This review of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton was written in 2018 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Macmillan, 2018, Paperback, 532pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781447281320
It’s been some time since I tackled my last Hamilton blockbuster (“tackled” rather than “read” because these are no small beasts!). In fact, it may have been back in the late ’90s, when a friend recommended the Night’s Dawn trilogy, his hugely enjoyable, character-driven space opera. How time flies.
I may have been a little space-opera’d out after Night’s Dawn, or perhaps the muscles in my arms needed a break, because since then, Hamilton-wise, that’s been it, except for a few anthologised short stories. However, 20 years later, fully recovered, I agreed to read Salvation, part one of Hamilton’s new Salvation Sequence. And I’m very, very glad I did.
Like a futuristic Canterbury Tales, Salvation follows a group of carefully-chosen experts in 2204, sent to assess something unusual discovered on a distant asteroid. They’re gathered together, sent through one of the instantaneous portals that are now commonplace across Earth, the Solar System, and humanity’s growing interstellar colonies.
FTL travel might be impossible, but once a portal arrives somewhere it can be linked to from other portals, giving humanity the opportunity, once a portal is in orbit, to reach orbit as easily as stepping through a door. Hamilton also has plenty of other ingenious uses for this technology, such as providing unlimited power from portals placed inside the sun, greening deserts using ice dropped through portals in the Antarctic, and dumping all of Earth’s accumulated nuclear and chemical waste safely into deep space.
The future, it seems, is so bright you’ve gotta wear shades.
But our group of travellers are being sent on a top secret mission to Nkya, an unremarkable asteroid in the Beta Eridani system, where something very strange has been uncovered. Our travellers meet up en route to Nkya, whence we discover that many of them know each other, and some of them strongly dislike each other.
And if you thought the story was already complicated then you ain’t seen nothing yet, because the narrative threads fray both forwards, into the distant future, and backwards, into the pasts of our travellers, as their reasons for being on this mission and their complicated relationships with each other are all revealed.
And did I mention there are aliens? The peaceful Olyix have been in our solar system for some time when Salvation begins, having stopped to trade their technology for our energy, with which to drive their ark-ship on its journey to the end of the universe.
It might sound a bit unwieldy, and to begin with it is, despite the helpful list of major characters at the beginning. Names and relationships are thrown around with gay abandon throughout the first chapter; then we jump far into the future, joining a very young group of soldiers in training on a strangely deserted planet.
After that it’s briefly back to our travellers in 2204, then back another hundred years for the backstory of one of our travellers.
To begin with, this intense profusion of who, where and when feels frustrating and confused, but don’t worry, because Peter F. Hamilton has a plan for everything. He weaves together all of these different characters, stories and times like a master craftsman, with unerring confidence in his ability to deftly untangle them when the time is just right.
Salvation is a delight from start to finish, showcasing all of Hamilton’s old writing strengths: exotic technologies and innovative uses for them; astonishingly detailed world building; huge casts of believable characters, and a mastery of the good old-fashioned techno-thriller tropes. They’re all here, all packed into a long (but lithe) narrative that seems able to turn on a sixpence without losing the slightest bit of momentum.
The only disappointment in Salvation came when I reached the cliff-hanger conclusion on page 532 and realised I’d have to wait a whole year before the story would be continued.
Like a child on the last day of Christmas, a year feels like a very long time to wait.