Dreaming Void cover

I read the Void trilogy & all I got was this creepy feeling

I went on a short holiday in March. My girlfriend and I had not previously had the time or money to take an overseas trip, so even though it was a short break – five days, travel time included – we were excited to be going away together. With so much build-up to our holiday we’d also spent time discussing what we wanted to do with our time around the Bay of Naples. On the list was my enjoyment of simply reading; being away from home is, for me, a perfect opportunity to sink into a book and not worry about distractions.

We also both like charity shops, and so in the days before we flew out of England we explored some of our locals. Among the resulting haul was a copy of Peter F. Hamilton’s The Dreaming Void, the first in his most recent fat skiffy trilogy. This was what I ended up reading while away. I have a fondness for contemporary space opera, and despite the variability of Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy and some questionable elements in the Commonwealth duology, I had enjoyed those forays into the subgenre.

The Dreaming Void follows on from the Commonwealth books, which are themselves set in the same conceptual universe as Misspent Youth, a notoriously and justly maligned novel set in our near future. It sets up the background for these later space operatic adventures – memory crystals allowing for fresh technological acceleration, and more importantly rejuvenation allowing the old to become young again – but more memorably it is a novel in which the rejuvenated once-elderly protagonist systematically nails all of the teenage girls that his son knows, including his girlfriend. There are also some riots as a result of technological change disrupting the social balance, or something along those lines. I don’t really remember, as what stays with you is the idea of an eighty year old man shagging teenage girls who are, uh, really into all that sexual experience he has from back when lindy hop was fashionable*.

The Commonwealth novels dial back a bit on such cross-generational hanky-panky, although featuring as it does a cast of old folks who’ve rejuvenated multiple times and a society that’s become entirely au fait with the idea, there’s still rather a lot of it. It’s easier to accept as something that a society has become acclimatised to over many years, I suppose. Still, the focus of the Commonwealth novels is rather more on the total war between the Human Commonwealth and the Primes, an enjoyably alien species who regard competition between themselves and humanity as a zero-sum game with genocide as the only rational solution. It’s all quite exciting; one thing Hamilton can do well is pacey adventure full of exotic energy weapons, a grand sense of scale, the occasional mysterious Big Dumb Object and multiple plot threads that more or less all come together satisfyingly. The multiple plot threads are really significant, actually, because he’s a dab hand at leaving you hanging for scores of pages, waiting for the outcome of the Interesting Event that just afflicted Cast Member #27. I poke fun, but it’s a real skill, and I do enjoy running along with it.

The Void trilogy is no different in such respects… mostly. It’s got warships pulverising planets and squirting the results as hyperspatial energy weapon, something mysterious and threatening at the heart of the galaxy, and a fairly huge cast made up of newcomers and familiar faces (some of whom Commonwealth readers may even remember). And certainly The Dreaming Void is probably the highpoint of the trilogy in such terms; although the books that follow involve occasional dizzying new heights of grandiosity it feels as though Hamilton is most excited by his concept in this first book. A lot of what follows often seems like a bit of a trudge, for both reader and author, as Hamilton slowly moves all of the many pieces into place for his firmament-rending setpieces.

And what fills up the hundreds of pages between such setpieces? Part of it is the medieval fantasy-ish subplot interspersed with the entire series (more on that later). Back in space opera land, we get lots on what characters are eating (they love to munch toast, and salmon with mint is also popular; authorial breakfiat does seem to intrude), plenty of limp dialogue between characters which can become difficult to follow thanks to a lack of distinct voices and an eschewing of speech tags during one-on-one conversations, plenty of what the laaaydies are wearing (who cares what the blokes are wearing, right) and huuuuuuuuge amounts of spicy sex. Except it’s not spicy sex. Most of it wouldn’t even qualify for Bad Sex Award candidacy as it’s mostly just endless, endless references to characters doing it off-page. Like a British saucy seaside postcard, it’s raunchy right up until it comes to delivering any goods, and then it’s suddenly coy.

