Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Review: Great North Road (2013)

Peter F. Hamilton, Great North Road (Pan Macmillan, 2013, 1104 pp.) 

This review first appeared in Foundation Vol. 43, No. 118 (Autumn 2014), pp. 135-140. It's been very slightly amended. Thank you to Andy Sawyer, Maureen Kincaid-Speller, Paul March-Russell, and Tony Keen.

There is a body in the Tyne, and its autopsy suggests extraterrestrial incursion. When the case lands on Detective Sidney Hurst’s desk, so do the nebulous agendas of innumerable civil, political, military and corporate elites. Meanwhile, through the shimmer of Newcastle’s stargate, a military expedition strikes out into the vast unexplored jungles of St Libra, Sirius – oblivious to a mustering ecological cataclysm – in search of sentient life. Among them is civilian advisor Angela Tramelo, fresh from serving twenty years for a brutal massacre which she has always maintained was the work of an alien life form; her team is headed by Colonel Vance Elston, the same spook who twenty years earlier tortured her and suppressed key evidence at her trial. We can expect that people on this trip will get crabby. 

The relationship between crime fiction and science fiction is an extremely intricate one. Any work which is serious about synthesizing the two tends to discover its own distinctive pattern of complements, affi nities, tradeoffs and contradictions. Ronald Knox’s fourth ‘fair play’ commandment for Golden Age crime writers (‘No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end’) suggests one way in which friction may emerge. To hide its solutions in plain sight, the clue-puzzle relies heavily on implication, on a shared social consensus. As often as not, it is not really until the last page of an sf novel that the reader knows enough about its world to start making clue-puzzle-style guesses about its secrets.

Great North Road is not particularly concerned with fair play. Data is supplied in whatever order is presumed to be most exciting. For much of the time, the novel solicitously stokes the possibility that Angela Tramelo really is responsible for the brutal massacre for which she’s been imprisoned. Eventually the backstory becomes interspersed through the main storyline, gradually rolling towards this alarming incident. The pattern of interleaved linear timelines is well established: but when we expect to find Tramelo either exonerated or recast as antihero, instead we confront … an ambiguous aftermath. We have skipped the massacre. Tramelo is scrabbling in panic, slicked with blood, her contribution still indeterminate.

It is especially awkward that Great North Road sustains such indeterminacy whilst we pay frequent visits to Tramelo’s consciousness. Of course, many crime authors invite us to peer into characters’ heads without letting us glimpse their guilt or innocence. Guilty people are often experts at having innocent thoughts. But there must be a difference between allowing leeway for sleights-of-hand and excusing authors for withholding whatever they feel is convenient. So how might we formulate that difference? You could say authors should not artificially keep things from their readers. But that’s only a mildly satisfying way of capturing it. Literature is artifice through-and-through: why does only some of it strike us as illegitimate?

Another approach holds that crime fiction should offer a consistent epistemology. That is, good crime fiction takes a stance on what knowledge is and how it can be achieved. As we read, we learn what happened, but we also learn something about learning itself. The electrifying story tacitly establishes parameters within which many other stories are feasible. Disclosures in Great North Road, by contrast, often seem artefacts of its formal idiosyncrasies. They give us very little that is portable or expandable. Sitting and waiting for it to be your turn to know is not a convincing model of how knowledge is produced. Readers work patiently and attentively through a towering stack of pages. Just like the police investigators they depict, we may be tempted to skim, but risk missing something important if we do. The meticulousness and staying power which the novel requires of us are the same virtues it valorises in Detective Sidney Hurst and his team.

It is interesting that the novel’s dazzling socio-technological premises – interstellar wormhole tech, shapeshifter implants, an elite dynasty of clones, longevity treatments, drugs you take by banging them on your neck – don’t radically reorganize its police procedural dimension. The novel does explore how detection is transformed by a regime of sophisticated forensics and ubiquitous surveillance and archiving. With all this advanced kit, must we basically watch our protagonist click ‘solve’, our only source of narrative tension the progress bar moving to 100%, with its cryptic contour of humps and downhill stretches?

But that is familiar territory for police procedurals with a contemporary or near-future setting. In C.S.I., as in Great North Road, the detection function is distributed across a network of experts and technologies. The middleranking officer occupies the hero slot, though not in quite the same way as the classic sleuth. In integrating a variety of specialist perspectives, the managerial perspective is only primus inter pares, not a transcendental arbiter of salience. There is no subject who experiences every stage of the solution, nor could such calculations in principle be fully performed within human experience. This partial decentring of the detective is mirrored by a partial decentring of criminality; there is a heightened interest in its systemic context, and a decoupling of the execution of social justice from the determination of legal culpability.

