read first, I will be picking up the first two Commonwealth books though (hopefully soon).

ksmith said...

In my opinion Night's Dawn is still the best work from Hamilton and you should definitely read it.

If you like shorter novels then there is Fallen Dragon which is also Hamilton's second best work in my opinion.

The Greg Mendel's series are also very nice (three separate novels of 400 pages each).