I recently finished listening to the audiobook of Mindstar Rising which is narrated by the fabulous Toby Longsworth. I confess that I only bought the book because he is the narrator, I have a few other books narrated by him and he has the most incredible voice. However, Mindstar Rising hooked me straight away and I burnt through 14 hour book in about 6 days (which is pretty fast for someone who works a 70 odd hour week and has little time to listen).
The book was published in 1993 and is Peter F Hamilton’s first novel. It is set in near future Britain. Global warming has dramatically changed the English countryside and climate, cocoa and mangos have replaced cabbages and potatoes as the crops of choice and rising seas have displaced thousands of people, turning the low lying regions into virulent salt marshes. The ecological upheaval of the last couple of decades was made worse by the socio-political nightmare of the uber left wing PSP (People's Socialism Party) from which England is just starting to recover. Such recovery is aided by advances in technology and high stakes computer hacking plays a central role in the story.
Against this tarnished and sweaty backdrop we meet Greg Mandel, ex army, ex Mindstar, ex anti PSP hardliner and now a PI living in rural Rutland in the East Midlands (which, I learnt after finishing the book, is where Peter Hamilton lives to this day). Greg is well suited to the PI business as, courtesy of the Mindstar program, he is fitted with a Gland which cranks up his empathy senses and allows him to tell if someone is lying and to ‘see’ minds. Though he can’t read thoughts exactly, it's a pretty useful skill for a person who interrogates people for a living.
The story revolves around a corporate saboteur attempt on a global company called Event Horizon, the owner of which, Phillip Evans, hires Greg to work out who is behind it. Philip Evans and his grand daughter and heiress, Julia Evans, continue to form a key part of the story. That is as much plot as I am going to give you because the book is, at its heart, a thriller and I would hate to spoil it for you. So I have decided to break the rest of my review into discussing what I loved and then what fell a bit flat for me. (The ‘loved’ category is much bigger.)
What I loved:
The ‘magic system’
I realise that this is a Sci-Fi book, but given that I mainly read straight up fantasy, I tend to use the term ‘magic system’ to think about Sci-Fi as well. For me, the technology is the magic in this book and, given that it was penned in 1993, I think that the tech capabilities still sound magical nearly 27 years later. The world that Hamilton builds relies heavily on technology, each person has a ‘cyberfax’ which is essentially a smartphone (it was funny to realise this and I wonder how Peter Hamilton felt when he bought his first smartphone in the early 2000s…), Julia has implants which basically give her a heavy duty computer processor in her brain and fortunes are won and lost by Techmerch Hotrods. The Hotrods guys are the wizards of this universe - computer extraordinaires / hackers who can trojan horse their way into almost anywhere. I liked how Hamilton built tension between the Hotrods and the Event Horizon security teams - abstract and clever infiltration met with quickly dealt violence.
I typically like to see a hard magic system that I can work out the rules for, and the tech in Mindstar Rising hits the spot for me. I liked how different ‘powers’ were weaved in via alternative Mindstar Glands - though only two of the characters had these powers. Such ‘powers’ had limits - their use was physically draining (as one would imagine that a release of bio engineered hormones directly into your grey matter would be) and even Greg’s psy powers weren’t infallible. The rest of the magic was Julia’s Node implants, terrifying biotech (gene-spliced battle panthers) and a few very smart Hotrods.
The world building
I was so so interested in the world that Mindstar Rising is set in, I guess I would compare the experience to watching an episode of Black Mirror - the familiarity and the unexpected meshed together. I really enjoyed the backdrop of an England which had been ravished both environmentally and politically and which had plummeted from grace. (Perhaps listening to this book in the midst of the tumultuous Brexit endgame of the last quarter of 2019 added to the realism for me - who knows?). The detail was great - even the currency had switched from Pounds to Eurofrancs.
Hamilton is also really great at naming things - ‘cyberfax’ (smartphone), ‘memox-crystals’ (data storage devices), ‘nodes’ (brain implants), ‘giga-conductor’ (clean energy machine), ‘NN-core’ (some kind of personality storage device), a ‘squirt’ of data (bluetooth / airdrop). I confess I am one of those people who like to be fully immersed in the worlds that authors create - by the end of the book I want to be swearing like a native and knowing what each made up word means in their universe. Greg for instance constantly used the phrase “No messin” which I would totally use in the real world if I wasn't afraid of looking even more nerdy and odd at my straightlaced day job...