Great North Road does not, thankfully, trouble us with the professional fetishism or the glossy state triumphalism of C.S.I. The atmosphere is perhaps more closely matched by The Wire (2002-8). Hurst must bargain, cajole, orate, gain leverage, bend rules, cash in favours. There are no faces, no heels, only tweeners. The priorities of individuals seldom harmonize with those of their job description. Bureaucratic and technological systems don’t function as they should. Great North Road is uninterested in fair play conventions; nor does it seem fully committed to exposing the systematic context of its criminality. The politicking, loopholes, glitches and mercurial surges of social complexity tend to be dictated by storytelling imperatives, rather than providing storytelling with its scope and materials.

John Doe sloshing downstream, for instance, may be a reputable way of opening a contemporary police procedural yet it is unclear why anyone in 2142 should take such pains to put John Clone in the Tyne. The gangland body disposal team can anonymize cyborg corpses and hack into municipal surveillance systems. With relatively comprehensive surveillance of public space, shouldn’t we expect such well-resourced criminality to shift to private space? Is melting a bit of meat and bone in a private apartment really beyond them? But the body is not put in the river by gangsters, to sink without a trace; it is put there by Hamilton, to be found.

The way of life shown in Great North Road is not always minutely reflective of its social, economic and technological infrastructure. There are exceptions, but to sloganize somewhat: Far Future Tech, Near Future Customs, Manners, Mores. This incongruously contemporary cultural atmosphere is not necessarily uncomfortable. A proudly Geordie stargate is, in and of itself, a very fine thing to contemplate. Moreover, it’s possible that this atmosphere has not accumulated by unexamined failures of the imagination, but rather been deliberately wrought, as a self-styled clear-eyed provocation that some things never change.

Exhibitions of extrapolative rigor are one widely acknowledged tactic by which science fiction negotiates its mandate. An awkwardness can cling to tacit claims of rigor when the axioms rigorously worked upon are conspicuously a legacy. New space opera is often spotted proving its seriousness by how responsibly it sponges off a trust fund established by cyberpunk. Less well attested but equally important is the tactic of exclusionary rigor. Here what is necessary is that nothing break the spell. The grizzled capsule pilot who, engrossed in the archipelago of an approaching asteroid field, so much as carelessly sparks up a Camel is in peril of losing his legitimacy as an image of our future. Superfluous innovations are as risky as superfluous relics. Just as nothing must improperly last, so nothing must improperly change.

In Great North Road not much seems to have changed about the aesthetics, habitus and culture of corporations, the military, and the police and prisons. No doubt such choices are mixed up with extrapolative worldbuilding to some extent. But I suspect that how plausible they are is fundamentally a wager about their aesthetic intelligibility. In other words, their plausibility solicits preferences and associations formed independently of the novel’s future history. If men in green fatigues with machine guns don’t look out-of-place milling around in front of a stargate, then that has little to do with how probable that scene really is. It has everything to do with the saturation of the contemporary imagination by images of prevailing military institutions.

There is another front, also closely connected with taste, on which Great North Road doesn’t play it quite so safe. One effect of the central mystery is to pose the question: is ‘the alien’ – in the sense of a monstrous, sentient extraterrestrial organism, perhaps the hegemonic trope of science fiction – still a legitimate sf figure? Or is the alien now a spell-breaker, rather like a rocket or a UFO? Eight hundred pages in, we still do not know for certain if we are reading a story with aliens in it. Instead, we are treated to a pageant of proxies. It is as though we are asked, will clones do instead? Or, genetically modified humans; won’t they do? Cybernetically enhanced people; will they do? Extraterrestrial plant life, surely it will do? Then there is the Zanth. The Zanth is a sort of kaleidoscopic reality glitch, akin to an ecological catastrophe. But it receives the kind of treatment typically reserved for Heinlein’s ‘Bugs’ or Wells’ Martians. It even gets called an alien threat. So, will it do? What, exactly, do we need an alien for? And how badly do we need it?

