A vast, all-you-can-eat, SF buffet. Probably off-puttingly long for those trying to cram in 250 books in a year and whether or not the story actually needs an entire chapter on the evolution of the Ly-cilph is open for debate but for those of us happy to sud ourselves in a highly readable SF saga this is a deep, warm, bath. ‘Reality’ certainly is a shelf-breaker but Hamilton can write and he can keep the pages turning too. And how.
This is arguably the SF version of ‘The Stand’ with the crazy page count, the multiple characters and the dead acting as the insidious virus that takes down humanity. Hamilton has the human race doing…well, alright actually; spreading across the stars via sentient biotek ships, colonising multiple planets (the ‘Capitalists In Space’ angle doesn’t escape criticism), divvying up into two main augmented factions – Adamists and Edenists – with their fancy neural nanonics or affinity links and out-lawing any use of anti-matter after various catastrophes. Other than a deliciously mysterious ring of exploded space stations (the ‘Ruin Ring’) left behind by an extinct race and, um, an escaped maniac inside a tree who wants to live forever all seems to be going tickety-boo. So by the half-way point Hamilton is well placed to systematically take a blow-torch to the entire roadshow. The setting up of and then shocking, awe-inspiring, collapse of an entire space-faring civilisation put me in mind of Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’. Hamilton has the writing chops for the small moments but you can sense him really seizing the SF canvas here and his glee is almost palpable.
The Big Bad in ‘Reality’ is our old friends the recently deceased who make an inconvenient return appearance from the Void Beyond with lightning coming out of their fingers, the ability to shapeshift and crash any nearby tech. The key moment in the novel – the test for the hard-SF reader and the moment Hamilton outs himself as a mainstream populist – is when a set of fangs appears. There is also a Yeti. Oh and naked ladies try to entice you into their arms which regrettably only ever happens in fiction and rarely ends well. The dead’s weird ability to warp reality allows Hamilton to leverage supernatural and historical imagery – hence the books reputation for involving everything and the kitchen sink – but he also has fine fun doing military SF, laser-tastic space battles and has the nerve to actually depict the void beyond death and the armies of disembodied personalities clamouring to return to corporeality. It’s the sort of audaciousness literary critics have orgasms over when your name is Philip Pullman and you’re ripping off Milton and Blake. Here, Hamilton has gruff cosmonik Warlow quietly discussing Catholicism with a sentient space-station amid the rings of Murora before he sets off a nuke.
The encounter between the living and the dead of Hamilton’s Confederation Universe actually goes swimmingly well and everyone goes home happy. Only joking. Humanity gets its arse spectacularly kicked in orbit about Lalonde and only the heroics of blatant – but thoroughly enjoyable – ‘Gary Sue’ Joshua Calvert results in a statistically negligible win. ‘Reality’ is, of course, merely part 1 of a trilogy you puny humans and by the finale dangling threads abound. Whither Dr Alkad Mzu? Last seen nipping off in a voidhawk with thoughts of “the Alchemist” on her mind. What was with that structure the Tyrathca were building and their talk of “the Sleeping God”? Have we seen the last of Laton? Above all, how the hell is Hamilton going to land all this? I have absolutely no idea but I do know it’s a hell of a writer who can have you gagging for more after a thousand pages: “Whatever it was they came up against is something that one day we are also going to encounter.”