Review: Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton, 2011.
The stories may be short, but Hamilton still manages to use most of the same ideas and types of plots that his bricks of novels do.
Three of the seven stories are set in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe.
The title story is original to the collection and features Paula Myo, everybody’s favorite police investigator, dogged and utterly inflexible when it comes to punishing wrongdoers. Taking place just after Judas Unchained and beginning with the sentencing of terrorist and savior of humanity, Oscar Monroe, Paula takes on a xenobiology puzzle to keep her mind busy while on vacation. The plot is reminiscent of one of those old “why are the aliens acting so funny” stories. Here the aliens are the Onid, supposedly “proto-sentient”. They are mounting co-ordinated attacks on refugees who have settled on the planet Jevahal after the devastation of the Starflyer War. It’s an all right story, but I liked it the least of any in the book and thought its main appeal was the background details of life after the war. I also prefer Paula in her usual police role.
Police investigation is exactly what we get in another Paula story, “The Demon Trap”. It seems to take place before Pandora’s Star. A terrorist group, tired of having to continue to pay on the loans necessary to colonize Nova Zealand and wanting to be disconnected from the Commonwealth network of wormholes, kills some scions of the Grand Families – and a few innocent bystanders. The identity of the assassin and his capture is quickly accomplished. Sure the crime was a bit unusual in its methods – both a memory wipe by the assassin and the implant of totally fake memories recorded by someone else, but that’s not what has Paula puzzled. It’s the motive for risking such severe and certain punishment. Her quest to get answers takes her back to the organization that created her and Huxley’s Haven, her home.
“Blessed by an Angel” is another origin story of sorts but for Inigo, leader of the Living Dream movement which figures in the Void Trilogy of the Commonwealth universe. It shows that civil wars may be fought over how to control humanity’s impulse to embrace a life of lotus-eating in virtual reality. Here the conflict is not overt, doesn’t involve fleets of ships, and fought with subversion and espionage, but the stakes are still for the race’s future. Like the other two stories that tie-in to that series, this one can be enjoyed independently of Hamilton’s novels.
“The Forever Kitten” is a very brief story, written for Nature magazine. It combines a genetic engineer on the lam for illegal work and that old observation that children are a lot cuter before they become teenagers.
“If at First” shows that a talented writer can still find some life in one of the hoariest science fiction clichés of all: using knowledge of the future to get rich. Hamilton even manages to put a memorable sting at the tail of this one.
Hamilton slightly re-wrote “Footvote” for inclusion here to make it an “alternative near-past” story. A scientist opens up a wormhole to the planet New Suffolk and invites his fellow Brits to join him there – as long as they have the right politics and don’t practice any of the prohibited professions. Using a divorced couple of opposite political persuasions with one wanting to go through the wormhole with their kids, Hamilton dramatizes the question as to whether people have the obligation to stay put and help a floundering state or bolt for better options.
Along with “The Demon Trap”, the book’s highlight is “Watching Trees Grow”. It’s a murder mystery over the long haul, from 1832 to 2038. But the detective hero has time. In this alternate history, the Great Families of the Roman Empire have developed, via selective breeding, long-lived humans. He’s one of them and the increased longevity has sped up the progress of forensic technology allowing him to finally close in on his quarry. There’s a memorable conclusion to this one too.
Any Hamilton fan who doesn’t have a pathological aversion to short stories will want this collection. It also serves as an introduction to most of what has made Hamilton such a popular author.
Additional Thoughts and Criticisms (with Spoilers)
“Watching Trees Grow” still impressed after first reading it 12 years ago. I certainly had studied Roman history before reading it the first time, but this time, since I’ve been watching Kenneth W. Harl’s lecture series on “Rome and the Barbarians”, I was more aware of how the Roman idea of client and patron relationships is woven throughout the story. The Great Families look out for their own, and the detective, Edward Bucahanan Raleigh, works for one. Certainly, Hamilton, in his Commonwealth series, would return to the idea of a society dominated by key families.
This is an alternate history of Rome, but, unlike most alternate histories involving Rome, Hamilton never gives us the divergent point of history. Instead, we get the vaguely sketched practice of eugenics eventually producing a new society, but we don’t know the direction of causality. Did a different turn in Roman political history enable this develop or did the practice, in a way not manifest in our own history, enable the survival of the western Roman Empire?
“Watching Trees Grow” is the type of inflexible justice story I like. The murderer, Bethany Maria Caesar, kills to protect her career. In her college days, in vitro fertilization and the freezing of embryos is unknown. If you have a society built on key families practicing selective breeding, the women (and men) have to breed. But the women, of course, have to be pregnant. Custom dictates that noble women have their broods and then return to their studies and careers years later. After all, there’s plenty of time for both. Bethany, though, takes illegal contraceptives to stay at college and pursue her studies. She will, in fact, remake society by her work.
But, when her lover threatens to expose her contraceptive use because he wants her to bear his children, she murders him.
Throughout the story, we see humans adapting to technological change through centuries. The question of how much technology to embrace is a common theme in Hamilton’s work. Here humans plan to dismantle entire planets. Nanotechnology modifies the brains of colonists to think they arrived at these “Restart” worlds via generation ships. Others live on “Vatican-endorsed” worlds at 1960 levels of technology – but the 1960 of this world is much more advanced than our 1960.
When the detective finally solves the mystery, Bethany, like all egotistical revolutionaries, insists on her indispensability. Only she could push humanity to the stars. Her studies couldn’t be interrupted. But Edward rightly points out that her breakthroughs would have been made by others, and Bethany is sentenced to a life of toil, forbidden to see the “new and wondrous shape” of the future she helped birth. Some of the human virtues, such as “honesty and integrity”, imprinted on the character of immortals like Raleigh when they were young, still persist in this new world.
Another harsh sentence is handed out by Paula Myo at the end of “The Demon Trap”. But then she is constitutionally incapable of anything else. This story introduces, at least in the chronology of the Commonwealth series, the idea of multiple clone bodies telepathically shared by one personality. (The erotic potential of the idea is expounded in Hamilton’s Void Trilogy.) In fact, it is the solution to the problem of who organizes the crime. The villain turns out to be a schismatic from the Human Structure Foundation which created Paula and her birthworld of Huxley’s Haven.
We learn Huxley’s Haven was only meant to be a proof of concept that genetic and social development could be co-ordinated to maximize human happiness. The ultimate goal, however, was never to create a society frozen at a given level of technology, like Huxley’s Haven, but to maximize technological and scientific advancement on all fronts and genetically engineer humans to be satisfied in the resulting world.
The villain, however, has other ideas, and his idea of multiple bodies and one consciousness repels others in the Foundation who see it as leading to resource competition and a hive mind.
While it’s one of Hamilton’s more neglected works and now set in an alternate past, Misspent Youth, is evoked since its protagonist, Jeff Baker, is the genetic ancestor of both Myo and her nemesis.
I’m not sure the political order the scientist intends in “Footvote” is meant entirely seriously. After all, the list of occupations forbidden on the new world includes “traffic wardens”, stockbrokers, “Art Council executives”, production staff of soap operas, pension fund managers, “child behavioural experts”, call center executives and owners, and “all quango members”. And assigning political motivations to Hamilton’s work has been tricky since his first novels.
But, while it’s not the charter American political conservatives would choose (though it’s a surprisingly tricky proposition to find something all American conservatives agree on), it does have, I think, a rejection of socialism. One character is denounced for her Stalinism when she suggests that emigration to New Suffolk should be forcibly stopped. And stopping people from leaving in order to make your socialist order work certainly recalls the Berlin Wall.