Hu­mans in ex­ile fight an evil ar­bo­real en­emy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams,

Peter F. Hamil­ton is a mas­ter of epic sci­ence fic­tion. The British author is best known for multi-vol­ume space op­eras that run to thou­sands of pages, pro­vid­ing a gi­gan­tic can­vas on which to build new worlds and ex­plore new so­ci­eties and mind-pop­ping tech­nolo­gies.

Hamil­ton’s main fo­cus is on ex­is­ten­tial threats to ad­vanced hu­man civil­i­sa­tions. The Night’s Dawn tril­ogy saw an in­ter­stel­lar em­pire col­lapse un­der the weight of the re­turn­ing dead; the Com­mon­wealth saga in­volved a so­ci­ety threat­ened by an ant-like alien in­vader; and in the Void se­ries a mys­te­ri­ous and im­pen­e­tra­ble black hole threat­ened to de­vour the galaxy.

The lat­ter two col­lec­tions take place in the Com­mon­wealth, a hu­man civil­i­sa­tion of count­less plan­ets con­nected by man­u­fac­tured worm­holes. The so­ci­ety is com­plex and di­verse, with mor­tal­ity con­quered via clones, re­ju­ve­na­tion and down­load­ing of peo­ple’s minds into gi­ant ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tems. How­ever, un­like the utopian so­ci­ety of Iain Banks’s Cul­ture nov­els, the Com­mon­wealth is also sur­pris­ingly vul­ner­a­ble.

Hamil­ton’s lat­est two-book se­ries is Chron­i­cle of the Fallers. It started with The Abyss Be­yond Dreams and now con­cludes with Night Without Stars. These sto­ries are set in the mid­dle of the other Com­mon­wealth nov­els, so it is best to read them first.

Hav­ing said that, the new se­ries is mostly self-con­tained. The story takes place largely on one planet, Bien­venido, which has been ex­pelled from the Void. Night Without Stars be­gins with its hu­man pop­u­la­tion iso­lated at the far reaches of the uni­verse, seem­ingly be­yond the as­sis­tance of the Com­mon­wealth.

This pro­duces a sig­nif­i­cant break from Hamil­ton’s other Com­mon­wealth nov­els. There is lit­tle in the way of new tech­nolo­gies. In­stead, the in­hab­i­tants of Bien­venido have re­gressed to a so­ci­ety based on com­bus­tion en­gines and NASA-era space­flight.

The scale is also more con­strained re­gard­ing char­ac­ters. There are fewer pro­tag­o­nists, and as a re­sult they are more con­nected and their re­la­tion­ships more in­ti­mate.

A great Hamil­ton novel de­mands a for­mi­da­ble foe, and here the author again de­liv­ers. The Fallers are a re­lent­less, ag­gres­sive species with only one mis­sion: to erad­i­cate all life on Bien­venido and make the planet their own. They carry out their geno­ci­dal pur­pose by ab­sorb­ing and then mim­ick­ing ev­ery life form they en­counter.

The Fallers have ar­rived at Bien­venido on space­far­ing tree­like struc­tures that pe­ri­od­i­cally bom­bard the planet with eggs. Many eggs are in­ter­cepted and de­stroyed, while oth­ers lie in wait, ready to ab­sorb and then hatch a copied hu­man or an­i­mal.

Over the cen­turies, the Fallers have in­fil­trated hu­man so­ci­ety to its deep­est lev­els, build­ing their num­bers and bid­ing their time un­til they are ready to un­leash an apoca­lypse on the stranded pop­u­la­tion.

The threat of the Fallers has en­abled the hu­man lead­ers to forge a mil­i­taris­tic com­mu­nity based on op­pres­sion and con­trol. The so­ci­ety has de­vel­oped its own se­cret po­lice, the PSR, who hunt dis­senters, es­pe­cially ‘‘eliters’’ who have re­tained ge­netic rem­nants of Com­mon­wealth tech­nol­ogy. The PSR has few lim­its and even fewer scru­ples and de­ploys in­ter­ro­ga­tion and tor­ture to main­tain the sta­tus quo.

The re­sult is a com­mu­nity that ob­sesses about in­ter­nal con­spir­a­cies while ig­nor­ing and sup­press­ing in­for­ma­tion about the larger threat posed by the Fallers. This pro­duces a deep and in­ter­est­ing story that is as much one of re­sist­ing the alien in­vader as it is of throw­ing off the shack­les of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion.

Con­flicts oc­cur on both fronts as key char­ac­ters find their con­sciences and loy­al­ties tested. This vo­latile mix is then up­ended by the ar­rival of a Com­mon­wealth space pod. It be­comes un­clear whether the hu­man so­ci­ety has the ca­pac­ity, and the will, to sur­vive even with the ben­e­fit of Com­mon­wealth help.

Night Without Stars brings to an end an­other ex­cel­lent se­ries by Hamil­ton. Some readers will not find it as sat­is­fy­ing as his other works, with its smaller scale and lack of new fu­tur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies. How­ever, there are more than enough com­pen­sa­tions. Less epic in its scope, but more in­tense and char­ac­ter-bound as a re­sult, it de­serves to be seen as one of Hamil­ton’s finest works. dean of law at the Univer­sity of NSW, is a devo­tee of sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ing.

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