One of the delights of diving deeply into a Peter F Hamilton novel – and dive deeply you will with many of his expansive efforts reaching the 700-plus page mark with ease – is being reminded once again that pretty much anything is possible.
In a world riven by global warming, war, ethnic divide, rampant extreme nationalism and environmental degradation, it’s all too easy to become pessimistic, believing that the apocalypse is nigh and there is no meaningful way forward.
But Hamilton, in common with the likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, dares to believe that humanity, possessed of endless curiosity and the ability to do something meaningful with it, is better than this and can rise above the dark shackles of current peril.
Whether that in fact happens is another matter entirely but in Hamilton’s Commonwealth, which spans a vast gamut of rich, industrialised and verdantly agrarian communities across the great reaches of the galaxy, humanity has fended off the very worst angels of its nature and with a few dramatic hiccups, for what is a good dramatic narrative without one, come out the other end smelling largely of roses.
In Night Without Stars, which continues the story begun in The Abyss Beyond Dreams, however they are seen as the enemy, a threat to the grand authoritarian rule of the relatively new revolution on Bienvenido, a plant spun out of The Void, an artificial alien construct where time and many other physical properties had been distorted by an overlord alien race. ( See The Void Trilogy)
The irony is that the good citizens of Bienvenido, who now reside in an inky black galaxy devoid of stars where The Void casts off all its unwanted inhabitants, down to every last man, woman and child, are the descendants of the Brandt colony ships which crashlanded on the planet 3000 years ago.
But thanks to some accidental Commonwealth meddling in the planet, courtesy of one of the founders of the Commonwealth, Nigel Sheldon – he like pretty much all citizens of the humanity galactic community experience almost endless lifespans thanks to DNA-resequencing which keeps them eternally young – the Commonwealth is persona non grata, at least with the ruling elites.
Hideous though they are, they are no match for The Fallers, an avaricious alien race that colonises a planet by absorbing and mimicking its indigenous sentient beings and flora & fauna until only they remain.
They are the real threat to Bienvenido but in a mirror of our current world where the real threats are subsumed to made-up issues and superficial scaremongering, they are not taken anywhere near as seriously as they should be, and as a result the multi-millenia civilisation is in danger of being lost.
As with many of Hamilton’s novels, which expertly blend optimism with real world politicking and deep cultural insight, Night Without Stars is in part an allegory of our current predicament here on good old planet Earth.
A totalitarian government, which practises a form of state capitalism such as that enacted by China, is more concerned with perpetuating its rule than readying Bienvenido for the threats it faces.
Yes the Faller threat is taken seriously with rocket missions to destroy the organic spaceships which orbit the planet a high priority, as is the destruction of any Faller life on the surface, but nowhere near as seriously as preserving the status quo which benefits the few but proves a major disservice to the many.
There are those opposing the inevitable Faller Apocalypse, where humanity will be wiped from Bienvenido but they are fighting a losing battle until one of the Commonwealth’s most famous citizens, and no saying who would be a massive spoiler, arrives to shake things up a bit, or as it turns out a lot.
As with all of Hamilton’s intelligently-written and fast-paced novels, there is an appealing balance between expansive, wide-ranging storytelling and intimate character moments, with neither told at the expense of the other.
It’s that ability to be both epic and intimate, page-turnable yet deeply, winningly clever, that makes Hamilton such a giant of the sci-fi genre.
He creates worlds where anything is possible but where it can also be derailed by people with minds or visions too small to seize the true import of the potential at their fingertips.
In other words just like our present day. However, the key difference is that the optimism is never misplaced – humanity, even when it’s millions of light years apart as is the case with Bienvenido and the Commonwealth, always comes through, fulfilling the promise that Hamilton invests it with.
It’s not glib or cheesy optimism that ignores the realities of a cold and cruel galaxy, but grounded and well thought-through, granting his books an immense intellectual, emotional and dramatic richness that draws you in utterly and completely.
In fact, so absorbed will you be by Night Without Stars and its weighty predecessors that setting aside days at a time is the only way to truly do them justice. Trust me, it’s worth your while if only to be reassured by one of the most gifted writers out there that optimism is not the pursuit of fools and morons but rather of the dreamers and the unbounded, both of whom our world is very much in need of in the current day.