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Book cover art by Isabelle Rozenbaum/Ryan McVay/Getty Images (left).
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.

[This review contains mild spoilers.]

Between its original 2002 release in the UK and its American debut in 2008, Misspent Youth underwent enough revision that Peter F. Hamilton describes the US edition as "noticeably different from the original." As this review is of the US edition, I have no way to tell you just what's been altered and how drastically. But a quick gander at the Amazon UK listing for this book reveals that it hasn't gotten a lot of love, to put it gently, from Hamilton's UK fanbase.

Sorry to say that, having read it now myself, I can see why, and I shudder to think how much worse the UK version might be. To put it succinctly: what on earth is the man who has given us galaxy-spanning sagas, packed to the very rafters with the eye-popping sense of wonder, sagas in which not merely worlds but all of existence is at stake — what on earth is this writer doing giving us a melodramatic, high fructose dollop of 99 and 44/100% pure soap opera tosh?

Sure, sure, Hamilton has never exactly shied away from melodramatic moments even in his most thrilling stories. But those moments are part and parcel of a much greater and more satisfying whole. The lives, loves, and conflicts of Hamilton's enormous ensemble casts in his epic space operas provide the human element that gives us points of reference within the stories' larger canvases. They inform that larger canvas, allowing us a personal investment, without being the entire canvas. It's what lifts Hamilton's epics above the ordinary, making books that might otherwise be unbearably self-important and pretentious feel grounded in real and relatable human hopes and needs. Does any of that make sense? I'm just saying: Hamilton's gift is his skill in blending the personal with the monumental.

Here, we're presented with a moderately SFnal television prime time sudser, the sort of thing the Sci Fi Channel (oh, excuse me, the "Syfy" Channel) might cook up, were they to try their hand at something like The Hills or The OC. While there are global ramifications to what transpires in this near-future, entirely earthbound story, mostly the book just offers a love triangle formula that can be summed up thus: famous septuagenarian scientist becomes first man to receive revolutionary new rejuvenation treatment, restoring his body to 20-year-old virility; promptly shags his teenage son's hot model girlfriend; spends rest of book trying to make it up to him. That's basically it. Well, okay, to be fair, it is a fine example of unbridled Hamiltonian audacity that he'll have most of London destroyed in one of the biggest riots in its history simply so it can serve as the plot device to motivate a father-son reconcilitation. (It's almost as brazen a conceit as the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor, in which that history-making attack was portrayed as this thing that inconvenienced Ben Affleck's love life.) But it's also an example of just how this book makes even its biggest moments feel trivial. Misspent Youth is simply the shallowest story Hamilton's ever written.

There are hints of the deeper, more substantive story Misspent Youth almost was. (Perhaps these were the bits Del Rey asked Hamilton to develop?) The book is set — with great relevance — against a seething geopolitical backdrop, where nationalist feelings are high concerning Britain's participation in an expanded EU that's more than a little hostile to personal freedoms and cultural autonomy. Britain has essentially become Ireland to the EU's...well...Great Britain. There's one brief scene where we learn this is the world that will go on to become the far-future Commonwealth. Ultimately, though, all this takes a backseat to the characters' sexual escapades.

Our protagonist rose to fame in the early 21st century for advancing data storage technology by quantum leaps, then cementing his geek god status the world over by open-sourcing all his work. One negative result of this overwhelmingly positive development is the death of almost all creative art that relies on media distribution. Movies, music and novels became so rampantly pirated that the art forms themselves are extinct, being no longer sufficiently lucrative for their creators to produce at all. It's a snarky little subplot that I'm sure will ruffle the feathers of some folks (say, good old technology-über-alles Cory Doctorow and his like-minded fans). But it does give this otherwise safe novel what little edgy commentary it has. Amusingly, Hamilton has an aged version of dark fantasy writer Graham Joyce appear as himself. I wonder if this some cute quid pro quo thing between pals, and that Joyce has (or is planning) a novel with Hamilton in a bit part...

Now, here's an irony: Hamilton's character work here is very good. But only in the sense that he's done a fine job of his clichés. The writing in Misspent Youth is much more immediate, and less demanding, than in, say, the Night's Dawn or Void trilogies, simply because the story's character driven, and not an epic with fifteen interwoven plot threads demanding your attention. But I didn't really care about these people for most of it. They've got wealth and beauty beyond that to which most of us can aspire. And while I know many people seek out stories of the bold and the beautiful as a wish-fulfillment exercise, I'm not so dumb as to confuse envying a character with liking him.

Everything that happens is telegraphed, because of Hamilton's fidelity to love-triangle formula. When Jeff Baker, the story's rejuvenated protagonist, scopes out his son Tim's girlfriend Annabelle and tells himself You absolutely cannot, not with her, any reader who isn't a congenital idiot knows that he absolutely will. From there you should have a good idea how the rest of the novel will play out. Even the bit that's meant to be a nasty surprise at the climax is simply another recycled trope, its emotional potential muted by its obligatory role as metaphysical punishment for human hubris in tempting/playing god. When this novel's Icarus gets his wings melted, it's hard to feel much anguish. After all, not only is Jeff world famous and probably the most influential man of his generation, but he got to shag his son's hot model girlfriend! Maybe it was a brief, exhilarating ride. But was it worth it? Oh, sure. More for him than for us, at any rate.