In its collusion with the spectacle of multinational corporations and standing armies that just keep on standing, Great North Road invites a critique of ideology, but it does make fairly safe wagers vis-à-vis evoking a convincing and immersive future history. The ‘ET or not ET?’ business is a bolder bet, but one which pays off. The alien that might be in this story could even be read as knowingly retro-futuristic, a nod to the far-fetched hominids of an earlier era, some horror confined to the shadows because budget is too low to show it in the light. We may realize we do miss this alien and are prepared, after all, to make some allowances.

But Great North Road makes another wager which is neither bold nor really pays off. Just as corporate life has proved robust, and standing armies are standing in pretty much the same pose we left them in back in 2013, so too gender institutions have changed very little. The drip-fed revelations of Tramelo’s past, for instance, ooze sleazy glamour and gratuitous fan service. As we try to conceive of a credible 2140s, we may want to ask – as a rough benchmark – how have gender and sexual politics changed from the 1880s to the present day? Yet Great North Road gives us a deeply binary and subtly hierarchical world, peppered with hokey truisms about boys and girls, men and women, husbands and wives. 

Complexity is added, however, in the form of Hurst’s sidekick, Detective Ian Lanagin. We first meet Lanagin on duty, flirting with a pair of scantily clad lassies: ‘I’m in there, man. Did you see those lassies? Up for it they were, both of them’ (9). Lanagin is a manifesto for cyborg misogyny, who abuses police data systems to stalk his targets and devise his pickup strategies. As an institutionally fostered social type, and a case study in police sexuality at the intersection of voyeurism, chivalry and clout, Lanagin is one of the novel’s subtler achievements. But the resolution of his plot arc is unacceptable. When Lanagin meets his match – gorgeous, rich and, discomfitingly, class-inflected – revisionist implications ripple back across his previous frightening behaviour. Boys will be boys, seems to be the official line, but some day they all grow up and settle down. Lanagin’s emasculation is apparently being played for laughs. Are we soon to meet the predictable evolution of this comic character; grumbling, doting Lanagin under-the-thumb? Luckily, a monster slashes his throat out before we have to discover.

Great North Road is tricky to place ideologically. On balance, my impression was one of discreet Middle Englishness. Granted, the capitalism it portrays is one of corporate misdeeds, cronyism, corruption, decadence and precarity. Teamwork, even to the point of sacrificing oneself for a collective, rises and disports itself rather elegantly above this mire. But for all that the novel’s capitalism resembles our own, it is an embroidered version of the current regime. There's a kind of literary centrism at play here. What a left-wing reader could just about celebrate as a prophetic satire, a right-wing reader can still regard as a boundary flag – as a pathological and dysfunctional extreme implying, the relative moderation of our contemporary status quo. Perhaps Sid Hurst was a bit of an Ian Lanagin himself in his day! But now he is a decent, family man, doing what he has to do: possessive individualism and civil, vocational and familial privatism. We are supposed to like him, his long-suffering wife Jacinta, and their two impertinent kids. So if Hamilton is trying to please everyone, I think he catches the right-wing reader’s eye oftener.

That said, thoroughgoing Middle Englishness could never really survive an act of imaginative expression of such scale and ambition. There is ultimately a great deal to like about this novel. There is merit in the bare fact of being able to turn out 1,000-plus pages of proficient prose. Certain economies of scale kick in: a plot thread simply left hanging long enough then seized up again can feel satisfying in the same way as a plot twist can; and though Hamilton does not achieve the stylistic variety of, for instance, Iain M. Banks’ space opera, by the end of the novel a diverse grandeur has gradually accumulated.

There is some excellent interplay between passages of deliberately arduous information and often bloody action sequences. The St Libra narrative strand is dominated not so much by military science fiction as military logistics science fiction. The fine grain elaboration of its material culture is another of its admirable features, albeit at times a bit Top Gear. Hamilton is particularly proficient at contriving tense scenarios by layering together mundane and extraordinary mishaps. Sometimes the slow, detailed mode is also deployed as a crucible of tension in its own right. The plodding early phases of the expedition employs that mode, gradually establishing a potent sense of remoteness. There is a real sense that small decisions or acts of neglect can have tremendous consequences. The Zanth in particular is used sparingly but thrillingly; the novel’s closing sentences are excellent. Part of me was left wondering, however, whether Hamilton could have cast his exacting eye a little oftener in the direction of the human (posthuman) heart? Or indeed, what might he have written had he permitted himself complete absorption by his unfolding material, bringing to bear his considerable talents – his comprehensiveness, his copia, his evident interest in pacing and his skill at convergence – in a manner less attentive to his presumed readers, and to their presumed appetites for worlds and thrills?

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