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Book cover art by John Harris & Jupiterimages (left); Jim Burns (right).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Only 620 pages? My god, the man must be slipping! What's the point of a Pete Hamilton novel if you can't look up after finishing it to discover that continental drift has caused all the world's land masses to reconverge into a new Pangaea?

All right, that's my snark out of the way. Truth to tell, there are few things around here that turn me into a walking happyface emoticon more reliably than opening a fat envelope and having a new Hamilton book fall out and bruise my toe. The Dreaming Void launches a new trilogy set in the same universe as Hamilton's previous duology, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. A millennium and a half has passed since the Starflyer War depicted in those novels. Like Hamilton's other space operas, it's a multilayered, sprawling epic in which an ensemble of disparate characters are followed through multiple interwoven narrative threads, eventually converging, more or less, as the book nears its climax.

Yes, it's a bit shorter than we're used to seeing from Hamilton. But it's also not as even, and on the whole it doesn't have nearly the sense of urgency or dramatic tension we saw in either the Commonwealth duology or the Night's Dawn trilogy. The storylines run the qualitative gamut from breathlessly thrilling to just plain l-o-n-g. Still, when Hamilton's storytelling is on point, he turns in some of the best drama and action of his career. Your mileage may vary, but for my part I found that his work shone far more in scenes where he wandered a little astray from his comfort zone, than in the parts of the story that revisited far more familiar space opera territory.

The short version: Much of the Commonwealth is now run by a vast collective intelligence called the Advanced Neural Activity system — ANA — based on Earth. Humanity has fragmented into factions based on the degree to which they've merged their bodies with technology. At the highest rung are the Highers, naturally, most of whom have gone post-physical, downloading themselves into the ANA and living transhumanist-style in virtual environments whose sophistication beggars anything previously imagined.

But there are always malcontents, and the biggest and most influential of those are the Living Dream, a cult who have drawn a number of outlying worlds into their political and economic sphere. And the cult exists because of the Void.

An area of empty space discovered centuries after the Starflyer War, the Void is thought to be its own microverse. Then the Raiel, the aliens who helped humanity in the Starflyer War, revealed that they had lost a war ages ago against the Void, and the Void responded by expanding itself into Raiel space, swallowing up stars and worlds. Since then, the Void has been monitored by a Raiel defense system, and studied by a team of scientists from numerous species at a remote outpost. Then came the rise of the Living Dream cult.

The cult arose after the Void began projecting images into the dreams of one of the scientists stationed at the outpost, Inigo. These were then distributed throughout the gaiafield, the neural net that connects people within the Commonwealth. Strange visions of a being called the Skylord. And a figure known as the Waterwalker, living on a world called Querencia located somewhere inside the Void. As The Dreaming Void opens, Inigo has fled for parts unknown and the Living Dream's council has taken over, turning the religion into an aggressive theocracy waiting for the Second Dreamer, and preparing for an exodus of believers into the Void in anticipation of some form of salvation. This pilgrimage is viewed by the Raiel with out-and-out horror, as they're convinced it will trigger another catastrophic expansion phase of the Void.

Thematically, the book examines immortality and how it might effect humanity, both culturally and in terms of individual notions of belief or spirituality. In a universe where you never really die unless you choose to or are killed in such a way as to make nothing of yourself recoverable — even non-Highers who have not downloaded into the ANA can be re-lifed after death through recovery of hardware in their heads that's constantly backing them up — how might people relieve the potential ennui? How will religions evolve, and what role will they play, when they no longer have an afterlife as a strong selling point? Here Hamilton presents us with at least one very prominent segment of the culture who still seek something beyond the reality they've come to know, which can presumably give them everything...and who, like all fanatics, don't care who they might hurt in order to get it.

But unlike Night's Dawn or Pandora's Star, where there was a terrifying and palpable threat looming over us all, threatening us with nothing less than annihilation, here the threat feels more muted. The possible expansion of the Void doesn't have much of a dramatic presense, other than as something some people are kind of worried about, until near the end. For the bulk of the novel, we're following a host of characters whose levels of interest and likability are as all over the map as a drunk on a cross-country road trip.

I was most impressed by the story of Edeard, a young man living on Querencia, where the people are both telekenetic and telepathic to varying degrees. Surviving the massacre of his town, he makes his way with a friend to the capital city, where his powers, so much greater than that of most people, inevitably lead to his making a great big mark. These scenes read like nothing less than epic fantasy. But they're some of the best and most engrossing storytelling Hamilton has produced since Night's Dawn, mainly due to his wholly convincing and sympathetic characterization of Edeard and the rich evocation of his world. Not to mention some top-notch action.

By contrast, Hamilton often feels like he's going through the motions when he delves into scenes back in the Commonwealth, even those featuring cast members from the duology, like Paula Myo and Justine Burnelli. Perhaps he's just too comfortable with this kind of thing. But it must be said: all the bits involving people chasing other people across deep space in order to stop them doing this or that before the other thing happens are just a bit too familiar from Hamilton's pen by now. Maybe all that's changed in the Edeard scenes are a matter of window dressing. But I found that just that little out of the ordinary for Hamilton gave the book what's arguably its freshest material.

Not that all the other characters lack interest. Hamilton has an engrossing heroine in Amarinta, a young woman who rises from broke, divorced waitress to budding real estate entrepreneur. She has a role to play in the big picture, though it isn't revealed until nearly the end (but savvy readers will twig long before then), and so much of her storyline actually reads like SFnal chicklit for the longest time. But hang with it, because Hamilton clearly likes her and strives very hard to make her interesting and, above all, realistic. She's a striking contrast to, say, Paula Myo, who's only just beginning to tamp down the influence of all her genetic mods and let some of her humanity through.

If you've been a fan of Hamilton going all the way back, this book's few shortcomings won't be enough to disrecommend it. You'll want to read it, and will probably find different things to like or dislike in the story than I did. Newbies are detoured towards The Reality Dysfunction. True, The Dreaming Void only hints at the levels of spectacle Hamilton has achieved before. But the hints are enough that one dreams of the best from the two books yet to come.

Followed by The Temporal Void.