01/02/2012. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Macmillan. 260 page hardback. Price: GBP17.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-230-75030-2.
check out website: www.panmacmillan.com
‘Manhattan In Reverse’ is Peter F. Hamilton’s second collection of short stories, following on from ‘A Second Chance At Eden’ in 1998. It brings together the two novellas, four short stories and one piece of flash fiction he has written since then. All but the title story have been previously published elsewhere.
To call Hamilton prolific would be an understatement. He has published thirteen novels since ‘Mindstar Rising’ came out in 1993, almost all of them as long as two or three ordinary novels. However, as he explains in the introduction to ‘Manhattan In Reverse’, this does take up almost all his writing time so he produces less than one short story a year. In consequence, the seven tales in ‘Manhattan In Reverse’ come to just 260 pages in all. Still, it’s quality not quantity that we’re looking for, aren’t we?
The first four pieces in the collection are each standalone stories. The last three are set in the universe of Hamilton’s ‘Commonwealth Saga’, which comprises the two novels ‘Pandora’s Star’ and ‘Judas Unchained’, the final two stories featuring as their protagonist, Paula Myo, who also appears as a major character in those two books. I’ll focus here on the three longest stories.
The first and longest story in the collection is the alternate history novella ‘Watching Trees Grow’. This is a fascinating murder mystery set on a parallel Earth where the Roman Empire did not fall and the world is controlled by a small number of elite families and humans can expect to live for several hundred years. The story starts at Oxford University in 1832, where a promising astrophysics student called Julian Raleigh is found with a knife embedded in his right eye. The murder of one so young is such an unforgivable crime that his family send their best investigators, young Edward Raleigh and his elderly colleague Francis, to help the police find the murderer. The investigation quickly runs into quicksand, however, as Julian apparently had no enemies and all the obvious suspects have alibis. The case is put on file but Edward won’t let it rest. Over the following two centuries, he re-opens it five more times, whenever some new development in forensic science allows him to re-examine a clue or an alibi. On each occasion, though, his suspicions lead nowhere. Yet Edward is nothing if not diligent. As each suspect is crossed off his list, he gets ever closer to the identity of Julian’s murderer. Can he identify them and if so, how can he make the punishment fit the crime? I really enjoyed this story for the way that Hamilton integrated ideas about longevity and the value of a life well lived into an alternate history version of a police procedural. The huge level of technological development over a two century period was portrayed in a convincing way, making me wonder quite how enjoyable it would be to live through dozens of technical revolutions, rather than the three or four that most of us will have to cope with. All in all, an interesting and enjoyable start to the collection.
The other novella in the collection is ‘The Demon Trap’. This is one of the stories set in the Commonwealth universe and featuring the single-minded police inspector Paula Myo, brought in to investigate a terrorist attack that has killed several young members of the ruling Dynasty. The terrorists are demanding independence from the Commonwealth for their home world of Merioneth and threatening further such atrocities until they get their way. In this case, the victims’ spaceplane was blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. Paula and her team quickly locate the launch site, gather DNA, identify the suspect, locate him through CCTV and capture him alive. The problem is, although Paula can prove that this is the man who launched the missile, he’s had his memory wiped and replaced by those of an innocent man going about his daily business. So is he guilty or not? Paula will not rest until she has put behind bars not just the body that committed the crime but the mind as well. First, though, she’ll need to find it. I loved the character of Paula Myo, who is a workaholic cop not because of a failed marriage or a tendency to alcoholism but because she was genetically designed to that end. She knows what she is and simply gets on with being the best investigator she can be. This story illustrates the top-down power politics of the Commonwealth so well that at times I found myself sympathising with the separatist terrorists. If you’ve not read Hamilton’s ‘Commonwealth books’ before now, this looks like a great introduction.
The collection’s title story, ‘Manhattan In Reverse’, is also the only previously unpublished one. Like ‘The Demon Trap’, it stars Paula Myo. At the start of the story, she has just secured a conviction against a popular folk hero for terrorist crimes committed in his youth, possibly after brainwashing. The general public are not impressed. Paula is persuaded to avoid their ire by travelling to the distant colony planet Menard to investigate some strange goings-on there. The settlers in one particular area are being attacked by some of the previously passive Onid, a large indigenous species whose members look like fat kangaroos with the legs of spiders. The Onid’s behaviour suggests that they may be sentient, in which case the planet will have to be abandoned. The company who funded the settlement of Menard are. understandably, not keen on this outcome and much prefer the alternative of slaughtering all the Onid then carrying on as if nothing had happened. Paula is asked to apply her considerable forensic skills to the situation, in order to find out why the Onid have suddenly turned aggressive and see if the problem can be solved without a wholesale slaughter. However, when Paula works out what’s going on, a solution seems even further away than ever. I was captivated by this story’s gentle pace and the way that Hamilton brings the Onid to life. My only slight question was why this was a Paula Myo story? Her forensic skills were not truly integral to a solution of the problem and her motivation for going to Menard in the first place was never entirely convincing.
The other four stories are much shorter than the three I’ve summarised here but cover a wide range of ideas with intelligence and humour. Each one will fully repay the time spent reading it.
‘Manhattan In Reverse’ is a slim but enjoyable collection of Peter F. Hamilton’s short fiction from the last thirteen years. It provides a highly effective showcase of his writing style and interests. Fans will no doubt lap it up. I hope that it will also encourage those who have been put off by the length of his novels to give him a go.
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