BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Various players and factions move about the galaxy, trying to decide what to do about the Void, a planet-eating region of space from which dreams emanate.
PROS: Excellent world building; cool tech; some tense, page-turning moments.
CONS: Takes a while to get this behemoth moving along.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid SF Space Opera.
The Dreaming Void is the ambitious start of Peter F. Hamilton’s new trilogy set in the universe we saw in The Commonwealth Saga – the duology that consisted of the awesome Pandora’s Star and the not-so-awesome follow-up, Judas Unchained. The events of The Dreaming Void occur about 1500 years after the previous books.
To understand the central conflict of the story, it’s important to know the state of mankind in this universe. Hamilton’s main concern in these books is evolution. His future is populated by humans with extremely long lives thanks to advances in technology. (There are some aliens, too, but they are mostly offstage.) To them, death is more of an intrusion than anything else. Long life has ultimately allowed humanity to move in several different directions, in physical and non-physical form. Physical humans are one of three types: Highers use biononic upgrades to augment their lives and give them special abilities; Advancers rely on genetic modification to do the job; and Naturals lack any but the most essential augmentations. Non-physical humans are part of the Advanced Neural Activity (ANA), a near-postphysical intelligence collective made up of those that have chosen to leave their physical bodies behind in anticipation of the next stage of human evolution: posthumanism. The point of all this is that human evolution is being proactively decided by human individuals; they are controlling their own destinies. So which group gets to decide the fate of all of us? And do they have that right?
It turns out that humanity’s fate is inexorably tied to the Void, the “Big Dumb Object” of this sweeping space opera. Only maybe it’s not so dumb. The Void is a black-hole-like region of space from which dreams emanate. People are able to perceive these dreams through a galaxy-wide mind share called the Gaiafield, an “artificial neural universe” based on alien technology. The Void is believed to be home to super-advanced aliens that have figured out the ultimate path of evolution for themselves. But the Void is a source of both terror and wonder. Long ago, the Void was known to devour worlds for the energy it needs to sustain itself, but it has since become a source of enlightenment. Followers of the Living Dream movement (a cult based on the visions of Inigo, the First Dreamer) seek to make a pilgrimage into the Void. But naysayers (like ANA) believe that any interaction with the Void will cause it to become active again, this time consuming every planet and living being in the galaxy.
If all of this sounds very complex, welcome to incredible world building talents of Peter F. Hamilton. Fans of his previous space operas won’t be disappointed by his extensively detailed portrayal of worlds, technologies, politics, and intrigue. But if galaxy-sweeping epics are Hamilton’s trademark, so is the time spent getting these behemoth gears in motion. This can be expected, of course; you don’t dive into a complex setting without feeling the effects of inertia. There is a generous cast of characters and a handful of storylines involved here and it takes the overall story a while to get going. But once it does, it feels like putting on a comfortable jacket; space opera is what Hamilton does and he does it well.
So, who are the characters? Most of them are new, but there are a few familiar faces from the other Commonwealth books. Aaron is a mysterious Higher with no memory of his past, but a clear assignment at hand: to find Inigo, the long-lost First Dreamer who first interpreted the dreams from the Void. Aaron enlists the aid of Ingo’s old flame (and member of the Living Dream movement), Corrie-Lyn, and much of their gripping and fast-paced storyline involves following one lead after another, getting ever closer to the elusive prophet. The ANA is where we find the no-nonsense patriarch Gore Burnelli, pulling the strings of meatspace to the best of his ability. The ANA (at least some factions of it) believes that any interaction with the Void will mean the end of all humanity – in all its forms – so Gore sends his daughter, Justine (conveniently decanted back into a human body – see previous note about death being obsolete), to take part in the chase to find the Dreamer.
Meanwhile, Ethan, the new leader of the Dream movement, wants to lead his people on the impending pilgrimage into the Void despite the potential dangers involved. To that end, he is eager to find the so-called Second Dreamer, whose projected dreams involve the enigmatic Skylord and Waterwalker. That’s also the goal of Paula Myo, the tenacious, genetically-engineered detective that we knew from the previous books. The physicist named Troblum, who is a pawn of one of the factions, has some interesting ideas about the barrier surrounding the Void. Outside the central power struggle is Amarinta, a seemingly innocuous citizen with big business plans, who is enjoying her newfound freedom from her ex-husband by dabbling in sexual encounters with Covey (a “multiple” – a single mind occupying multiple bodies of varying size, shape, and gender) and Likan (a powerful businessmen with his own ideas of sexual fulfillment). And then there’s the utterly captivating story of the telepathic Edeard, trying to make sense out of his dreams about the Skylord while living on a technologically immature world that is crying out for social reform.
That’s a lot to keep straight. Fortunately Hamilton successfully juggles all of these multiple storylines in such a way as to keep them all distinct, memorable and enjoyable. It helps that the threads rarely intersect, though by the end (which is less a cliffhanger than it is a pause in the storytelling) we start to see hints of how they might connect. I note here, too, that Edeard’s and Aaron’s stories were particularly strong because they were filled with more drama and action than the others. In Edeard’s thread, telepathic and genetic engineering abilities offer a palatable contrast to his medieval-like world. The height of Aaron’s thread (a heist gone wrong) was just as nail-biting. Both threads offered some seriously page-turning moments, but that does not put the other threads to shame. What they offered in world building and sense of wonder was more than enough to provide solid sf entertainment.
As does the whole book. I get the feeling that Hamilton is gearing up for something big, so some ramp-up time can be forgiven. In the meantime, let The Dreaming Void stand as a very good example of Hamilton’s own brand of engaging space opera.
[FYI: Some back story of Inigo’s life is given in Peter F. Hamilton’s short story “Blessed by an Angel” which appears in The New Space Opera edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it might be interesting to see how this character deals with his unique situation.]