Not that this need matter particularly. Sex is a major part of human experience, and looked at one way the Void trilogy is sex-positive. There’s little to no judgement of healthy sexual lives or of anyone having multiple partners, for example. Nor do I particularly mind if what goes on between fictional characters happens on or off page. It helps if it’s for a purpose, but when reading fat skiffy trilogies you have to expect a certain degree of padding, so it’d be churlish of me to complain about an author including lots of sex alongside lots of pew-pew space fighting if that’s what he’s decided is cool. Where it becomes a problem for me is where sexual objectification pours off the page by the gallon, and it’s all astonishingly one-sided. I have, entirely unironically, described the Void trilogy to friends as Male Gaze: The Space Opera.

Most of the sex in these books occurs in the aforementioned fantasy-ish subplot (more on that still later). The protagonist of these sections gets his end away more often than an authorial insertion in a Star Trek slashfic. This is particularly hilarious early on, when he’s described as a shy, awkward teen lacking confidence, yet still manages to nail the hottest dames in the villages his caravan passes through, but later on it moves beyond satire when his evolution into a hero is complete and he’s boning half the city. This is a fantasy reality in more ways than one; like the high points of the sexual liberation movement of the hippies there’s never any concern about pregnancy or STDs (because herbs, I guess), and also like a lot of nostalgic writing about the Summer of Love it leans heavily on the male perspective. Who am I kidding: the fantasy sub-plot is entirely the male perspective. Every victory versus evil means another ten notches on the bedpost for our hero!

There’s little shortage of sex back in sci-fi town, mind, although we don’t go beyond ogling when it comes to the one gay male character. There is one female character we follow who has a sexual life from her perspective, though! She has two partners: one is a single man with multiple bodies, therefore one-on-one gangbanging, and the other is a creepy oligarch with a harem (some members of which he has genetically suborned to his will). After these experiences events take a turn for the worse and she has to go on the run; once she’s done being a fugitive she becomes a public figure constantly watched by millions, and so – of course – we get to read her thoughts on urinating and how awkward it has become to soap up her boobs when she showers. Literally none of what I just wrote is hyperbolic.

There’s some evidence of decent female characters. Araminta, the character I just described, demonstrates that in other respects (largely her independence and quick-thinking, flexible problem solving abilities); ditto Cressida, her lawyer cousin; Justine, a borderline posthuman who appeared in the previous books; and space cop Paula Myo to some extent, although Myo’s identifying traits as a character are that she doesn’t really do ‘personality’. When it comes to sex, though, that’s 98% from a male perspective (with the remaining 2% being problematic, as you may have gathered from the last paragraph). That’s not to mention that the majority of female characters are rather less convincing, from one who is literally dragged around the galaxy whilst whining and pining for her man, to a wife who transitions from love of her husband’s life to an irksome shrew off-page (which was jarring), to bikini-sporting bodyguards (whose master is one of the few men unironically mocked for so crudely exhibiting his crass sexual predilections). Almost every female character is described in a very physical sense, with a lot of lingering on curves and how clothes complement figures. And there’s no uggos here either, folks! After all rejuvenation and surgery are easily affordable, and every lady desires to have the body of the same generic 20-year old, right? Heaven forfend a body reflect a life.

There are a lot of other problems with the Void trilogy. Large passages feel needless and only present to remind us that a character still exists and is moving slowly toward the possibility of taking some action. Considering the scale and scope of the story, the way that the different threads and character arcs come together is a bit too tidy; a sort of Breakfast Club if the school contained a hundred trillion students. Whilst the trilogy’s main plot conclusion is as good as any such conclusion can be – pretty much anything is a bit of a damp squib after so much build-up – the way that the surviving evildoers and heroes are doled out their just desserts and rewards in half-page dollops feels discomfortingly trite.

Perhaps most troubling for the trilogy as a whole, whilst the fantasy-ish subplot chapters are initially a nice change of pace, partway through the second book this concurrent tale has reached an expected endpoint and what follows after is akin to an endless, underdeveloped ultra-authoritarian Groundhog Day fantasy.

Incidentally, a huge part of the trilogy’s overall premise rests on the idea that trillions of people living in an exciting science fictional future are so excited by said fantasy-ish subplot that they devote their every waking hour to reproducing and discussing it, and are willing to risk everything to live within it, and by “risk everything” I mean “everything in their own lives plus the entire galaxy”. Having read the entirety of said subplot, I don’t see it. You’d have to be an idiot t- oh, wait, this is probably about how those who invest everything in faith and hope and divine power are not terribly bright, yeah? Well, that’s me convinced.

