Hamilton’s latest sprawling sci-fi novel takes place largely in Newcastle, on Earth, and on the planet St Libra, in the Sirius system, in the year 2143. A timeline from 2003, summarising significant events to 2121, gives notes on events pertaining mostly to the North family. Kane North cloned himself after being injured whilst on active duty in Afghanistan, and had three sons – Augustine, currently in charge of Northumberland Interstellar; Bartram, who was killed twenty years ago on St Libra, along with several members of his household; and Constantine, who currently lives on a habitat near Jupiter – who themselves have had several more generations of sons/brothers/grandsons. At the time the story opens, Northumberland Interstellar manufacture bioil in vast algaepaddies on St Libra, and ship it through the Newcastle gateway back to Earth, since it is vital to the economy of Grande Europe, in particular.
On a freezing cold January day in Newcastle, a body is pulled from the Tyne which Sid Hurst, third grade detective recently returned from suspension, recognises as one of the North clones: killed by a method which appears to have been used only once before, in the murder of Bartram North and his household. Since the family are extremely important, Sid’s murder investigation attracts attention from high places, and the HDA (Human Defence Alliance) are forced to recognise that Angela Tramelo, found guilty of the slaughter, may have been falsely imprisoned for the last twenty years. Taking her story of an alien attacker more seriously, and while Sid and his team track laboriously through the available data to find out what happened, the HDA form an expedition to St Libra to investigate the possible presence of a sentient alien life form on the planet. Tramelo forms part of the expedition as a civilian advisor.
The novel follows the two strands of plot – the expedition and Sid’s investigation – concurrently, over a period of about four months. Flashback scenes, mostly from Angela’s past, give added depth to her character as well as adding to the development of the universe in which the characters live. Hamilton fleshes out the details of his future Earth nicely, and his descriptions of St Libra, particularly its peculiar botany, are interesting and detailed. The enemy Zanth is almost mentioned in passing, though there’s a lengthy flashback scene in which Ravi, one of the helicopter pilots, is seen defending New Florida from a Zanthswarm, allowing people to be evacuated through the gateway; I rather liked that the Zanth is very alien, manipulating space-time, and absorbing all matter that it touches. He doesn’t give details of the gateways which are used to connect Earth to new worlds elsewhere – the Newcastle gateway leads to St Libra, the Miami to New Florida, and so on – just describes the feeling of using one, which I think works quite well.
The plot marches along, particularly the expedition strand, though the murder investigation tends to flag a bit, seemingly so that the ending of both plot strands can come at the same time. The prose is unfussy and occasionally descriptive, and I like the setting of Sid’s plot in Newcastle, my home town (like I enjoyed Hamilton’s Rutland/Peterborough setting, where I’ve also lived, of his Greg Mandel novels).
The main problem with Great North Road, however, is that the characters aren’t particularly well-drawn. Only the main protagonists, Sid and Angela, are given any real history, and most of the others – and there are a lot of them – are merely quirks and foibles; Charmonique Passam, for example, is all bureaucrat and nothing else, a caricature, and Ian Lanagin, Sid’s second-in-command, seems only to have one recreational activity – chatting up women. Even Angela and Sid are clumsily-drawn, with history substituting for understanding: I never got a real understanding of why Angela wanted to go back to St Libra after her release, for example. It’s a shame, since it’s a very well-realised world which Hamilton has created, but peopled with two-dimensional characters. It’s not as if he can’t do characterisation; I particularly enjoyed his Greg Mandel books for this. So, recommended if you like big, sprawling space opera in a well-realised future; not so much if you prefer well-characterised science fiction.
Published by: Pan Macmillan (2012)