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Great North Road
by Peter F. Hamilton
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Reviewed by: John Walsh

It is the twenty second century and convenient wormholes in space have been discovered to link the earth with a variety of other planets, each more or less suitable for habitation. At once, there is a ready stream of people willing to and chance their luck on another world: quite a few of them perceive themselves to be subject to persecution or oppression of one sort or another and leg it to a place where they can be free (or FREE as I expect they would say), religious fanatics and criminals also pass through the wormhole (it is a British trait to export our troublemakers elsewhere) where they can bother and shoot up foreigners instead. In return, the earth is able to import all the oil ('bioil') that is lying around waiting on planets on which sentient life has not developed but organic matter has helpfully turned itself into hydrocarbons to support humanity's continued intensive use of energy.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the profits derived from these ventures are captured by the commercial enterprises created by a single family, the eponymous Norths, who have taken the prevention of social mobility to beyond even Romneyesque levels by organizing the cloning of senior family members and then affecting reproductive activities such that any child given birth to by one of the numerous consorts and girlfriends becomes an almost identical little North. In common with the wormholes, exactly how this is brought about is not fully explained but that does not matter - Hamilton deals in the big picture, the grand vista and his details aim to convince at the macro and the micro levels, leaving the occasional hole in the middle. In a globalized society in which capitalism has become rampant, times are hard for the majority of the population, who have to take second or third jobs on the side in order to survive. There are, of course, laws against working for cash on the side but nearly everyone has to do it to maintain a decent standard of living and it means they must all work in fear that, one day, the authorities (of course in cahoots with the Norths) will open a file on their activities if they were ever to utter any form of political dissidence or, worse, show some disrespect to their richers and betters.

Into this fascinating and well-imagined society comes misfortune in the form of murder - the murder of a North, in fact, although since they are all cloned it is not clear which one of them it is and no one is talking. Detective in charge of what is likely to be a dangerously political investigation is our hero (well, one of many protagonists) Sid Hurst, whose mid-level career could go either way: a success in the investigation could see him rocket up the ranks but, if he should fail, then he is not too senior to be sacrificed. The investigation soon becomes linked with a 20-year old massacre, a long-term injustice and a possible alien stalking the land. The characters and the action rapidly spiral outwards from the initial focus on the murder scene in Newcastle before just about being brought together again 1086 pages later (at least in the paperback version I bought - which is a large format book and I suspect that in normal paperback it would fit into about 750 pages). Although the plot is resolved within the course of a single book, it would not be surprising if Hamilton were to be tempted to return to this version of the universe to describe some of the events that are just being brought into play by the end.

This is not the first time that Hamilton has created worlds in which future versions of earth balance untrammeled power of the wealthy few (they are born into riches which are almost but not quite impossible to lose) and the resignation of the mass of humanity who have to make the best of it with various degrees of resentment. It is also not the first time he has used a detective as a means of entering into an examination of the details of a society and how it works - in fact his earliest published works involved a quantum detective, as I recall. Nevertheless, with characteristic energy and brio, he has brought us another glorious slab of what is most commonly called Space Opera - that is, a big canvas against which the actions of characters throw shadows so that larger meanings can be seen in a manner similar to Plato's approach. What is more, since this is (at least currently) a free standing novel, it would be an excellent place for a new reader to enter the oeuvre. Great fun.

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