Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

A friend of mine had recommended books by Peter F. Hamilton and encouraged me to read the Void trilogy claiming it was the more 'fantastical' of the lot. As I do prefer fantasy in general, I gave it a shot. My initial impression was very negative, but by the end I was enthralled by the story. Apparently, the book is part of a much arger universe, but I had no problem staring with it.

Overall Impression
One of the things I don't like about some science fiction novels is how they really want to convince you everything is futuristic. Instead of developing unique characters, an interesting plot, or subtly revealing the world, they smash technology right into your face. I have no problem with a high-technology setting, but I've seen many sci-fi books that seem far too focused on that and that alone. The Dreaming Void, unfortunately, starts that way. You have to really focus to peer behind the veil of technology and see the characters acting out their story. It doesn't help that the characters aren't initially very interesting at all. This is a bad start to the book, and I'm sad to say I was actually thinking about how much more fun it would be to read something else. However, I persevered and about 50 or so pages into the book, the characters and the story starts to pick up. By then, things are fine. There's still more high-technology coming at you, but you take it for what it is- magic. The book cycles between the normal world and what's going on in the Dream (ie, inside the Void). I actually preferred the Dream parts and would have gladly skipped most of the rest of the book just to get to those parts. While the Dream itself isn't terribly original, everything there, characters, setting, etc, are just so much better developed than in the normal world. That alone made me want to finish the book and look to the rest of the trilogy.

A multitude of characters is introduced very early in the book, but none of them really stand out. Even in epic fantasy tales with dozens of characters you still have an idea of who is important and can differentiate the characters. I did not get this at first. Once we reach Edeard I finally felt we had reached a real character and yet he's only part of the Dream. One of the first characters we see is, in my opinion, one of the weakest developed. He has all these super powerful skills, but no memories of his past and no desire to find out why. He just carries out his mission, which even he doesn't know what it is. I'll admit that's a clever idea, but I kept wondering: who is this man? what does he want? why does he want it? He does develop eventually, but in my opinion he is still incomplete by the end of the story. Similar things are true for the rest of the characters. After a while, though, the plot gets interesting enough that you ignore these character quirks and can appreciate the story.

Like I mentioned before, the Dream parts of the story are my favorite and I felt the characters there were far better developed than those in the actual story. One potential problem may have been that all the characters start out very separated. Hence, there is very little connection between them and less room to develop them with meaningful interactions. I've seen that on other books, but these tend to have all the characters converge near the end in a really satisfying fashion. This does not happen in this book. It looks like it might do so eventually, but perhaps that will happen in the subsequent books. It feels like most of the time the viewpoint character is alone in a spaceship struggling with his/her thoughts or in conversation with a single other character. In contrast, within the Dream the characters are all together in the same village and interact with one another.

This is one of the better apects of this book. There is an unaccessible region of space, the Void, in the center of our Galaxy, which has defied explanation. Mysteriously, one man has dreams which come from the Void and he shares them with the rest of humanity. A religion emerges from it and the story opens with their plans to undergo a Pilgrimage to the Void. Unfortunately, doing so could cause the Void to expand and devour the Galaxy so naturally alien species are opposed to that. There are also factions among humanity that oppose, favor, or just wish to take advantage of this movement. Thus, there are plenty of interesting plot lines going on. Some center on finding the Second Dreamer, a second person who has begun having Void dreams and could lead, or halt, the Pilgrimage.

Within the Void, the story follows Edeard's life. He is a supremely talented young man, orphaned when bandits killed his parents. The setting and pace are very different here from the rest of the book. We get to see much simpler activities in his daily life. There is some technology- the characters can use telekinesis and telepathy, there are genetically engineered animals, and they know they came to the planet from elsewhere. Despite this, these abilities are used more like magic and so the world seems almost medieval. The plot, while simple, is very engaging and the Dream ending was extremely satisfying.

Setting / World Building
The Dreaming Void takes places very far into the future. Humans can be either normal, like you an me; Advancer, with genetic modifications to make them better in various ways; or Higher, with lots of bionics that make them nearly god-like in their abilities. There are also humans who have downloaded themselves into a vast quantum-computer-space-collective intelligence (Advanced Neural Activity, ANA), which effectively makes them immortal, and there are other humans who have split their consciousness into multiple bodies. The variety among humanity is interesting, but it takes a while for the reader to appreciate this. There are also several alien species, though the main ones we hear about are the Ocisen Empire and the Raiel. The Raiel are interesting as they have been studying the Void for millenia and possess very advanced technology. There also mention of post-physical aliens and it's possible that Higher culture along with ANA is a step in humanity achieving some existence beyond the physical realm.

In the Dream, while there is advanced technology, it is more internal and appears more like magic. Hence, the society is more medieval with some isolated villages and some bigger cities like the famous Makkathran. Loudtalk, third-hands, farsight are all mental abilities that everyone uses there to some degree or other. Edeard belongs to the Eggshaper Guild which basically works using these mental abilities to genetically engineer monkeys, cats, eagles, and other animals so they can be readily used to do whatever task is necessary.

Final Thoughts
The book starts off a bit slow with characters that take a while to get to know and like. If you persevere, however, you are rewarded with a surprisingly rich universe and a good plot. The Dream part of the story is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. While I'm not immediately going to get the second book, if and when I do it will be firstly to continue the Dream arc story and secondly to see how the rest of the plot in the normal universe develops.

What's next for me? I'm not 100% sure. I have the third book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Memories of Ice, which I am very keen to read. I also have a set of short stories from Tor which could be a nice change of pace and I also bought Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman since it was just $2.99 on the Kindle a few days ago. I try not to let good offers like that pass by!

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