Yes, there are a lot of other problems with the Void trilogy, but what has really stuck with me after I got done with it (which was sheer bloody-minded obstinacy by the third book) is just how creepy and gross the endless male gaze knobbing was, and how assumed it had become that most women are just there for men to stick themselves into. After a while I found myself actually rolling my eyes and genuinely throwing books on the floor in disgust at how lazy and unconvincing it had become. You can throw in as many flashy sensawunda devices as you like on the road toward your thrilling conclusion: I just fought through 2,000 pages of schoolboy sexual fantasy and lazy assumptions about an entire gender, and you’ve lost me.

Considering that mass social communication and empathy are major themes of these novels, I can’t help but feel that reconsidering the male wank fantasies might’ve been a good move. After all, I can’t buy your post-humans when I’m not even convinced by how you’ve handled humanity.

 


 

* This is unfair. The novel’s set in about 2040, so the rejuvenated protagonist would have been a teenager in the 70s, which is presumably why he’s such a right-on groovy cat. Psyche.

Comments
6 Responses to “I read the Void trilogy & all I got was this creepy feeling”
  1. Jonathan M says:

    Genre fiction often treads a fine line between ‘engaging with ideas and speculating about how those ideas might play out in reality’ and ‘coming up with a magical dream world in which all of the writer’s beliefs and prejudices are somehow real’. Hamilton is definitely in the second camp and his ‘beliefs and prejudices’ are those of a home counties Tory with a fondness for barely-legal totty.

    His well-thought of Mindstar novels basically boil down to ‘Public school-educated entrepreneurs, huzzah!’, ‘socialism, boo!’, ‘Alice bands’ and ‘peach cammy knickers’

  2. Shaun CG says:

    I only read one of the Mandel books and found it dull and not terribly memorable. I vaguely recall there was some anti-Green and anti-EU sentiment in there too! But at the time I think I was more disappointed at how glacially it moved and how unexciting the whodunnit and skiffy aspects were.

    Yet now I am intrigued by this talk of peach cammy knickers. How could I not be?

    Anyway, I think what has surprised me most about the Void trilogy is the extent to which it feels like Hamilton doesn’t care any more and is simply phoning it in. He’s always been highly variable – the Night’s Dawn trilogy is tonally three different books and ends with one of the most literal Deus Ex Machina I’ve ever encountered, whilst the Commonwealth duology exhibits a lot of the same discomforting perspectives on gender and sex as the Void books – but the Void trilogy feels almost parodic.

    I thought I knew what I was getting with Hamilton, and was happy to enjoy the bits I liked and overlook the rest, but off the back of these novels I think I’m done for good.

    Coming soon*: I re-read old Neal Asher novels and share my surprise at the subtext.

    * probably not

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Neal Asher is similarly right-wing and ramshackle.

    I read Nights Dawn when it first came out, I remember fragments. Some good, some bad such as the leading man having software that made him *really good* at sex and his girlfriend, who was bonded with a spoaxe statio, looked like a teenager.

    Peach cammy knickers was the horsey tory-girl daughter of the entrepreneur who lusted after the married Mandel.

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Aye, I read Night’s Dawn between about 2000 and 2003, I’d guess, probably a little while after each book came out in paperback. I read a few Asher novels around the same time; I think the last of his I read would’ve been about 2006.

    What I remember liking about Night’s Dawn was the mixing of some horror elements with big space opera (strongest in the first book). Worked for me at the time.

    Asher, meanwhile, had monsters that I liked, although in retrospect I don’t remember much beyond “they ate people”, “the one that talked stupidly”, and the really cool time-travelling thing that was basically just an enormous mouth full of whirling blade-teeth.

    Actually, that last one still sounds pretty awesome.

    But yeah. I saw quite a lot of Asher on message boards around that time and to be honest, his persona was enough to nudge me away from picking up more of his books and trying other authors instead.

  5. GC says:

    I have The Dreaming Void on a to-read shelf.

    I think I’ll remove it.

    This is a great review, Shaun. I laughed my tits off, to be honest.

  6. Shaun CG says:

    GC, I’d say that’s a wise decision. Better space operas are available.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting!