The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton
Warning: Contains a few spoilers for the previous book, The Reality Dysfunction.
“Jesus, I can’t believe that’s all there is: life and purgatory. After tens of thousands of years, the universe finally reveals that we have souls, and then we have the glory snatched right back and replaced with terror. There has to be something more, there has to be. He wouldn’t do that to us.”
The Neutronium Alchemist is the second book in Peter F. Hamilton’s massive (and I mean massive) NIGHT’S DAWN science fiction trilogy. These books have been on my list for a while so I picked them up when Tantor Audio recently produced them in audio format read by John Lee. The first book, The Reality Dysfunction, nearly drained me. While I was interested in the story, I thought it was excessively lengthy and, to put it frankly, was annoyed with Hamilton’s discursiveness. The book was more than 41 hours long, making it one of the longest speculative fiction novels I’ve ever read. I didn’t think the story merited the length and, again to be frank, it seemed self-indulgent.
I soldiered on, though, since Tantor Audio had send me the second book. It is, again, unnecessarily time-consuming, but my experience was a little better this time. That’s because the first book was mostly set-up for the major galactic conflict that is finally in full swing during The Neutronium Alchemist, making this second book more exciting than the first. (Unfortunately, you really must read The Reality Dysfunction first to understand what’s going on in The Neutronium Alchemist.)
The Neutronium Alchemist picks up where The Reality Dysfunction ends. The Possessed (dead souls who’ve broken out of purgatory to take over the bodies of living humans), have managed to get off of the planet Lalonde and are spreading throughout the galaxy. Now every planet and habitat in the system is vulnerable and, once they discover what’s happening, must figure out how to protect themselves, whether that’s developing technology to detect possession, creating weapons to destroy possessed people, trying to devise methods to exorcise the possessing souls, isolating themselves from the rest of humanity, or some combination of all those tactics.
Each of our many protagonists is involved in some aspect of the conflict. Gerald Skibbow, who now has a touch of PTSD, is frantically searching for his daughter Marie who has been possessed by a woman who is using Marie’s body to lure teenagers to a place where their bodies can be taken over by more dead souls anxious to escape purgatory.
Norfolk, where Louise (who’s now pregnant) and Genevieve live, is one of the first planets to be overcome. The sisters manage to escape from Quinn Dexter’s clutches and flee the planet. They are hoping to find Joshua Calvert, the handsome and lecherous space captain who Louise is in love with, and are assisted by an upstanding young man who is possessed by the soul of Fletcher Christian (of mutiny on the Bounty fame). (It is not clear why the great majority of the Possessed are so antagonistic toward living humans, especially since they all used to be one. I understand why they do not want to return to purgatory, but I’d expect there to be a larger percentage of them who could manage to see this event from the perspective of living humans and at least attempt to come to some sort of compromise with the person whose body they possess.)
Amusingly, one of the souls who has returned to possess a body is Al Capone. The gangster is shocked to find himself alive in the far future, but it doesn’t take him long to set himself up as boss to a band of boot-licking mobsters who begin terrorizing the galaxy. Hamilton has a lot of fun with this plotline (as he does with a few others). The other characters from the first book, each with their own situations and goals, are also involved in the battle, either as possessed or free humans.
The only person who doesn’t seem to care about all this is Dr. Alkad Mzu. She has escaped from Tranquility and is focused on meeting up with her old friends so they can recover the doomsday device she created (The Alchemist) and use it to get revenge for the destruction of their planet (which happened thirty years ago). Ione sends Joshua and his crew to find and stop her. But some of the Possessed have found out about The Alchemist and are searching for Mzu, too.
The main plot (the expansion of the Possessed and the planets’ attempts to thwart them) is rather simple, though there are a dozen sub-plots and they take place over a vast amount of space (including some exotic new settings) with a huge cast of characters (including several new ones such as the reincarnated pot-smoking Volkswagen bus-driving hippie). But it just didn’t require 1237 pages. Perhaps if the prose had been striking, or the characters more likable… no, actually I can’t really think of any reason to justify that number of pages. This trilogy is like a soap opera — it follows a lot of good-looking but not particularly likeable people who talk too much, take too long to get things done, have a lot of sex, and just go on and on and on. This episode was 40.5 hours long in audio format.
Nevertheless, I am wondering how the characters will solve the possession problem (especially since it’s a galaxy-wide problem now), and I want to find out what they discover about what happens after death. So, since Tantor Audio will be sending me the concluding volume, The Naked God, I will read it. The narration by John Lee is quite good.
I just checked the page counts for these books, and wow–massive is right! Audiobooks were definitely the best choice here.
Sounds like this whole trilogy could have used some ruthless trimming and editing, but that isn’t in fashion these days, is it? Stephenson’s Seveneves and Rothfuss’ Wise Man’s Fear come to mind…