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Peter F. Hamilton


Originally published: CFQ/Cinefantastique, Vol. 38 No. 3, May/June 2006
[Click to download PDF of interview]

The Commonwealth Saga: "Star Wars for grown ups"

Peter HamiltonPeter F. Hamilton writes unabashed space opera on a truly grand scale. Toting his tomes about can count as an upper body workout. His latest, Judas Unchained, weighs in at close to 848 pages and the recently released mass market paperback edition of its first half -- Pandora's Star -- is close to 1000 small-print pages.

A bestseller in his native England and often dubbed "Britain No. 1 science fiction writer," Hamilton could easily become just as popular in the US. "I don't see why not," says the author. "There's a big thing made of the difference between UK and USA science fiction, I don't see it much myself. A good story is the same no matter where it's told, viewed, or read. Writing to please all of the people all of the time is stupid and never works. Do you ever see a book written by committee ever published let alone reach any sort of top ten list? Doesn't happen. I write for one person, and that's me. What I write is the kind of thing I'd like to find on a bookshop shelf. I've been lucky that so far plenty of other people seem to share that taste."

Hamilton began writing science fiction at age 27 "because it was the genre I read and enjoyed the most. I found it when I was at the start of my teens, and loved the escapism it brought. I'm not saying I won't ever write outside the genre, but for now I'm sticking with it. Where else can you write convincingly about waterfalls that go up? That's one reason why I enjoy writing it as much as I do reading it, there are no limits.

Hamilton's career took off in the mid-1990s with the Mindstar Trilogy -- Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995) -- featuring Greg Mandel, an ex-soldier turned (with the aid of a telepathic implant) psychic detective. Set in a near-future Britain direly affected by global warming and brought low by an authoritarian left-wing government, the sci-fi thrillers -- as much detective mysteries as science fiction -- had Mandel aligned with the political right. Hamilton took some flak for what was initially seen as liberal-bashing but shrugged the criticism off noting the books weren't meant as polemics and portraying the former "bad" government as fascist would have been "too easy."

book cover With his next project, he hit his stride and gained an enthusiastic following. This massive space opera, the Night's Dawn Trilogy (1996-1999), was so big it really was really a trilogy only in the UK as the books (originally over 1000 pages each) were released in the US in six parts in paperback. But fans of detailed, fully-realized future universe building populated with a multitude of characters couldn't get enough. Stand-alone novel Fallen Dragon (2001), a mere 832 pages in paperback, followed.

The next novel Misspent Youth (2002 in the UK) was set in the not-extremely-distant future. "Misspent Youth is very loosely connected to Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained," says the author. "It's the same universe three hundred years earlier. Some characters make very brief appearances on a blink-and-you'll-miss-them basis." The novel will finally make made an appearance in the US in late August of this year. "However, there was a major re-write on this. My American editor wanted a few changes, and when I started working through those notes I began my own changes. The story is exactly the same, just told slightly differently which I believes explains the characters and their motivations better. After it comes out in America, the text will be changed in all future UK editions to match it."

Misspent Youth is not at all like his vast-canvas space operas. It focuses on the consequences of the rejuvenation of Jeff Baker, a man who is close to age 80. Married to a 40-ish ex-model and father to an 18-year-old, he returns to his former life as a 20-something. It might be viewed as a dark domestic comedy although it is also a social commentary set in a European Union, circa 2030, beset with ultra-violent separatist movements. One interesting side aspect -- something Hamilton's novels are full of -- Jeff Baker is the inventor of the "datasphere", the Internet's replacement. With the datasphere, copyright law has disintegrated and there is no profit in producing new film, fiction, or music and there's nothing left on TV but reality shows and soap operas.

bookcover Hamilton's most recent work returns to the very big picture. The Commonwealth Saga consists of Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, but the author sees the two novels as a single work. He admits his books " do tend to grow. When I plot them out and do my chapter outlines, I never try and write it to a specific length. As they say, each story is its own length. Of course, I do cram in a lot of different character stories in each novel."

"After that," he adds, "you run into the complications the real world throws at you. It's not physically possible to print it as one." It turned into a duology as "the way the story is told there's a natural break between Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Not that such things have stopped publishers in the past, remember my Night's Dawn trilogy is six books in the US, and twelve in Italy!"

When asked to describe the Commonwealth Saga duology in as few a words as possible, Hamilton aptly dubbed it "Star Wars for grown ups. There's a lot of action in them, but also some ideas about where technology is taking us and how it affects our lives."

But the size of the books has proved to be an impediment to serious film consideration. "There's been 'interest' right up to the moment where it hits the office," he explains, "and then they realize how big the novels are. However, post Lord Of The Rings -- I live in hope."

The stage for Pandora's Star is set when an astronomer observes the seeming disappearance of two stars about 1000 light years from Earth. It is theorized they were enclosed inside Dyson spheres and the event comes to be known as the Dyson Pair Enclosure. But this first theory proves incorrect and in 2380 the human Commonwealth -- which has spread from Earth via artificial wormhole to colonize around 600 planets-- builds its first interstellar ship (propelled by a self-generating wormhole) to investigate. Other major technological developments include rejuvenation techniques which nearly defeat death by keeping humans in youthful bodies and, in case of accidents, memory crystals that backup one's memories and experiences. Various alien races, paranoia, and war get involved, as does a mysterious being, who may or may not exist, known as the Starflyer. Judas Unchained continues the multiple storylines.

book cover The novels are brimming with technology and Hamilton says, "Keeping up is a major problem. You just can't follow every field of science. I tend to concentrate on the things I need for the book, and read as much as I can. Then the fun comes in extrapolating it, and working out how it will affect society as a whole."

He cites medical science's aim of keeping us alive longer, with rejuvenation as its ultimate goal. "That sounds lovely. Who doesn't want to live forever, or at least several hundred years? But does that also mean a nine to five job for all that time? The current forty years of that drives people crazy, what would two hundred years in the same job do for you?"

There's more than a touch of the macabre in Hamilton's novels and with the Commonwealth Saga there seems to be elements of fantasy, too. Hamilton agrees that much of the best of today's fiction is mixes genres, "It is something I certainly see happening more and more. It's great. Things shouldn't stay the same, we as writers need to get out there and keep pushing at the envelope."

"That's not to say," he adds, " there isn't room for traditional stories. When you boil it down, Pandora and Judas are a standard alien invasion novel, but told with a modern slant."

Hamilton's current project is the Void Trilogy, which, he explains, "is a another story set in the Commonwealth universe. But not a direct sequel. This is 1000 years after Judas, but expect to see some of the same characters appear."

The author won't be visiting the states in support of his books anytime soon, though: "I'm about to become a dad again in mid-April, which sort of rules out anything in the immediate future for me. But in a couple of years time I hope to go back again." The new baby will join Hamilton, his wife, Kate, and 22-month-old Sophie at home in Rutland Water. Where the heck is Rutland Water? Hamilton replies jovially, "Please, like I know where the Grand Canyon is? Rutland is basically 100 miles due north of London. It's the UK's smallest county, of which I'm a proud native. Back in the 70's they built a big dam across a valley and flooded it, so Rutland water was born, and now I can tell visitors 'that was all fields when I was a lad' like I'm some fixture of the landscape." -- Paula Guran