Peter F. Hamilton is one of Britain’s best-selling SF authors. He is also one of the most interesting and challenging writers around in any genre. Hamilton’s novels hark back to the great days of science fiction, reveling in big ideas and unafraid to tackle hard science. I was lucky enough to find time in his busy schedule to ask him about his latest novel, Great North Road.
Alastair Savage for Amazing Stories: Peter, you’re one of Britain’s best-selling authors of Science Fiction, yet the mainstream media rarely take much notice of your work. Is that something that bothers you?
Peter Hamilton: Not in the slightest. It’s a kind of inverted snobbery, which means it’s their loss rather than mine. F&SF seems to manage quite well without our authors having ten-page interviews in the Sunday papers.
ASM: Your latest book, Great North Road, is a massive undertaking. Can you tell us a little about it?
PH: On the surface it’s a classic murder mystery set in 2143, but with a great many other themes woven around that central narrative, concerning destiny, ecology, wealth, politics, etc. We start with a murder committed in a very specific fashion, one that was used twenty years previously. Logically then it must be the same person who has started killing again. The problem begins with the fact that the person who allegedly committed those earlier murders was caught and convicted. They were in jail when the fresh murder was carried out. Which of course is a huge headache to the authorities who put her there. The policeman, Sid Hurst, who has the bad luck to be given the case, has a nightmare of political supervision imposed on him, yet he never wavers from the job. On top of that is the problem that the killer might not be human.
ASM: How does Great North Road fit in with your earlier novels?
PH: It doesn’t. This was a deliberate decision on my part to do something in a completely new universe. I don’t want to be known as the author of a specific series. It’s nice people have their favourites, but unless I can always introduce new concepts to an existing universe I want to move on. And that tends to be the trouble with multi-book series, you can run out of options.
ASM: These days, publishers are obsessed with producing series and trilogies. However, Great North Road is a stand-alone novel, albeit one with some room for a sequel. Was it difficult to convince the powers-that-be to produce a novel like this?
PH: Fortunately not. And although you’ve said there’s room for a sequel, I don’t see myself going back to this universe.
ASM: Within Great North Road, there are several story strands. One features a plot with echoes of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Are you a fan of detective fiction? Do you think you would have written in that genre if you hadn’t become an SF author?
PH: Not a fan, as such, but I’ve certainly read enough in my time. I like the detective-novel form when applied to SF as it allows the writer to explore the nature of the society in considerable detail in a fashion which isn’t an obvious infodump.
ASM: I loved the fact the part of the novel is set in the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne, warts and all. In fact, many readers who have only seen the cover with its helicopters flying over the jungle will wonder what is happening once they actually begin reading. The first chapters start with a grisly murder in an industrial northern city. Was it fun setting the book in Newcastle?
PH: Oh yes. My family is originally from Newcastle, so it was a kind of homecoming for me. I stayed there for several days, getting a feel of the place and walking the streets just like Sid Hurst does. The locations I feature in the book are real.
ASM: Other parts of the book take place in the Sirius system. What prompted you to use that star system in particular?
PH: A combination of things. But I was inspired by the ‘red Sirius’ event ever since I heard of it many years ago. This gave me an opportunity to give it a science fictional slant.
ASM: As well as interstellar travel, there is also an alien threat in Great North Road. Humanity is menaced by an extraterrestrial entity known as the Zanth, which strikes planets in a sudden ‘Zanth storm.’ We don’t really get to know much about the Zanth in the novel, but at one point you describe them as a ‘macrorganism.’ What exactly does that mean?
PH: In this case it means something so big nobody knows how big, or really anything about it—where it came from, why it does what it does. In a lot of ways it is a metaphor for the giant forces individuals confront in their daily lives today.
ASM: One of the best characters in the novel is Angela Tramelo, a woman who has lived many different lives under many different names. As the product of gene manipulation, she is a ‘one-in-ten.’ When I first heard that phrase, I thought it meant one in ten people, but now I suspect it means one in ten billion. This isn’t explained in the book itself. What exactly is a ‘one in ten’?
PH: One in ten means that for every ten years you live, your body only ages one year. It’s a way of extending life expectancy ten times what we have now. Of course such gene therapy is only available to the very rich, which is another way they grow apart from the rest of us.
ASM: Finally, Great North Road is a huge book by any standards, over 1,000 pages. Did you need a break after finishing that monster, or at you already back at the keyboard?
PH: What is ‘a break’? Actually, as soon as I finished GNR I wrote three children’s books the following year, a fantasy trilogy for ages 7 and up—to be published in 2014. Currently I’m writing The Abyss Beyond Stars, which is set back in the Commonwealth universe. It’s the first of the Chronicle of the Fallers, which will be a two-book conclusion of the Commonwealth series. After that, it’ll be time for something new again.
Thanks for talking to Amazing Stories!