This was the Death Ray Interview in Death Ray #18, published in 2009.
One of the great figures in ‘The New Space Opera’, Peter F. Hamilton’s epic stories depict a magical future for a deathless humanity empowered with godlike technology and some seriously awesome gadgets. But all is not well in paradise, naturally.
Peter F Hamilton Factfile
Born: 2 March, 1960, Rutland, England
What does he do? Hamilton is famous for sweeping space opera set a thousand or more years hence (though it’s not all he writes, near future detectives also feature), where technology allows long-lived humans the run of the galaxy, which they share with various other, mostly benevolent aliens. But sweeping universes require sweeping threats, and Hamilton has them aplenty, though they are imaginative terrors and rarely so simple as aliens with bigger spaceships than ours.
Peter F. Hamilton comes from Rutland, most famously England’s tiniest county. By contrast (and we’re not saying this is some kind of reaction, or canton-fuelled inferiority complex) the science fiction he writes is B-I-G, so BIG it is of the largest kind there is, grand far-future epics full of aliens, hyper-technology, big dumb objects and terrifying threats from the beyond that promise ruination to the otherwise good order of things (like, voracious universes sealed into the heart of the galaxy, or the dead returning to the mortal sphere to displace the living). This, ladies and gentlemen, is space opera. But it’s not just any old space opera, it is The New Space Opera, and by God it’s British.
Space opera, once a derogatory term for the SF of the ’30s reclaimed by those who wanted a label for epic adventure on the galactic scale, is no longer the simple one-horned beast of old. There’s been at least one bifurcation in the path of this most thunderous of sub-genres, with the US version trolling off more toward the military edge of things. In the UK, Hamilton forms part of an important wave of more exotic fare. A member of the Interzone generation, a band of writers for whom the magazine provided a springboard to greater fame, Hamilton came to be categorised with Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Iain M. Banks, Alaistair Reynolds, Paul J. Macauley and others as the ‘New Space Opera’ wave. This style of writing is influenced by cyberpunk (AIs and virtual worlds are as much part of the package as big battles and spacecraft), contains more rigorous application of science, solid characterisation and examination of complex socio-political issues. Of course, this stuff didn’t spring fully formed from E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman books, there’s been a steady evolution towards it from the ’30s (the ’70s were pivotal, and Star Wars certainly has a big part to play), but there is a break with the past – this is proper hard SF with adventure trappings.
Hamilton had no real desire to be a writer until his mid 20s, not putting his hand to the craft until he quit his London job and came home to Rutland to care for his ill mother. He did not attend university, which makes him unusual, though he, like all his contemporaries, used to devour SF literature – in his case because Rutland is quite a dull place for a teenage lad to be. He’s best known for his huge, highly detailed books (The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, where the dead come back with a vengeance, is 1.2 million words!), a small majority of which are set in his Commonwealth universe.
Still resident in Rutland with his accountant wife and two children, Hamilton is now a full-time writer, putting out roughly one massive tome a year from his writing shed at the bottom of the garden (we imagine one of those comfortable office jobs, rather than the semi-derelict potting variety). He’s having his house remodelled as we speak, workmen are tearing out his old kitchen in a very un-hi-tech fashion, hence the hammering going on in the background. (You’ll just have to imagine that). He’s making a family room, and his primary concern today is not far-flung century 36, but how to future proof his new TV against further Blu-Ray/ HD-DVD type techno-clashes. We hope this relatively un-SF vignette doesn’t spoil the man’s magic.
How’s it feel to be the UK’s best-selling SF author? You’ve sold nearly two million books.
That’s global sales, my books have been translated into seven languages or so. It’s not just in the UK, But yeah, that’s about the figure, I think. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think about it often. 14 books I’ve had out, I was looking at that the other day, and I was thinking that I can’t quite call myself a young science fiction writer any more. Mindstar Rising came out in ’93, so we’re looking at 15 years. Like anything, if you keep going long enough you begin to pile up the numbers.
You’re part of the the New Space opera, I suppose it’s not actually all that new any more…
It was when Reality Dysfunction came out, but that’s over ten years ago now. That’s why it was called the new space opera, there weren’t many people doing it in the ’80s and ’90s, except Colin Greenland possibly.
