The Reality Dysfunction, first published in 1996 but just recently released in audiobook format by Tantor Audio, is the first book in Peter F. Hamilton’s NIGHT’S DAWN trilogy which is set in the 27th century in his Confederation universe. Technological and scientific advances have allowed humans to spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing and taming planets, and setting up thriving communities. People are healthy, long-lived, and happy.
For the most part they are at peace, though there are still religious and cultural differences that cause dissension and, of course, there are still people who prey on others. The major cultural divide is between the Adamists and the Edenists. The Adamists are regular ol’ humans whose technology has advanced (e.g., they use “neural nanonics” to improve their brain function) but who’ve rejected the bio-tek habitats and the genetic engineering that the Edenists employ to bring humanity to the next stage of evolution. The Edenists use an “affinity gene” to create and bond with the sentient starships they fly and the sentient habitats they live on, most of which orbit Jupiter and Saturn. They can also bond with animals such as dogs and dolphins. The Adamists consider this abhorrent, so the two cultures tend to live apart, but they have formed the Confederation which helps ensure peace and free trade throughout the galaxy.
- Alkad Mzu — A physicist who developed a proscribed anti-matter weapon called The Alchemist. After her entire home planet’s population was obliterated in the prologue of The Reality Dysfunction, she has been living in exile on the planet Tranquility for 26 years. She is closely watched so that she cannot leave the planet or tell anyone the secrets of her weapon.
- Quinn Dexter — A criminal and a Satanist who has been dropped off on the planet Lalonde as part of the “Ivet” (Involuntary Tranportees) work crew helping to establish a new colony from an over-crowded and damaged Earth. Quinn is not satisfied with his low status on Lalonde and has plans to advance himself and his “lord.”
- Father Horst Elwes — A Christian priest who leads the new colony on Lalonde. He is the only one who can see through Quinn Dexter, but he is hopeful that Dexter can be redeemed. What he witnesses on his new planet causes a crisis of faith.
- Marie Skibbow — A beautiful but sullen teenager who is upset that her family dragged her to Lalonde. She will use whatever weapons she has in her arsenal (which is basically just one) to get herself off the planet.
- Laton — A former Edenist scientist who used the affinity gene for his own evil purposes. The Edenists think he’s dead, but he’s been hiding out on Lalonde and continuing his experiments using hapless colonists.
- Joshua Calvert — A young handsome hotshot starship captain who lives on an independent sentient habitat named Tranquility, a tax haven. He makes money by scavenging high-tech artifacts from the “Ruin Ring” of an ancient alien race that has disappeared.
- Ione Saldana — A beautiful young woman who is the hereditary ruler of Tranquility. She is affinity-bonded to the habitat. She employs scientists who study the artifacts that Joshua brings back from the Ruin Ring.
- Syrinx — The beautiful young captain of the affinity-bonded starship (Voidhawk) Oenone. Syrinx and Oenone are traders who sometimes do missions for the Confederation.
- Louise Kavanagh — Louise is the beautiful young (I’m getting tired of saying that) naïve daughter of the man who rules an estate on the planet Norfolk which exports a very costly beverage made from roses. Her little sister, who will become a more prominent character in the next book, The Neutronium Alchemist, is Genevieve Kavanagh.
Those are just some of the major characters that we follow. There are many others including colonists, starship crew members, land agents, soldiers, investigators, scientists, reporters… I could go on. The scope of the story is epic and includes a lot of travel (on planets and in space), attempts to tame newly colonized planets, domestic scenes on peaceful planets, bar fights, space battles, torture scenes, gruesome murders, anti-matter and nuclear explosions, and a large number of sex scenes (Joshua has sex with nearly every woman in The Reality Dysfunction).
Hamilton gives us an immense amount of description, history, and backstory about almost every character and every place that we visit, so it takes a very long time (about 350 pages) to get to the crux of the plot which is that Quinn Dexter, who is trying to advance himself and his Satanist agenda, manages to unleash a supernatural power that threatens to destroy the entire Confederation. This is the problem that the characters will deal with for the rest of the NIGHT’S DAWN trilogy and, interestingly, this aspect of the series makes it feel more like a fantasy than the hard science fiction that Hamilton readers may be expecting. In fact, it’s a twist on the traditional zombie story.
I loved visiting the exotic worlds of Hamilton’s Confederation universe and learning about the imaginative scientific and technological advances of these future cultures. There were some interesting discussions about genetic engineering, bio-technology, the effects of radiation and magnetism on living tissue, terraforming, cloning, culture, faith, death and immortality. Hamilton does a great job speculating about such things as what a space battle would be like when huge g-forces are involved.
On the other hand, I was exhausted by the sheer number of words presented in The Reality Dysfunction, especially since so much of it was not important to the plot. Clearly Hamilton intends to build complex functioning worlds — not just tell a story — and I can appreciate that, but this amount of description and backstory needed more than one story to support it. Or at least characters that I liked well enough that I didn’t mind just hanging around with them when the plot wasn’t advancing, and I didn’t feel that way about any of Hamilton’s characters. They were not interesting or complex enough, with perhaps the exception of the priest.
I admit that I started to skim some passages, something I rarely do, and started to resent the amount of time I invested in the book. Undoubtedly this will go better for readers who love to linger in a large long-winded overly descriptive rambling novel, but I tend to prefer a tightly plotted, more focused story with leaner prose. In my opinion, The Reality Dysfunction needed to be reduced by at least 50%.
At the end, the story finally started to take off as the zombie contagion spread beyond the planet Lalonde. I have hope that the next book, The Neutronium Alchemist, will be more rewarding. Since Tantor Audio sent me a review copy, I feel obligated to read it anyway. Speaking of the audio, The Reality Dysfunction is more than 41 hours long (!!!) and read by John Lee. He’s got a great voice and does a masterful job with the dialogue for the huge cast of characters. I thought his reading of some of the many many descriptive passages was a bit dull, but I’m not sure that was his fault.