After finishing the book I had a sneaky look on Good Reads to see what other people thought of it. Reviews were mixed, but I did notice that a couple of people said that they couldn't get on board with the main character. I didn’t have this issue. It may be that, because I gravitate towards books that contain high amounts of action, I naturally like decisive characters who drive the story forward. Greg definitely delivers and I think that he was generally well formed and realistic. I could picture him as an ex squaddie who had been elevated via a Gland implant which came with both fun upsides (for instance he appeared to be a delight in the bedroom) and ugly downsides. Greg Madel is part action man, part wincingly sensitive empath who is clever enough to think his way through a white collar heist and can break the nose of the perpetrator. I thought he was good fun to read.
The books I read often have a male lead POV character and as a result I am used to that and don’t really care if the male character spends a sentence waxing poetic about a women’s breasts! I think it works if that is who they are and it is part of their voice. Some reviews have taken issue with this aspect of his character...
In my opinion (as someone who likes their books to be action packed) Peter Hamilton writes beautifully and has the perfect balance of prose vs excitement. It may be because I am from the UK and have a level of familiarity with the place, but I so enjoyed listening to the descriptions of the new English landscape. Here is a description of an inner city tower block which is home to the anti PSP gang, the Trinities:
“They walked out of Bretton and into the Mucklands Wood Estate and Elinor decided that Bretton wasn't so bad after all, not compared to this. The fifteen highrise blocks which had risen out of the dead forest were council run low cost housing. They represented the least successful aspect of the city’s expansion programme. A throwback to the 1960s style of instant slums. They were twenty storeys high, identical in every respect, right down to the cheap low efficiency slate grey solar cells clinging to every square centimeter of surface. Heat shimmer twisted the blocks harsh geometry, blurring edges - it was as though nature was trying to distort the inhuman ugliness which their desolate lines delininated. The ground between them was a wasteland, less than half the estates intended employment workshops had been built and those that the council had completed were abandoned, either burnt out or gutted. The Trinities’ gang symbol was scrawled everywhere, brash and sharp, a closed fist gripping a thorn cross, blood dripping.”
As you can see, his writing is not too prose heavy, but, nevertheless, it manages to conjure up a pretty detailed image in your mind of the physical attributes of the location as well as touching on the history and current status of the place. He does that throughout the book, it is rare that there is a standalone description of the setting without an accompanying beat of why it is like that. For me, this helped me to really visualise where the story was taking place.
Here is another fabulous visual: “Scorching April sunlight metamorphosed the A1 into a bubbling ribbon of tar, for once reversing the rampant greenery’s encroachment, nettles and grass were sucked below the surface by sluggish eddies, consumed and fossilised within the black brimstone.”
What fell flat:
Now don’t take this one the wrong way, I was interested and very keen to find out what happened in the end, the plot held my attention throughout. As the guys and girls over on the Legendarium podcast would put it - this is a level 1 / 2 story (a ‘ripping good yarn’ / decent insightful socio-political commentary).
I think part of the reason that the story doesn't quite do it from me is because I don't think that stakes are interesting enough. If Greg fails to find the saboteur, Event Horizon is going to...what, lose some money, Phillip and Julia Evans will be ousted from the company but they will still be rich right? Maybe I am too used to end of the world level stakes. I wasn’t reading on to be sure that the world was safe, I was reading on because I was having so much fun doing it and the setting was so interesting.
I am by no means a hardliner Sci-fi reader, I have read a little Ian Rankin (but found it too hard SF), a couple of the classics (Phillip K Dick, Asimov), however you do not need to be totally into Sci-Fi to enjoy this book. The story, though not life changing, is interesting and the pacing sweeps you along throughout. I think that the characters are varied and generally pretty well drawn. The near future-ness is, to be honest, a tad scary, given the UK’s current eurosceptic trend and the worrying state of the environment, but this aspect just added to the fun for me. I do wonder what I would have thought if I read it just 5 years ago, would I have been so affected by these themes...who knows.
I heartily recommend this book, especially the audiobook version. Thank you for reading this surprisingly long review - what can I say, I love talking about books!