The Reality Dysfunction – Peter F. Hamilton

From Publishers Weekly: 

First published in 1996, this behemoth opening to the Night’s Dawn trilogy takes humankind across the galaxy on a quest for profit that becomes a desperate battle for survival. Space scavenger Joshua Calvert begins shipping wood from the primitive planet Lalonde to the pastoral patrician planet Kulu despite a revolt among the prisoners who serve as Lalonde’s forced labor. A greater threat lurks within Lalonde’s intensely claustrophobic jungle: an energy virus that turns people into zombies and that even 27th-century biotechnology can’t cure. Hamilton succinctly uses strong visual imagery to bring each culture and civilization to life. Only this relative economy of language allows so many plots, subplots and characters to be squeezed into over 900 pages. Elements of space opera, Straubesque horror and adrenaline-laced action make this a demanding, rewarding read.

The other night around four in the morning I put this book down, stared at my ceiling and thought, “this book is going to kill me.” I think I finally managed to pull myself away from the book at around five-thirty.

Yep. It’s one of those.

I’m new to the Science Fiction genre in general. I read some Kevin J. Anderson but other than that (and Ilium by Dan Simmons), I’m pretty ignorant regarding the genre.  The other day I asked for space opera suggestions on Twitter. Dave from this blog suggested this series of books. I went to the library, picked up the first book in the series (which is The Reality Dysfunction) and put it down for the first time last night.

I was pondering the best way to describe this 1100+ page epic tomb. The only thing I could think of was: this book is what happens when Steven King goes into outer space. (Before I continue I feel it is necessary to say that since this book is so long, my review will also be longer than usual and even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much I could, and should say).

Now, I’m a big fan of mega-novels. It’s some sort of odd compulsion within me. Sometimes I think I may need some serious therapy because I just enjoy them so much. I love books that go on and on and on. However, most people don’t. We all have lives, things to do and 1100 page books tend to not fit into that schedule. So, first and foremost, readers should know that this is a mega novel. It’s worth the read, but it might not fit into everyone’s life perfectly. However, in the United States (I’m not sure if this is in the UK as well), this trilogy (each book is over 1100 pages) has been broken into a set of six shorter books, where each book in the trilogy is broken into two shorter books.

Mega novels can be hard to take. The writers might tend to take themselves too seriously. The book could easily turn into a 1000+ page session where the author preaches about…something. Hamilton, however, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He explores the religious, philosophical, political and artistic roots for humanity’s evolution, but he does so in a way to assimilate them with the story rather than preach.

It took me about a hundred pages to get into the story. Hamilton’s writing is simple, fluid, descriptive and easy to follow, but this book is epic and I often did feel lost with all the technological terms until I got well rooted in the book and world. There are a ton of characters with speaking parts to follow and a massive world he spends a lot of time building and developing. Hamilton did his research, however, the science is believable, the world he describes is easy to get lost in and his characters are understandable.

It’s easy to understand how humanity has evolved in this book, and the technology it takes for these social groups to thrive, as well as the politics that have evolved along the way to accommodate new ways of interstellar life. There is everything from sentient habitats to semi-organic space ships telepathically linked to their captains. Incredible stuff and absolutely, mind-warping and engrossing. To put it simply, the world building is phenomenal.

What starts out as a worker revolt amongst the forced labor on a colonizing planet quickly turns into something more sinister, kicking the already punched-up book into high gear. There literally is something for everyone from moments of high tech epic battles interspersed with quite moments of intimacy and political intrigue, humanizing the plot quite a bit and giving the reader time for their heart to stop beating quite so hard during their whole reading adventure. It’s quite incredible, honestly, how quickly Hamilton can change his voice and mood, and how believable it is. There are moments where you can connect so profoundly with the characters, or the scene, you cannot help but feel an intense detachment, like you left part of you behind, when you finally close the book.

Even his colonized planets, moons and asteroids span the gamete of expectancy. There are planets so rife with technology they seem well placed in the 2600’s. There are other planets where technology is nearly nonexistant and horse-drawn carriages are required for people to get from their spaceplanes to the cities (or wherever else they are going). Hamilton does a superb job at presenting the ethical and moral debates among both polar extremes, as well as detailing logical, believable problems with colonization both politically and on the level of the colonists, who are trying to hack a new life out of the jungle. 

I think any proper review would be remiss without saying that there were parts of this book where the prose and the well thought out plot and development literally caught my breath. Two points I can directly think of is when Hamilton was describing evolution on a distant moon. I was completely raptured. Being an absolute science junkie, I was expecting any discussion of evolution in a space opera to be clunky and completely unbelievable but Hamilton did his research and the science was astonishing. The moon came to life for me; the creatures that developed on it were amazing.