If you look at the state of the sub genre now, there is a real difference between British and American Space Opera. American space opera, it’s much more traditional, military style, naval in flavour.
It is, it’s navies in space. I think the British do tend to be post that. I am as guilty as anyone of putting in the big space battles, but one of the things I was very conscious of when writing Night’s Dawn was that the military solution is not the end, not the actual solution to the problem. The military help a lot, but a battle cannot decide the outcome of the story. I spoke to Joe Haldeman about this once because he actually served in Vietnam and then went on to write the Forever War. He was saying “I lure the readers in with all the shiny hardware, and then provide an alternative ending to it other than the hero and the villain beating each other up.”
Is the military aspect of things an essential part of the subgenre?
I think we’re getting into ‘What is Space Opera?’ now. If you’ve got a violent threat against the galaxy, then you are going to have to meet that to some degree with violence, but I always try to use violence as the holding pattern while people work round and try to find the actual solution. The military aspect does make for an exciting read, and the hardware the people come up with is quite fascinating. It’s all part of – I hate to use the word – the armoury when you are writing. You’ve got what kind of spaceship you are going to have, what kind of planets, what kind of military hardware, what kind of people, what kind of society. Each little bit is a foundation stone for space opera.
One of the things that characterises the New Space Opera is the technology, the British stuff seems to set much further in advance of what you see in American style space opera, and we seem to examine how that technical advancement would affect society…
Oh that is absolutely central to my stuff. I always cite World War II as an example in which there was a huge advance in technology but there were also profound social changes. The women’s liberation movement was effectively born out of women going to work in factories, I mean we had the suffragettes before, but all of society, at every level, was involved in the war and it created huge societal change. Society was so stratified before and you just mixed everything up out of dire necessity. That that kind of change can happen out of large-scale conflict, large-scale events, that’s absolutely fundamental to my books.
Your humans are still human. Do you think if we achieve that level of godlike technology that you depict, do you really think that we will still be the same?
No, there will be differences. The reason I hope to keep my characters recognisably human is that’s how you engage the reader. But in the current trilogy, I’m dealing with the post-physicals, which basically don’t appear because they are that quantum level above us. There is no way of engaging with them. You can see the drift of societies into a purely technological existence in the books. The “Higher Culture” [the most developed, inner worlds of Hamilton’s Commonwealth] is basically very snobbish, it thinks it’s above the kind of society that we have now and looks down upon us with disdain, so there is a drift away from current society. Then, given the fact that the Non-Physicals [humans who have tired of physical life and become bodiless AIs] originated from the human they just can’t quite resist meddling, which is what my ANA [Advanced Neural Activity, the cyberspace where the uploaded ex-humans “live”] factions are doing of course, but yes we’ve all got roots at the bottom as humans.
If you did really get post-human intelligences would they start meddling, would they adopt a parental role, would they instigate some sort of human conservation programme?
There are some good stories that I have been toying with along that theme, actually God knows when I’ll ever get round to writing them! The trouble is 15 years ago I would have killed to get a short story in a magazine. Nowadays I have magazines writing to me to submit. But I feel dreadful because I really don’t have the time. I’m contracted to write all these novels. The preparation takes six to nine months before I sit down and write “page one, chapter one”. I wish I could write more short stories, but a) the technique of short story writing is very different and quite difficult for me now, and b) the time. I’ve got the two young kids… My short story output is not even one a year at the moment. Once every couple of months I will write a blog for the website, but that’s about it. I don’t know how others find the time, I really don’t.
A characteristic of your books is that they are very big, they must take time to write…
Yes, but they are getting smaller! I get a lot of people writing to me saying “Oh can we please have a precis for the front of volume two and volume three”. Well the reason you don’t get that is that because that my trilogies are not separate stories, they are one book which for physical reasons it is published in three parts, but it is one story. Instead of a precis I would like there to be a little notice at the start of volume two or volume three that says “Go and buy the first one, there is no point starting here.”
