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The Reality Dysfunction The Nights Dawn by Peter F Hamilton - A Modern Classic Of Science Fiction


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									 The Reality Dysfunction (The Nights
     Dawn) by Peter F. Hamilton

                      A Modern Classic Of Science Fiction

This is space opera on an epic scale, with dozens of characters, hundreds
of planets, universe-spanning plots, and settings that range from wooden
huts and muddy villages to sentient starships and newborn suns. Its also
the first part of a two-volume book that is itself the first book of a series.
Theres no question that theres a lot going on here (too much to even
begin to detail the plot), but Hamilton handles it all with an ease
reminiscent of E. E. Doc Smith. The best way to describe it: its big, its
good, and luckily theres plenty more on the way.

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The Reality Dysfunction is an imposing book, a massive 1,200 pages in
length and itself only the first part of The Nights Dawn Trilogy (Books 2 and
3 are even longer). Part of the genius of The Reality Dysfunction is the way
its huge number of characters and storylines seems to randomly ramble all
over the place at the start, but towards the end of the book they come
together most satisfyingly.

In this trilogy, Hamilton has created what is certainly the most
comprehensive futuristic society ever created. W ith Nights Dawn, Hamilton
became SFs answer to Tolkien, building an immense space opera
universe totally convincing in its solidarity. He has put huge amounts of
thought into the politics, economics, religion, civil and military forces that
make up the Confederation, and then seems to enjoy pointing out his own
flaws (the economics of starflight in the Confederation seem questionable,
and the author gleefully points that out, leaving the reader unsure if he has
an answer or not or is just making them think he does). Whilst that
solidarity is extremely impressive, it does give rise to accusations that
Hamilton likes to info-dump. He has no problem with listing the dates for
the founding of colony worlds or explaining how they achieved their
techno-economic power in just a century. Personally I found such
explanations fascinating, but other readers have reported they become
wearying after a while.

A central theme of the novel is that humanity will not fundamentally change
in the future. The divisions between atheists and the religious faithful
remain, and humans, at heart, seem to still be motivated by money and
sex. Even the Edenists, who have flickers of post-Singularity, post-humans
about them, seem to still be defined by their essential, recognisable
humanity. The realism of this can be debated, but a central complaint of
far-future SF, that humans have become so unrecognisable they are no
longer particularly interesting, is averted here. Life in the 27th Century is
very much like life in the 21st, only with better healthcare, longer lifespans
and everyone seems to get laid a lot more. In fact, with the Confederation,
Hamilton has achieved the near-impossible by creating a near-utopian
civilisation which is not bland or dull, but still flawed enough to be
interesting. His view of the future is essentially optimistic whilst not shying
away from the nastier side of human nature, which is an impressive
balancing act.

The Reality Dysfunction lives and dies by its central characters: the evil
Quinn Dexter, the roguish Joshua Calvert, the aloof Syrinx, the determined
Marie Skibbow, the responsible Ione Saldana, the conflicted Father Horst
Elwes and more. Theyre a fascinating bunch, by turns flawed but also
convincing, sometimes corrupt but mostly relatable (with the possible
exception of the insane Dexter). I notice that many readers seem to dislike
the apparent hero Joshua (Han Solo, but without the morals), but this is
perfectly in keeping with the authors intentions: he describes Joshua as a
prat and states that the proper title for the trilogy is actually Joshuas
Progress, the transformation of his character from self-obsessed,
borderline-sexist egomaniac to a better person due to the experiences he

Hamilton also delivers good space battle. The engage ments between his
starships are built on real-life physics, and the idea that such fights would
involve fighter craft is rejected in favour of more realistic unmanned drones
that fight whilst the actual spacecraft are thousands of miles apart. The
tactics of space combat are well-handled, as are the ground combat
sequences featuring mercenaries and marines. There isnt really enough to
qualify The Reality Dysfunction as military SF, but fans of that subgenre
will nevertheless feel well-catered-for.

Pacing wise, The Reality Dysfunction has to unfold smoothly in order to
captivate the reader for such an immense length, not to mention to
convince them to come back for two more, even larger books. To this end
the book is divided into three roughly equal segments: introduction, rising
action and counter-action. The introduction, which is more like a collection
of short stories than a novel, shows us the Confederation, introduces the
characters and outlines the main concepts of the story. After that, all hell
breaks loose and the true threat is unleashed, investigated and
(impartially) understood, with events building to a climax which, whilst not a
cliffhanger, will nevertheless leave many readers on the edge of their seat,
eager to move onto the second.

The Reality Dysfunction has some things acting against it. Some people
will think its too long, others that it has too much info-dumping or too many
sex scenes, or that the entire exercise is just too confusing, with too many
characters, planets or storylines to easily keep track of. Some people find
the central premise of the reality dysfunction itself too unbelievable once it
is revealed, and possibly out of keeping within an SF novel (although
Hamilton does a surprisingly good job of explaining the situation in S F
terms in the final novel of the series), although others absolutely love its
unexpected nature: of all the twists in an SF novel to occur, I dont think Ive
ever read anything on this scale before.

For myself, I found the book stunningly well-paced and a ferocious page-
turner, building up the most well-realised SF setting in the genres history
with verve and aplomb. The Confederation is flawed and sometimes
corrupt, but above all it is worth saving, unusual in a genre all-too-often
dominated by dystopias that probably deserve to be annihilated. Hamilton
also intelligently explores numerous questions in this book, from
economics through to faith and religion. Whilst a conservative atheist (in
the small-c sense), Hamilton is nevertheless fascinated by the merits and
weaknesses of organised religion and its impact on morality and society,
and in the Nights Dawn books he explores religion in space opera with
more intelligence, fairness and understanding than any other SF writer bar
possibly J. Michael Straczynski in his TV series, Babylon 5.

The Reality Dysfunction (*****) is for my money one of the very best works
of space opera ever written, right up there with Dune and Hyperion (not as
well-written as either, but considerably more convincing), and easily the
most comprehensive single-author SF setting ever conceived. As SF
author and critic Colin Greenland said at the time, The Reality Dysfunction
reads like fifty science fiction novels, each tackling a separate and
fascinating subject, rolled into one gripping and cohesive whole.

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