I’ve waited a long time to read anything by one of the new masters of sci-fi and of British sci-fi. I purchased this collection of short stories several years ago; around the same time, I also purchased The Reality Dysfunction which I hope to read soon. This will be a review of Hamilton’s working style as much as it will be a review of the stories.
The problem I often have with short stories, especially in the sci-fi genre, is often that they are not long enough and try to cram too much information in that plot and characterisation suffer, and the writer sometimes forget they need to grab the reader from the start. Could Hamilton, one of the new masters of hard sci-fi overcome these while still presenting compelling ideas?
The first is Watching Trees Grow, a crime mystery set in an alternate Victorian Oxford. It is easily the longest in this seven story volume, filling about one third of the text. This is a strange world where people live for a very long time, there has been a second Roman Empire, and the Borgia are in Rome. It feels very much like a steampunk story at the start but takes several intriguing and unexpected twists.
The second, called Footvote follows the near economic collapse of the UK after a political reformer opens a wormhole to a new world. Millions pass through to New Suffolk which seems to be a Lib Dem utopia of social liberalism and personal responsibility (despite accusations of being a Tory conspiracy to destroy Brown’s government). Political satire that is both funny and poignant, politically neutral and finishing on a fairly British note, this was my favourite but unless you understand British politics it’s unlikely to appeal to you.
The third is an interesting crime-based twist on the dangers of time travel. A childhood friend of the protagonist managed somehow to show his younger self the hot inventions of the next few decades and in which products and businesses he should invest. The protagonist is a detective who feels something untoward is going on and seeks not only to change his own past, but also nab his friendfor some shady deals.
The fourth is a very brief tale with a satisfying twist. At just under a five minute read, it could be considered flash fiction – a story form which is very challenging. A biological researcher has just been released from prison for breaking bio-ethics laws, but the EU are not done with him, and neither is the man who paid his bail money – a man who wants him to carry on his work.
Fifth is Blessed by an Angel, a rather forgettable tale of the unnatural advancement of humanity using mechanical and/or biotech. A parable of sorts, this was my least favourite.
Sixth is The Demon Trap, a tale of an investigation into a terrorist attack. This is quite a human story focusing on not just the reason for the politically motivated attack, but also on the individual who fired the missile.
Last is the titular Manhattan in Reverse, a follow up to the previous story featuring the same investigator. This time, Paula is sent to a colony to investigate why the semi-sentient natives have suddenly started attacking the human settlers.
A short collection but an interesting one. This serves (I feel) as the perfect introduction to the modern master of hard sci-fi. The text is surprisingly easy on the eye, very readable and engaging, not something you can always say about this subgenre.