A Quick Take on Peter F. Hamilton’s “The Reality Dysfunction”

Summer before last, I finished the Mass Effect trilogy and it left me wanting more space opera. I’d read a ton of science fiction in high school and early college, but then drifted into crime novels. Mass Effect gave me a newfound appetite for spaceships, galactic mysteries, and epic storytelling.

This took a bit of research, given how out of touch I was with the space opera genre. But I found Peter F. Hamilton, decided his Night’s Dawn trilogy was the place to start, and ordered The Reality Dysfunction. That was in July 2012. I finished the book this week. It’s a long book, but not that long.

Thing is, between starting my first Hamilton novel and finishing it, I read five-and-a-half more of his books: the two books of the Commonwealth Saga, the Void Trilogy, and the first part of Great North Road. In fact, from the time I picked up The Reality Dysfunction and today, Hamilton has accounted for a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. I’m hooked. I’ll likely polish off his entire corpus soon enough.

This book has everything that makes Hamilton great. Amazing world-building, economically-defined but still intriguing characters, terrific plotting. The pacing’s good, too, if you aren’t turned off by setting detail. (As a guy who grew up reading fat RPG books obsessively, I dig the stuff.)

But Hamilton made a poor decision in structuring the book, and it’s what caused me to take so long to finish it. While his later books feature lots of characters, he puts the focus on typically three or four. In The Reality Dysfunction, I lost count. Often, a lengthy section will be from the point of view of a character introduced for that section and then never seen again.

Anyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy — which, again, are what prompted my plunge into Hamilton’s books — knows that beyond anything else those games worked because of their characters. No matter how strange events got, they were grounded in a group of people you came to care about. Hamilton’s later books are the same. After finishing the Commonwealth Saga, I didn’t realize how much I missed some of the characters until they reappeared in the The Dreaming Void and it felt like bumping into old friends.

That’s what’s missing from The Reality Dysfunction. The world is excellent, the plot engaging, and I want to know how it all ends. But it reads like a series of events instead of the experiences of people. We’re not with any particular character enough to feel attached. Which made the book easy to drift away from. I liked it while I was reading it, but when I put it down for something else (a habit I appear completely stuck with), I didn’t feel much draw to go back. It’s one thing to find out what happens next. But what makes a book un-put-downable is wanting to find out what happens next to characters you care about.

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