Your Greg Mandel trilogy, about a detective in a near future Earth wracked by global warming, is not quite the same as the other stuff you write. I understand you got a little bit of stick from the SF establishment for having a left-wing government that was less than savoury…
Yes, imagine that! And I also had something called the credit crash…
It’s almost like you are trying to predict the future. SF seems to be left-leaning. Do you think that is the case?
Left of centre a bit, yes. Nothing wrong with that. Possibly it adds again to the contrast you were making with America… They have more divisions within science fiction over there, there is quite a large division between militaristic science fiction and space opera. We possibly are I think generalising a bit too much here, but yes, to be generalising about it, there is that little bit of a split, we seem to be more left of centre than they are.
Would it be possible in this country in our SF climate, to portray a successful right-wing government?
You can write it! There’s a difference between critics and readers. The golden rule of writing as far as I am concerned is to write what you want to read, trying to put something in that will appeal to a certain kind of person… it’s writing by committee, it doesn’t work.
Is that different to knowing your audience?
I think you write what you would enjoy reading and have the luck to share that with an audience, I think that was the key to those two million sales, I would never consciously put stuff in to please people. So far so good… There is no formula to it, you don’t sit down and write something thinking, “Ooh this’ll be a blockbuster!”
Death is a common theme in your writing, the avoidance of it through technology, and the dead coming back in the Night’s Dawn trilogy, for example. Why is that such a draw for you?
It affects us all, I mean – “death and taxes” – you can’t get away from it. To be ludicrous about death, it’s a big part of life. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing on my part, but you can’t avoid death and I really don’t see the point of trying to avoid it. The rejuvenation techniques will be wonderful if they come along. I will be first in line. But don’t hold your breath.
I often think that my generation will be the last one to know death…
Have you been watching the Terry Pratchett programme about Alzheimer’s disease on the BBC? It is almost the equivalent of that, in that the generation after Terry they might have found a cure, but by that time he’s going to be pretty much along the path by then. It’s a race against time thing. I have mentioned quite a bit in the books is that we are not actually geared up for five hundred year lives. At the moment working for 40 years and struggling into your pension is bad enough, imagine working for 400 years trying to get a pension together that will keep you going for the final hundred!
Your characters become tired of life, then download themselves and become post-physical. Do you see this as just the next step of a human life – baby, child, teenager, adult, geriatric, rejuvenated, ANA…?
This is what makes the ANA thing quite interesting. The people in ANA are between two existences, and they are trying to work out “Okay, where do we go next?” Part of our striving would to be to get to their level, whereas they’re striving to get to the next level. It’s a fairly logical progression. That’s what I call what they do a “migration inwards”. They start on the outer worlds where they live sort of like we do now but with better technology, then they go to the inner worlds which are Higher Culture, not quite the equivalent of Bank’s Culture, but they live fairly free of consumerism, every need catered for, where they develop their art and their minds, and then they move on from that into ANA, and then one day ANA will go to a purely post physical level of existence, so there is that constant progression. It is optimistic, I do tend to have optimistic endings. Guilty! I reflect my own nature in that.
Do you think that we will ever get off this island earth and spread among the stars?
Not with current day technology. We’ve got a long way to go. There are a few key breakthrough technologies. we need. Basically we need a high-temperature superconductor, we need fusion power. Whether longevity will come from nanotechnology or genetic engineering, we need that. It’s not impossible, put it that way. But it’s going to be interesting if we reach the technology plateau [where scientific progress effectively stops] in various technologies before we reach singularity level.
And where do you stand on the whole Vingean singularity?
Oh, I knew you were going to ask that! I don’t know, I need more data please, I think would be my answer to that. Funnily enough, it’s the one thing that everyone’s going on about now. Well, everyone’s also very aware now of the climate and climate change, the only argument left is how badly are we affecting it. When I was researching the Mandel stuff about global warming, the one conclusion I came to was that we just don’t know enough to make solid predictions. It’s the same with the singularity.
Vinge said in our interview with him that the idea of the singularity presented a fiction writer with a problem: past the singularity it gets impossible to imagine what things will be like, but he is convinced that it’s going to happen, so to tell a story he has to constantly find a way round that.
