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Painting Big

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, May 1998)
Peter F. Hamilton
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Peter F. Hamilton sold his first story, ''Death Day'' to Fear magazine in 1989, and his first novel, Mindstar Rising, was published in 1993. It began the ''Greg Mandel'' SF/mystery trilogy, which continued with A Quantum Murder (1994) and The Nano Flower (1995). Next came his major ongoing project, the massive trilogy of 1,000-page novels (in its original British form) consisting of The Reality Dysfunction (1996), The Neutronium Alchemist (1997), and a third book, The Naked God, still to come. (In the US, all three books are being divided into two volumes each, so it will become a six-book trilogy!) A collection, A Second Chance at Eden, is scheduled for later this year.

''While I grew up in the '70s, I read a lot of science fiction the standard group: Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Aldiss, Niven. I'd been reading this stuff since my early teens, if not before, and had always thought, 'I could do this.' (Not a case of 'I could do better than this.') After those early days of submitting short fiction, I didn't have what most other authors seem to have, going around to all the publishers, getting rejected. I had the lucky break that way.

''I try to make the background of my own worlds the society, the economy, the politics as real as I can. The plot in Mindstar Rising fairly much dictated what the politics would be: the right wing nationalized, the left wing denationalized. This forms a big part of the denouement at the end. I had the socialists as the bad guys, purely because of plot, but I got a lot of flak from reviewers in Britain, because they tend to be left-of-center. Three years later, I was writing about the decline of the right I didn't get so much flak for that.

''You can have a lot more fun with SF detective fiction, which I certainly had in A Quantum Murder. I'd written Mindstar Rising and a rough draft of The Nano Flower, and then I read a one-page article in New Scientist about the quantum theory and the wormhole universe, and within a day, that had got me the plot. I thought, 'You can't ignore a gift like this,' so I went back and wrote A Quantum Murder. I've never had a one-day book before!

'''Doc' Smith was a big influence. A series of reprints came out in England in the early '70s, which was when I read them. I was just mesmerized. You can project 600 years into the future, you can do a lot of things you can't do 40 years into the future, where you're trying to make things reasonably accurate. So it gives you a much broader canvas to paint on.

''First I came up with the main plot idea, the dead souls coming back to threaten the living. From the setting and that plot element came the society, because when you've got this kind of problem, you've got to have a society that stands a reasonable chance of combating it, or at least coming to terms with it. Which is why the Confederation evolved.

''There are some pretty gruesome bits in The Reality Dysfunction. But I don't like this glorification of violence. Sadly, violence is very much part of our world. Let's face it, the book is not social commentary; it's an action-adventure novel, with little observations thrown in. Still, that is the point of literature: to put the writers' observations of the world around them into some form of expression.

''I like this multi-stranded narrative: following up the overall story through individual stories obviously some people have had problems with that. I consider the three books as one story with several hundred pages of scene-setting to start with. I know the start of The Reality Dysfunction was very slow. Volumes two and three hit the floor running.

''The second book, The Neutronium Alchemist, covers the Possessed spreading through the Confederation, and the realization by the Confederation, a) that this is happening, and b) they have to find a solution. Although this has a lot of military hardware and people running around shooting each other, certainly in the first volume and to some degree in the second, the military solution cannot apply. This is not militaristic SF. You have to think of a solution. Tad Williams called the problem 'the greatest hostage scenario,' and he's quite right. You can't go and shoot one of the Possessed, because you're also shooting the person whose body it is, which adds to the number of souls that want to come back. It ties into the concept of having faith in yourself, which will be a big involvement in the finish.

''The historical character I brought back and really loved, and who is a big driving force with pushing the Possessed out into worlds that haven't been taken over, is Al Capone. I read a couple of biographies of this guy to prepare for this, and he's a fascinating man. We have the illusion that he was just some jumped-up gangstar. He's not he's an empire-builder. I didn't want to bring back the obvious ones, Hitler and Stalin, Napoleon, whatever. But I wanted someone who'd be well-known.

''There's a related collection coming out this year, basically to give me time to finish Volume 3, because these things take two years to write. The collection, with a novella and some short stories, all set in the same universe, takes you from about 2070 right up to just before The Reality Dysfunction starts. Some of them are taken out of magazines and changed to fit, and some are new. The title is A Second Chance at Eden, which is the name of the novella, and it's coming out in Britain this October.

''After I finish this trilogy, I wouldn't mind doing a detective series again. I really did like that genre you can have so much fun with it. That, and possibly something quieter, a lot more character-driven, and smaller. Believe me, I've done my very big books! I don't need to do that again. A detective story is not going to run to a thousand pages. The character-based story I was thinking of was how a radical technology would affect people in the very near future. Just study the effects of something radical being introduced, on one family or one person. Again, that is not a thousand-page book. But ten years on, who knows? Possibly I'll come back to this kind of thing.

''I would hate to read the 'Doc' Smith books again, I've got such beautiful memories! They're exactly what a 13-year-old wanted. That is the best age to read them....

''I don't read while I'm writing. I have a pile of books that wait till I get a holiday. Not much non-fiction.

''Why have I stuck to science fiction writing? Partly because it is my background, and you've got such a big canvas. I don't consider myself wholly a science fiction writer which is a strange thing, considering the stuff I've written. Maybe I would like to write outside the field but don't ask me what!

© 1998 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.