The other scene, which made me catch my breath and read with awe was a voidhawk’s final flight into Saturn during the beginning of the book. The passage was so intense, so passion filled and so riddled with breath-taking prose I read it at least three times before moving on. Truly incredible.

I read several reviews for this book before I started writing this one, and the main consensus was that Hamilton hasn’t really done anything amazingly new in this book, rather he excelled at giving old concepts a fresh face. While I’m not a time-tested sci fi reader, I will leave those of you that are to read this book and explore whether or not that sentiment rings true. There are plenty of moments in this book where the reader is simply allowed to sit back and bask with wonder at the universe Hamilton has created, the simple majesty and wonder I rarely feel with books I read anymore. And plenty of moments of heart pumping, passion filled, adrenaline boosting battles, or tender scenes that can only make a person sigh, peppered across an intergalactic, technologically rife, conflict ridden world. 

This is a doorstopper, make no bones about it, but Hamilton’s focus never wanders and never strays. He never gets overly prosaic or philosophical. His plot never derails. Quite honestly, I was amazed at the focus it must have taken to not only write a book on this epic scale, but also keep every story, side-plot and minor character focused on the threads of his plot while maintaining the sheer, mind boggling detail throughout. Everything has a point, every journey is worth taking and every character is worth learning about.

I will say that some readers get confused with all the names thrown around. This is a possibility. Hamilton’s universe is intensely complex and there is a massive cast of characters to focus on and plenty of details to read about, but its worth puzzling out and sticking with. The reward is well worth the effort put into reading a book that demands so much of your attention and mental faculties.

This book, quite honestly, is one of my best finds so far this year. I can scarcely believe it’s over. Hamilton has achieved what I had previously thought impossible, writing an epic scale space opera as big and detailed as this without ever faltering and falling into typical mega-novel potholes. It’s the ride of your life; a journey well worth taking.


5/5 stars

8 Responses

  • Dave-Brendon de Burgh

    Hey Sarah, I am SOOOO glad you liked The Reality Dysfunction! 😀 Peter is really an incredibly talented and gifted storyteller and don't think there can ever be enough people who will read his work. 🙂 I loved this series so much that I read book 3, The Naked God, in Trade Paperback, and finished it in a week (which is probably why the job I was working at the moment lasted all of a week). 😉

    Anyway, looking forward to your thoughts on the rest of the series – and put it this way, you've touched a piece of the iceberg. 😉

    Congrats on becoming another Peter F Hamilton convert! 😀

  • Sarah

    First, I can't believe you read all three books in a week. Holy crap. I thought it was impressive that I finished the first book in four days. Wow!

    I'm really shocked by how much I love this series. There's so much depth to it. I'm really glad you recommended it to me!! I can't wait to read the rest of the series. I am going to pick up the second book at the library this evening. 🙂

  • Dave-Brendon de Burgh

    Excellent, very glad to hear that! 🙂 Sorry Sarah, I should have been clearer – each book took me about a week. 🙂

    I actually got gooseflesh remembering the Voidhawk-Saturn scene; beautifully written. 🙂

  • Liviu

    There is a reason I never tire to mention that Night's Dawn is still my all time finished sf series…

  • Sarah

    It is incredible. I got the second book at the library today. I'll probably start it tomorrow. I just can't believe how mind-blowing this book was!!!

  • Mark

    I'm so jealous of you at the moment – you have all of Hamilton's work still to rad and there are some great novels there!

    Great review too, can't wait to see what you make of Neutronium Alchemist and Naked God, plus the collection A Second Chance at Eden. I'd definitely recommend going on to Fallen Dragon soon, it's a great stand alone novel before the 5 books series set in the Commonwealth – Pandora's Star & Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga) and then Dreaming Void, Temporal Void and Evolutionary Void (Void Trilogy).

    I personally prefer the Commonwealth Books – they're a little less dark but equally great world building and even better writing IMO.

  • Jared

    Wow. Great review – I've never tried Hamilton, but sounds like it is worth a shot!

  • Sarah

    Mark, I was told by a fellow reviewer that you have read all of Hamilton's stuff. I have a feeling I will be joining you in that category shortly. I really, really LOVED this book and I can't wait to continue on with the series, and all the rest of his stuff. I'll have to pick your brain sometime and have a "Hamilton" discussion with you.

    Jared, thanks for the compliment on the review! I would highly recommend reading this book. 🙂

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