But then, you see, assuming we reach this point of machines replicating themselves, will it actually then instantly trigger a monoculture? Because we have so much diversity at the moment. We’re getting people who want to do the Good Life, who are rejecting everything we’ve done and want to live in an eco-friendly house they have built themselves on a Welsh mountainside with a running stream. So, why should we with our shining technology come along and say, “No! You can’t do that, come and join us!” I don’t think it will be a monoculture afterwards. I have these aliens, The Anamein, who divided into two groups, post-physical and pastoral. There are factions in ANA as well, some want to plough on ahead regardless, and some say let’s go this other way instead.
What inspired you to start writing in the first place?
I always read science fiction, and the conceit of starting to write is the oldest conceit of all, it’s: “Oh, I can do better than this!” And boy do you learn fast that you can’t! It was always one of those back of the mind things. In my early twenties I decided it would be nice to give it a go. The one thing that all writers tend to have in common, is that we were all quite voracious readers, there was that whole culture of reading and writing and storytelling that I was very involved in at the time.
You were 26 when you started writing, that’s quite late isn’t it?
It is, yes. I have got friends, not in our genre, but getting published at 14 and always knew that was what they were doing and took English literature at university. No, I didn’t do that. But there are many routes to being a writer.
What kind of SF do you enjoy reading other than space opera…
I read so little these days! I do like Justina Robson’s work, Richard Morgan was introduced to me by a good friend, I like him. I’m halfway through the Steel Remains. Dan Simmons I like, though funnily enough I had never read Hyperion until after I had finished writing Night’s Dawn. Everyone said, “Ooh, it’s quite similar…” Well it’s not, but there are a couple of interesting themes we both get on to.
Would you like to export yourself to another genre, like Morgan did with the Steel Remains? Because there is a similarity between space opera and epic fantasy.
Interestingly, the kind of feedback I’ve been getting off the void sections of the Dreaming Void has been “Why aren’t you writing more fantasy?” So the next series of books I’m planning are not fantasy, but you might call it science fantasy. I’m hoping will be Young Adult, though nothing’s been agreed yet. This is not because I am jumping on any particular bandwagon, but because I’ve got the kids now. I’d like to write something that moves a bit closer to the age they are, I mean I don’t want them reading my stuff for quite some time! I’d like to write something they can read when they are eleven or twelve. So I’m going to be looking at that. After that, I hope to be writing something a bit more near future and a bit more gritty real. There will be a detective involved, but it will be space opera-ish if that makes any sort of sense. It’s not that vague actually, but I’m still working out concepts.
I read that you keep up with current developments in science.
I do my best. If I’m writing a specific theme, biotechnology or whatever, I will read what I can on the subject, so as not to put my foot in it completely, but you just can’t keep up with what’s going on out there on a spectrum; biotech down to nuclear physics, there’s a very broad span. I ingest what I can to see what kind of ideas it will spark off in me, and then I try not to make too many glaringly obvious errors. FTL – we’re allowed to get away with that, but things that go contrary to common knowledge… I will keep the basics of engineering sound and true. But I was very pleased with myself in Pandora’s Star where I managed to legitimately have a waterfall that goes up.
You talk about your Mandel books being quite prescient, do you think it is possible to accurately predict what life will be like 1500 years in the future, bearing in mind the changes over the last 1500 years?
No, I don’t think it is. I mean books written in 1990, nobody mentioned mobile phones and texting, and now it is absolutely second nature to kids. They can text as fast as I can type – it’s most depressing! – and it’s perfectly natural to them.
You sound quite optimistic in your books. What’s the best future that you can imagine over the next couple of hundred years?
A reduction in the weapons industry would be nice. Actually, a decent energy source, or supply, or perhaps a super battery. We really do need something like that. That would create one of those societal change moments. It would be a sudden shift which would be very unpleasant for us now, but would be so beneficial for the future. If the oil industry became obsolete that would be wonderful, but not for everybody that works in it. So much of our society is geared around it, it would be quite shocking. Still, short-term pain, long-term benefit.