Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Authors & Mutant Worms

A robot dog gazes across the Thames
at prestigious Chelsea

This blog entry continues from Monday's entry "Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning."

Although his scheduled time had expired, and he had fulfilled his commitment to the World Fantasy Convention, author Peter F Hamilton returned to the table where he had sat before his reading. At first, he seemed confused as to how to proceed, and offered one of us a copy of the manuscript to pass around. Thankfully, after a little encouragement, he kindly finished the story he had begun toward the end of his scheduled reading.

In "The Return of the Mutant Worms," Peter F Hamilton introduces us to a writer who lives in a portion of London called Chelsea, in a plush flat along the Thames River. This author has labored hard over the years to build up a strong, popular mainstream following, and regards the novel he's just finished as the pinnacle of his career. So when he receives a package in the mail, he tears into it, eagerly anticipating the contract for his forthcoming book.  Instead, he finds a publication contract for a short story titled "Mutant Worms" that he wrote twenty-one years ago. The publication of this story can only detract from his upcoming publicity tour, as mainstream readers will wonder how the writer they associate with such sophisticated and polished literary fiction once wrote a crass genre story about mutant worms having sex with Human females.

The author phones his former publisher, and explains there must be some mistake. The publisher informs the writer that he's made no mistake. Although he thought the story terrible twenty-one years ago, he paid the author a nominal sum for it, then locked it away. Yes, he understands that the publication of "Mutant Worms" might offend and appall the cultured sensitivities of the author's present readership. Yes, he knows that even hearing about this story might discourage readers from buying his new book, or indeed, any novels he might write in the future. So what? He decided to purchase the story as an investment twenty-one years ago. Now it's time to collect the dividends. 

But hey, he's a big-time author now, right? Shouldn't he be willing to share some of his wealth with his former publisher, who helped him in the formative phase of his career? No, he has no interest in selling the story back, for any amount of money. Still, he could be persuaded, for the right price, to not publish it. At least, not right now... 

I smiled and laughed along with my fellow readers as Hamilton read "The Return of the Mutant Worms." I suspect most of them noticed how the fictional writer's story gently mocked Hamilton's extraordinary storytelling achievement of The Night's Dawn trilogy. If my summary of the story has piqued your interest, you can find it in Solaris Rising, an anthology edited by Ian Whates. Along with Hamilton's delightful story, you'll also discover stories by other big name Science Fiction authors. I'm glad that I got to hear Hamilton read his story, and thankful that he was willing (and circumstances allowed him) to finish it. 

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
An introduction to Peter F. Hamilton's The Night's Dawn trilogy

Monday, July 21, 2014

Peter F Hamilton on Elves & Illegal Cloning

Last year, I attended a reading with Peter F Hamilton at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England. I arrived early, and found the author seated at a table outside the scheduled conference room. He seemed relaxed, and chatted easily with those around him. I joined the group, enjoyed seeing him interact with others, and spoke with him when the conversation allowed. Then it was time for his reading. 

Firstly, he read a scene from a new novel called The Abyss Beyond Dreams, due to be released in the United States on October 21, 2014. The story is set in his Commonwealth series, which includes novels such as Judas Unchained and the Void trilogy. Hamilton's soft-spoken voice flowed smoothly, soaking into us like warm honey on a slice of freshly baked bread, and his phrasing seemed more rhythmic and poetic than what I remembered from The Night's Dawn trilogy set in his Confederation universe. The scene introduced us to Darren and Alicia, two young sweethearts enjoying the simple pleasures of small town life. Yet, by the end of the scene, Alicia's life lay in tatters, as she has learned that Peter is three hundred years old, and only looks twenty due to his bionic enhancements. Through illegal cloning, he has brought her back to life again and again, each time romancing her beginning at age seventeen, until something inevitably goes wrong, and their romance falls apart. As with his Confederation novels, and the short stories in Manhattan In Reverse, Hamilton entranced us with the possibilities of the future. Yet it was his characters, with all their hopes, dreams, and frailties, that drew us in, and breathed life into his story.

The second story he read from was The Queen of Dreams, a children's novel he wrote to entertain his children. It involves Princesses, Skylords, and Elves. These Elves are not like the ones from Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They remind me of Punk Rock Elves, or the blue-skinned Na'vi in James Cameron's epic movie "Avatar." They stand seven-feet tall, have no hair on the sides of their heads, and plume-like mohawks that resemble avian plumage. Plus, they've got tails! The story stars Taggie and Jemima, two Human children who acquire magical powers after an encounter with a squirrel wearing glasses. The novel has yet to find a publisher in the United States, but is available in hardcover and digital formats from English booksellers. Hamilton's reading tantalized us with an Elf who surfed on rainbows rather than water, and rode a silver mirror shield instead of a Human surfboard. The story reminds me of Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country (Volume One of her Eidolon Chronicles) or one of the seven novels in C. S. Lewis' series The Chronicles of Narnia. Given the inventiveness Hamilton builds into his Science Fiction novels, I'd say children of all ages should have fun with this story, as well as the illustrations in the book. After writing so many Science Fiction stories for adults, it's nice to see Hamilton stretching his wings, and trying his hand at a children's Fantasy. Let's hope his book sells well in England, and someone decides to publish it in the United States.

If not, I'll have to pick up a copy on my next visit to England. 

Although his allotted time had nearly expired, the next scheduled author had yet to arrive, so Hamilton pulled out one of his short stories. We all sat forward in our seats as Hamilton started off on a short story he had written for a few years previously. The story, set in London's Chelsea region, introduced us to an author looking forward to the publication of a book he views as his masterpiece. With its characterization, drama, and touches of humor, Peter F. Hamilton had us on the edges of our seats. But then the next scheduled author arrived, and we had to vacate the room.

To be continued...

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Jane Johnson's novel The Secret Country

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Daleks of Chick-Fil-A

This blog continues from "The Bovine Daleks" at Pocket Dalek and Friends

Denim: What's happening? My audio sensors are overwhelmed.

Pocket: I don't know. I've got a cow muzzle affixed to my visual sensor, remember?
Denim: Temperature readings suggest the presence of numerous Humans.

Pocket: Movement sensors suggest that we're surrounded by a milling throng! 

Denim: And my olfactory sensors suggest that the food has arrived.

Pocket: Alert! Alert! I can't interpret these readings!

Denim: I register a definite alien presence! Oh good, Master is taking another drink. We should urge him and Mistress to increase the speed of their nutrition ingestion.

Pocket: Denim's right, Master. You could be in danger. Don't worry, though, we'll protect you. Arming laser cannon now.

Denim: I don't think he wants you to fire on the cow.
Pocket: How do you know the alien we detected was a cow?
Denim: The muzzle fell off my visual sensor.
Pocket: So that's where this second one came from.

Pocket & Denim Daleks

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Peter F Hamilton On Wormholes

Enjoying the view of Human society in Tamworth,
a town without a Wormhole in the English Midlands.

Do you ever get fed up with government? What if you were given a free hand to transform government according to our desires? Or better yet, rebuild Human society from the ground upward? Could you do a better job than the current leadership? These are some of the questions Peter F Hamilton explores in his story "Footvote."

While most of the stories in his collection Manhattan In Reverse are set in the distant future (or in the case of "Watching Trees Grow," in an Alternate Earth in which society developed far differently than our own), "Footvote" takes place in the present. Or at least the present when Hamilton wrote it, back in 2004. A man named Bradley Ethan Murray opens a wormhole to a habitable world he has dubbed New Suffolk. We never learn how he found this Earthlike world, or how he opened this doorway in space-time. Nor do we learn how he acquired the Exotic Matter necessary to keep this wormhole stable and open for his intended two year period. Murray must be a remarkable man, as no one else has observed a wormhole, let along created one, since physicists Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen theorized their existence in 1935. But however he does it, he succeeds in opening this doorway in space-time, and it is a sight to behold. 

And there right ahead of me was the wormhole. It was like some gold-chrome bubble squatting on the horizon. I squinted into the brilliant rosy light it was radiating. 

While we never meet Murray, we get some idea of how he intends to structure his new government from his declaration of ideals that Hamilton sprinkles between his scenes.

Some of Murray's tenets seem reasonable. For example, we can all agree with 1) With citizenship comes responsibility, and 3) Government will be a democratic republic. Others are more debatable, such as 35) Police will not waste their time criminalizing trivial offenses, and 39) Any lawyer who has brought three failed cases of litigation judged to be frivolous is automatically sentenced to five years in a penal colony. Later, Murray gets around to barring certain types of organizations, such as any organized religion, and certain groups of people from entry to his new world. The latter include members of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat party (in other words, anyone who served in Britain's government), as well as tabloid journalists, trade union officials, and traffic wardens. As religion has all too often been used to induce guilt and suffering, and also to excuse violence, perhaps we can concede Murray a point here. After all, who wants the guardians of a "failed society" to muck up a new one? Murray's certainly spot-on in banning traffic wardens, given how practically every place you travel in England charges you to park your vehicle. But then he goes too far, and bans the Cast and production staff of all TV Soaps.

Whoa, hold on! Suddenly, this Bradley Ethan Murray character sounds like a real radical!

Hamilton doesn't take us through Murray's wormhole, so we don't get to see what New Suffolk looks like, or how the colonists build their own version of Eden. Instead, he focuses on the probable consequences of what would happens if a large number of people left England. Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to the President's Treasury Secretary in the United States) in Tony Blair's Labour government public claims that government revenue has only fallen by ten percent. Yet Janette, a recently divorced mother of two, reads about the European Union sending engineers to shut down failing UK nuclear reactors. She finds it hard to concentrate on the news on this sunny, summer day, as the breeze wafting through her windows brings with it the sewer-like stink from the uncollected trash building up in the town square. She also learns that all British soldiers are being recalled from the war in Afganistan (which doesn't make the United States happy), and nearly everyone in uniform is being reassigned to civic duties, such as helping out in fire departments, serving as prison guards, and providing engineering support for power stations. Russian gas companies are already demanding payment in advance for any gas they will supply England come winter. Of course, Gordon Brown is urging all town councils to "cut down on wastage," although exactly how they can do that, or how much wastage there really is, Abbey can only guess.

What Abbey knows is that she's fighting for her way of life, and the people she loves. Foremost among the latter include her children, Steve and Olivia, who are going away for the weekend with her ex-husband Colin and his girlfriend Zoe. While the children are away, she takes the train with her friend Abbey to join the "Public Responsibility Movement," which is protesting at the entry point to the Wormhole. What she doesn't know is that Colin, a man who used to love her, but now no longer understands or respects her, is planning on taking Zoe, Steve, and Olivia through the wormhole to begin a new life in New Suffolk. He's sold his house, and converted all his savings into transportable goods. Of course, he gets stuck in traffic, as there's always a long line of pedestrians and vehicles heading into the wormhole, which gives us time to understand his views on why he's leaving, and his hopes of what life in New Suffolk might offer. Both parents view the reasons for either leaving or remaining in England in rational terms, yet reach opposing decisions. This gives us some idea as to why they got fell out of love, and got divorced before the events in the story.

As with "Watching Trees Grow," I've tried to give you the ideas underlying "Footvote," as well as a little of the flavor of Hamilton's storytelling, without ruining the conclusion for you. Of the seven stories in Manhattan In Reverse, "Footvote" alone offers us a view of (nearly) contemporary Earth. The story suggests that while our world will never be perfect, most Human societies straddle the knife-edge of survival. Of course, we'd all love to remake government according to our own desires, but from Bradley Ethan Murray's laundry list of principles, we get the feeling that life on New Suffolk will not be superior to what we currently enjoy. The story reminds us how quickly a club, committee, church, company, or any type of Human organization can decline or fold when enough people walk away from it. And Hamilton's story functions as a metaphor for how Human society is constantly evolving, as one set of ideologies is discarded for newer, more "moral" or "equitable" ones. There is a cost for everything in this world, and that cost of change is often paid by those least capable of doing so. But that's me, doing an in-depth analysis of what most people would probably only view as a Science Fiction story that, despite its slightly tongue-in-cheek humor, nevertheless shines a serious light on economic, social, and familial issues. 

Perhaps it's a good thing that I'm not running the government. No doubt you'd do better. Still, should you someday grasp the reins of power, I urge caution before you ban any TV soaps. Could Human society, let alone the British government, survive the cancellation of such popular shows as "Doc Martin" and "Downton Abbey?" Think of the chaos that might ensue!

Dragon Dave

Monday, July 14, 2014

Peter F Hamilton On Sticking To Your Principles

A sign cries out to passersby in Oxford, England

MURDER. It was the Banner scored big and bold across all the street corner newspaper placards, most often garnished with adjectives such as foul, brutal, and insane

In "Watching Trees Grow," a novella in Peter F. Hamilton's short story collection Manhattan In Reverse, Family Investigator Edward Raleigh travels to Oxford, England in AD 1832. In this alternative world, the Roman Empire never collapsed. With technology evolving faster in this world than in ours, the average human lifespan increased significantly. Yet one person will not enjoy the benefits of a long life, enhanced technological resources, or centuries of fine English cuisine. That person is Justin Ascham Raleigh, who is found murdered in his Dunbar College dormitory. 

Despite the violence associated with our historical Roman Empire, Hamilton's alternative world doesn't condone murder under any circumstances. While Edward is shocked by the violence of the crime, he nonetheless pursues the clues, and investigates all the suspects. These include Peter Samuel Griffith, Justin's roommate who reported the crime, and his six close friends. As Justin's dormitory apartment yields no immediate clues, Edward adjourns to Oxford City police station, where he assists the detectives with the questioning. The greatest suspicion falls on Alexander Stephen Maloney, who had dinner with Justin on the evening of his death. Alexander has frequented gambling clubs of late, and been losing heavily. While Justin had no money that Alexander might have stolen, Justin had been pursuing a scientific idea in physics and spectrography that he believed would have guaranteed him a professorship. Might Alex, or someone else, have murdered Justin for the potential monetary value of his idea? Alas, Edward and the police detectives find no documentation to back up this hypothesis. Faced with a dearth of clues, Justin's death goes unsolved.

In AD 1853, Edward flies into Newark aerodrome in Manhattan City. While traveling on Raleigh family business, he snatches the opportunity to utilize advances in forensic techniques to link the DNA of one of the suspects to a cigar butt the police discovered during their investigation. 

"For Mary's sake," the suspect exclaims. "It's been twenty-one years."

"Yes. Twenty-one years, and he's still just as dead."

The evidence Edward collects is insufficient to solve the crime, and so sixty-seven years later, in AD 1920, Edward takes a scramjet-powered spaceplane from Gibraltar spaceport to Vespasian, a space station in orbit around Earth. From there he endures a three month journey aboard a spaceship powered by low-temperature ion plasma engines to Jupiter, and then a shuttle down to a spaceport on Ganymede, one of the gas giant's moons. From there, he travels by bus to the city of New Milan. 

All the buildings were free-standing igloos whose base and lower sections were constructed from some pale yellow silicate concrete, while the top third was a transparent dome. 

During his six-month stay on Ganymede to conduct Raleigh family business, he visits another of the original suspects. 

I waved a hand at the curving windows, with their thin reinforcement mesh of carbon strands. That particular carbon allotrope was the reason the glass could be so thin, one of the new miracles we took so much for granted. 

Carbon 60, as it is known, was discovered ten years previously by one of the murder suspects. Edward wonders if it might have been the idea Justin was working on, and the murderer killed him to pursue it instead. Alas, the interview yields no definitive proof, but Edward is assembling clues from the available evidence, and utilizing increases in technology to solve this century-old murder. 

Fast forward to AD 2038. A deep-flight ship exits a wormhole portal and lands at a habitat orbiting Eta Carinae. It has taken Edward over two hundred years, but he has finally forged a water-tight case. Standing on this massive space station orbiting a distant star, he arrests the person responsible for Justin's murder. Under questioning, the person admits to the crime. In a way, Edward feels as uncomfortable with arresting this person as he did about Justin's murder, as this individual has developed Justin's idea to radically advance human expansion to the stars. But Edward finds murder as unacceptable now as he did two hundred-and-two years ago, when he had just embarked on his career as an investigator for the Raleigh Family. 

"You took Justin's life away from him," I said. "We can produce a physical clone of him from the samples we kept. But that still won't be him. His personality, his uniqueness, is lost to us forever."

In killing Justin, the murderer steals Justin's idea, and uses it to create the kind of future that most of us can only dream about. In sticking to his principles, Edward persists with an investigation that most of us would have given up on, and thus preserves a future in which everyone matters. As to which individual contributes the most to his society, and the betterment of mankind, Peter F Hamilton leaves the reader to decide.

Dragon Dave