Great North Road, a monstrous door-stopping novel by sci-fi veteran Peter F. Hamilton, was a book that took me some considerable time to actually finish. Great North Road is a novel with a lot of moving parts and with something of an identity crisis in terms of how it approaches its story. The story opens with the discovery of a murdered North clone (the North’s are a powerful business family of clones who dominate with both science and industry) which, in addition to being a big deal given the political clout of the North, also bears a troubling resemblance to a slew of murders which occurred on the distant world of St. Libra; murders supposedly committed by an unidentified alien creature who has not been seen since. Things spiral out from the kernel of the murder investigation to encompass a military expedition to St. Libra.
The expansive nature of Great North Road is one of the novel’s biggest pitfalls and the one major hitch that keeps it from becoming a truly great novel. Great North Road is a compilation of fascinating science fiction ideas that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. On the one hand Hamilton introduces readers to the North family spawned by three clone brothers each of which as seemingly taken on a different path towards achieving immortality/longevity. The notion of a clone family where each successive generation of clones shows an increasing number of imperfections is a concept that could be made into an entire novel by itself. However, in Great North Road it is only one leg upon which the rest of the story stands. Hamilton further tackles the economical ramifications of Earth’s demands for natural resources, particularly as it pertains to energy and fuel, makes an attempt to envision how police work might occur in a heavily monitored society, briefly discusses how humanity might react to an inexplicable and seemingly relentless alien threat (the Zanth), and looks briefly at the ramifications that human colonization might have. No one topic is ever looked at too in depth and I often found Hamilton glancing over aspects that I would have found interesting to read more about. In particular I was fascinated with the notion of the religious elements briefly touched upon in the novel, holy warriors within the regular ranks of the Earth’s military who saw the fight against the Zanth as something akin to a holy Crusade. To me, that’s an interesting notion worth exploring in a novel of its own but in Great North Road it isn’t even a major part of the story.
Far too often in Great North Road, Hamilton gets distracted from the plot of the story to delve into the daily lives of some of the characters. I was particularly nonplussed by a particular section in which one of Newcastle police offices uses his police resources to woo (or stalk) a woman he was interested in. It was a lengthy and overly complicated bit of story that seemed entirely designed to provide one small bit of information late in the story. Hamilton also tries extraordinarily hard to get readers invested in the personal life of Sid; the Newcastle police’s lead detective in the murder investigation. More often than not I found the scene’s detail Sid’s personal life more of a distraction than anything else and felt that his professional struggles with the case and the police bureaucracy were far more engaging elements of the story; elements that both informed the reader of his character and helped advance the plot.
In addition to the lengthy murder investigation, one that seems to stall for a bit too long to remain a completely entertaining read, there is also the expedition to St. Libra. The expedition portions of Great North Road lean heavily on Angela; the wrong imprisoned lone survivor of the “alien’s” previous attack. Since the reader isn’t privy to who Angela is, or what has happened to her, the expedition scenes are frequently interrupted by flashbacks telling Angela’s story. The net result is the feeling that between the murder investigation, the expedition, and the flashbacks is that for the great majority of the novel nothing is happening. Indeed, Hamilton keeps readers in the dark about whether the alien actually exists at all for the majority of the novel before finally revealing the truth.
In the end I find that while there is a part of me that appreciates the way all of the pieces of Great North Road fit together at the book’s conclusion in the end I’m not certain that the whole makes for a particularly good work of fiction. The ambition of Great North Road is apparent throughout the whole novel and Hamilton seems determined to create both a personal epic, beguiling mystery, and thrilling adventure all in one only managing to fall short in each category due to the novel’s broad scope. Within the over one thousand pages of Great North Road their are the seeds for several fascinating smaller novels. Great North Road isn’t a book I feel I can recommend outright but one I felt I none-the-less enjoyed.