Book review: Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

For all the existential car crashes it has left in its wake, humanity remains a curiously-upbeat species.

It must be an evolutionary quirk that enables us to stare disaster and loss, much of it of our own creation, in the face and still believe, all evidence to the contrary, that things can only get better from here.

In Peter F. Hamilton’s latest sci-fi masterpiece, Salvation, which departs from his well-narratively travelled world of the interstellar commonwealth for an alternate vision of humanity’s future, we get a sizeable glimpse into the many ways people can keep the faith when all justification for adherence is falling by the wayside.

In a story which spans the prosperous, star-colonising relatively-near future of the 22nd and 23rd centuries and the far future where homo sapiens are on the run across the galaxy from an vicious, unspecified alien threat, we witness the rise and fall, and hoped-for rise of humanity against a backdrop of subterfuge, skullduggery and brokenness on a suitably Hamilton-esque inter-galactic scale.

“And now here they were, angry but uncensored, with something to prove. All they could use against each other was the truth, because it was truth that could inflict damage more accurately than any smart missile strike, and their animosity hadn’t even begun to heal over, not after a hundred and twelve years. It always amazes me how long humans can hold on to grudges.” (P. 51)

Salvation, the first of a new trilogy, is a wholly engrossing read for a number of reasons, not least Hamilton’s well-honed ability to simultaneously world-build and tell a captivating story with brilliantly-realised characters, with frighteningly elegant ease.

What marks the new novel as something a little more special than normal is the way Hamilton doesn’t go full-bore exposition, choosing to build his new brave world one character story at a time.

The characters in question are a disparate group of people, drawn largely for political reasons from Earth’s security, military, commercial and black market realms who have been sent to Nyka, a terraformed world in the Beta Eridani system 89 light years from Earth, to investigate a mysterious crash alien spaceship that has some deeply-unsettling cargo onboard.

Getting there is easy from a transport perspective with all of humanity, whether on Earth or on the many far-flung worlds it now inhabits, connected by highly-calibrated wormholes known as portals that allow effective one-step travel from anywhere to anywhere.

Not only has this revolutionary technological leap changed the way humanity travels, but it has altered everything from leisure time to the way with live, with the mega-rich possessing portalhomes which have rooms which each occupy a different place on Earth or on a colony world somewhere.

What hasn’t changed, of course, is humanity themselves.

As the group travel overland to the crash site – security protocols mandate that portals and the internet cannot be used on Nkya, lest aliens tap into either network and seek to subvert for their own ends (the assumption, officially, is that they are neither friend or foe until proven otherwise; the reality is that paranoia always wins) – backstories emerge for each of the main characters, all of whom are somehow transformed into “Saints” for far-future humanity which is struggling to stay alive as an alien enemy chases them from planet to planet.

The two strands of the story aren’t joined together in this first book – Hamilton admits in a video provided by the published and embedded in this post that that won’t happen until book three – but the lack of a conclusive link between the relative here-and-now and thousands of years in the future doesn’t for one second hobble Salvation.

It is clear enough that whatever lies in that ship, and we do at least know the truth of that by book’s end, has led to some form of catastrophe for humanity many years hence, a development which should be rights have enfeebled us as a people, both in spirit and deed.

“She grinned weakly and took another sip of the beer. ‘I just hate that we can’t control our lives, not really. I know we don’t have to go to war, but, come on, what is there for us here? Everyone on Juloss is going to leave when the youngest yeargroup finish their training and get boosted. I don’t know about you, but I can’t see myself staying behind and waiting for the enemy to arrive. And they always do, you know. They go through any star system we settled like a plague, destroying anything.” (P. 292)

But remarkably, humanity has held on, forming up battle squadrons of specially-grown young people who have left behind the non-gender binary omnia of modern homo sapiens (people cycle between male and female on a roughly three-year cycle) and resumed a binary split, with men as the grunt labour and women as the tactical brains.

Devoting time to each strand can occasionally feel like a narrative strain, with no sense of how the two relate to each other, but for the greater part Hamilton, who meticulously plots his fantastically-detailed but wholly-accessible novels, manages to make these jumps between time and characters work, employing a Lost-like technique, feel organic and part of the same narrative whole.

And while we are, naturally enough, not gifted with a definitive end to things at the stunning conclusion to book one, we get a real sense of how the discovery on Nkya sets in train a series of as yet untold events which puts the cat among the existential pigeons for humanity many centuries into the future.

Salvation is never less than utterly-engrossing, an epic feat of imagination and storytelling, that, as with all of Hamilton’s books, explores our ability to be both our saviour and our destroyer, that celebrates the very curiosity which elevates and potentially dooms us at every turn, and which takes us a slowly-unfurling but always edge-of-our-seats far out into the cosmos and into the very heart of what makes us human.

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