Peter Hamilton, Great North Road (2012)

great north rd

It’s a space opera. With clonesssssss. Which starts off as a police procedural? I liked that part actually. It got me invested in the story a lot sooner than this 900-page doorstopper had any right to expect. Here’s this middle-aged detective back on the beat after six months’ suspension, and first day on the job him and his partner have the bad luck to fish a politically radioactive corpse out of the river. It’s a North – one of hundreds of clones of bioil conglomerate founder Kane North running around interstellar space. The question is, which North? Whoever dumped him in the river took the trouble to peel the skin off of all ten fingertips first. The thing that works about this murder mystery is that your go-to hypoethesis – also Sid’s hypothesis, since Sid is a good detective – is that the victim was killed so somebody else, another North clone, could impersonate him. And that’s essentially what happened. I mean yes there are a bunch of mind-reading aliens involved, but that’s the bare bones of it. So I liked the simplicity of the solution. I also liked Sid’s wife! She’s a bit-player in the scheme of things but here are some reasons I like her: (1) it’s suggested that as a nurse she actually makes more money than Sid (2) it is NOT suggested that this is embarrassing or emasculating for Sid (3) she insists he take responsibility for 50% of the child-rearing duties and when he fails to do so – because he’s working overtime on the biggest homicide case of his career – she holds him accountable for it even as she resignedly prepares to dial the babysitter (4) she and Sid discuss major financial milestones like buying a new house or swindling the taxman – discuss them openly, like rational people. This is important because I feel like we only ever see dollar signs when couples are going through a nasty divorce, or cheating on each other, or losing their life’s savings to a government conspiracy. It’s nice to acknowledge that happily married people sometimes talk about money.

If Sid is an Everyman, his co-protagonist Angela is a walking prototype of weaponized femininity. Angela is serving a life sentence for fifteen counts of murder. She is also the key to solving Sid’s case. And when I say “weaponized femininity,” I mean she literally went and got some blades made of organic tissue surgically implanted in her knuckles, and when she imbibes the right growth hormones she turns right into Wolverine. Here is the thing about Angela: I want to like her. I want to like her business acumen and her uninhibited sexuality and the fact that she has truckloads more agency than anybody else (with the exception of the mind-reading aliens). Angela leaves me feeling meh. I’ve nothing against “avenging my daddy by methodically plotting to bring down the goons who killed him,” but I thought the execution was off. I just feel like “insinuating oneself into a powerful man’s circle by becoming a sex worker in his harem” is a trope that needs to be handled carefully, if at all. Also nothing about Angela’s background/motivations makes sense. Her whirlwind romance and elopement are esepcially devoid of any iota of sense. I understand why she has to have the baby for plot purposes, but you do not need to litter the text with neon placards indicating “This Romance For Plot Purposes Only.”

The thing about Angela is that she is young and hot. Just like every other female in the entire book. Even Sid’s wife, whose accolades I was singing earlier, fends off wrinkles with aggressive visits to the plastic surgeon’s office. Meanwhile Sid has a beer belly. We’ve already established that they’re a dual earner family who divide domestic duties equally between them, so I can only conclude from the fact that Sid hasn’t found time to go to the gym that looking attractive for one’s partner simply doesn’t rank high among men’s priorities.

Angela works out regularly, but she also has stellar genes. It turns out that her multibillionaire parents had her genetically engineered to age more slowly than ordinary humans – for every ten years that pass she only ages ten. She’s what’s called a “one in ten.” That’s how she can be released from prison, where she’s served twenty years of her sentence, and immediately pick up plotting again. For most people twenty years is half their lives gone – the good half. For Angela it barely registers. She’s got centuries ahead of her. When she encounters the prosecutor who put her behind bars twenty years ago, the contrast between their physical conditions is painful: He’s balding and sagging and she’s young and healthy. And hot. Did I mention all the women are hot? Angela’s genetic quirk makes it possible for her to be reunited with her daughter, who’s grown into a lovely young lady … and for both of them to be unbelievably attractive. Together. I just. I’m sorry but let’s look at the other female characters in this 900+ page novel ok? There’s Ian’s girlfriend, a goddess so virtuous and gorgeous that she successfully reforms a notorious rake. There’s one or two bureaucrats and a waitress and maybe oh Brinkelle North. Brinkelle is a bitch who runs her portion of the North emporium with an iron fist but you know what? She’s a smoking hot bitch.

The exaggerated imbalance between men of average attractiveness and OMG ALL THE WOMEN ARE KNOCKOUTS is hard for me to accept. I think it’s wonderful that this is hard science fiction that features a strong, smart female protagonist, yes it’s great we’re not sidelining the female characters but I’m troubled by the implication that competence is coupled with sexiness. What happens when women lose their youthful allure? Do they stop being awesome? Do we just stop paying attention to them? Does a woman’s value rest, ultimately, on how much men want to fuck her? To all of these questions Great North Road offers an uncomfortable silence.

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