With its second volume, Peter F. Hamilton's intimidatingly huge Night's Dawn trilogy cements its status as possibly the most sprawling, demanding, and impossible-to-ignore saga that space opera has yet seen. Even Dune and its subsequent sequels weren't this ambitious. Perhaps only the Star Trek and Star Wars universes are bigger. But those only got that way over a period of decades, with multiple creative hands working to shape them. Hamilton's story is the consistent, focused vision of one man. It's SF's very own War and Peace, except fatter and easier to follow. Though each volume tips the scales at well over 1000 pages, the books feel judiciously edited to keep the story sailing ever forward. Hamilton impressively avoids burdening them with extraneous narrative baggage or time-wasting digressions from the main plot. These aren't just books you read, they're an entire compact universe for you to fall into. Their imagination stupefies.
SF and fantasy (particularly the latter) are packed to the rafters with novels by writers who have limitless, epic pretensions. Many of these efforts collapse under their own weight, the mundane problem of talent failing ambition. The trick to writing epic novels that work is to remember that they are, at the end of the day, stories just like anything else. They need characters you care about, anchoring a plain ol' good yarn that you want to see through to the end. Bloating out your book until it's the size of the monolith from 2001 is not, in and of itself, a guarantor of greatness. You cannot simply take your readers on a million-word tour of the inside of your head and think you've achieved something immortal. To some writers the skill comes naturally (GRRM, of course), while others struggle to hit their stride (Steven Erikson, who finally started to pull it all together about three books in). In cinema, the best example of a failed epic would have to be the Star Wars prequels, all of which were full to bursting with expensive visuals and labyrinthine plots but forgot somewhere along the way to include the simple, irresistible entertainment value of the 1977 original.
Hamilton never forgets entertainment. He knows what narrative hooks make escapism exciting. If escapism doesn't excite, the whole thing is DOA. He understands the fundamental dreams and fears that motivate most of us through life, and how the most frightening situations are those that undermine one's most primal feelings of security. The most crucial part of that security is, arguably, hope. Even in the worst times of our lives, it's natural for most of us to cling to the hope that this is only passing, only a temporary setback, and it's just a matter of time before we turn ourselves around and get back on track.
In Night's Dawn, Hamilton strips hope from the universe itself. In The Reality Dysfunction (spoiler!), the spirits of the dead began an invasion of our universe from their dimension beyond our own, ruthlessly and remorselessly possessing the bodies of the living, a kind of spiritual rape whose psychological ramifications can only be imagined. For there is an afterlife, you see. And it is nothing but an endless, black, empty void, a purgatory of unrelenting misery.
With the invasion of the possessors, and proof of the vast emptiness from which it comes, naturally humanity faces an unprecedented existential crisis. Why go on if all there is is nothingness? Some characters simply cannot make sense of why there should only be limbo after death, and undergo wild religious epiphanies, while others retreat into hedonism or simple indifference. It's a believable conflict. Most folks who know I'm not religious have asked me what motivates me to enjoy life, since I expect simply to cease to exist after I die. Isn't the prospect of no afterlife unbearable and terrifying? No, I say, because, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I wasn't alive for all those eons before I was born and the fact never bothered me in the slightest. The brevity and finiteness of life is what makes every day precious. However, if I knew there was in fact an afterlife, and it was the equivalent of spending eternity in a pitch black sensory deprivation tank, I might well be a basket case.
But in the midst of the ultimate hopelessness, Hamilton's Confederation is filled with people who do fight on, knowing that hope still has a role, and life is still precious enough to fight for. The unstoppable dead expand their numbers, taking over worlds and then entire systems, possessing all but the youngest children, fighting without remorse. They simply will not be defeated, because that would mean going back to the void. And that simply isn't an option. And the possessors' best weapon against their human antagonists is the looming knowledge that inevitably, they too will join the dead's ranks one day.
Hamilton's storytelling has been in go-for-broke mode all along. So when he indulges in the expected conceit of enlisting actual historical figures to fill out the ranks of the possessors, it only causes a moment of eye rolling before you smile, shrug, and go with it. (It helps that he doesn't overdo it either, except for one dumb gag involving Elvis.) In fact, the famous villain who ends up leading the largest force of possessors against the Confederation's human worlds (no, it's not Hitler — even Hamilton wouldn't go that far over the top) has most of this colossal book's most entertaining scenes. Other possessors turn out to be not so villainous after all. There's a great subplot where a small group of them on an isolated world take it upon themselves to rescue dozens of children from a conquered area and return them to the care of Confederation armies.
The Neutronium Alchemist is simply too monumental in scope, with too many storylines braided together, for a simple synopsis to be possible. But ultimately all of its plot threads come together in the search for the titular weapon, a device capable of wiping out stars. The woman who built it, Dr. Alkad Mzu, is on the run from planet to planet. She designed the Alchemist years before, under circumstances having nothing to do with the events of the trilogy's story. Now it has become the prize to tip the scales in the current conflict, sought by the possessors as well as the Confederation. And it's vital for the Confederation not only to find the Alchemist first, but Mzu as well. Because if Mzu dies, she will join the dead, and the possessors with all of their supernormal abilities — sharing thoughts, creating illusions and manipulating matter — will simply absorb her knowledge of how to create the device that way. The fate of all humanity rests on the safety of one person. No pressure.
After over 1165 pages (in its US paperback edition), starring over 100 characters with speaking parts, The Neutronium Alchemist both brings closure to its own story, and leaves you with a nerve-wracking cliffhanger setting up the next one. It's capital-E Epic space opera that rises to, rather than being crushed beneath, its vision.