Great North Road

TMC Archives 2013-06-30

Great North Road is a standalone novel by Peter F Hamilton that combines movie style science-fiction horror with a crime story. The setting is a ‘relatively’ near future, where humans have colonised other planets through use of gateways, but remain heavily dependent on bio-oil which is grown principally on the planet of St Libra. Borrowing from an idea loosely explored in Fallen Dragon, St Libra is owned and run by a corporation staffed almost entirely by the Norths, a family of clones that become progressively more flawed with each generation but maintain certain characteristic traits and (for the most part) are like minded in solidarity and resolve.

The murder of one of these North’s is what sparks off the events of the book with our main protagonist, Detective Sid Hurst, finding himself in charge of an intensely political murder investigation. Most of the action takes place in the English city of Newcastle, and there are quite a few references that likely only English readers will appreciate. Newcastle, which in the modern world is much reduced in importance from its industrial past, is restored as a major oil distribution point in Hamilton’s world, and an English suspicion of European Union bureaucracy is also a minor theme. However, whilst these nods to readers from Hamilton’s own country won’t alienate those from abroad, there are problematic elements to this half of the story.

Read enough of Hamilton’s books and fairly soon you should start to develop a suspicion that he has a fondness for crime dramas. More or less every book with sufficient room contains a subplot featuring Hamilton’s favoured “overworked police officer in over his head” stereotype. This is a fault that can, to an extent, be forgiven; formulaic nature aside, these little mini stories that Hamilton likes to insert are often clever and enjoyable. The problem in Great North Road is that Hamilton blows the crime mini-story up to book length (it’s a large book too), and then produces something which is far less intelligent and exciting than usual. This isn’t to say that the crime element is bad – in many places its quite enjoyable – but it feels self-indulgent, and the reduction in quality from Hamilton’s usual forays into the genre is disappointing.

The other half of the story is composed of the aforementioned movie-style science-fiction horror thread. Humanity in Great North Road is faced by the threat of an extraterrestrial race known as the Zanth, the danger of which has led to the formation of a vast military with sweeping political power.  When the murdered North of the crime element of the novel is found to feature injuries common with those of a potential alien attack, the military decides to launch something approximating an invasion in an act of extremely questionable judgement to ascertain the possible existence of a second hostile alien species. The frustrating thing here: the military and their war with the Zanth is by far the most interesting part of the novel – and is left purely as backstory.

The Zanth invasions are far more akin to natural disasters than any kind of military action, with the aliens seemingly unaware of human existence and their incredible power overwhelming human forces. The military’s attempts to delay them long enough for evacuation to take place have something of the character of throwing rocks at waves on the beach. Faced with this overwhelming power, some humans take to worshipping them, whilst much of the military is comprised of a sect of christianity which views them as the embodiment of Satan. There is a great potential story here about how humans react to forces beyond our control and our application of military force which Hamilton seems to toy with, only to say “Nah” and go back to writing something ultimately far less interesting.

What he instead produces is a tale of a military expedition which faces repeated “accidents” which increase in both frequency and level of suspicion generated the longer the supply lines get strung out. Whilst Hamilton does an excellent job of building tension and keeping the question of whether it is really an alien creature or something more mundane in the air for a long time, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before in cinema. The cliches are the same to the degree that you could even make an exercise out of picking the near inevitable casting choices for such a film.

Ultimately Great North Road is far from a bad novel: It has an acceptable (if not entirely satisfactory) resolution. There are some good characters, and the plot has some good twists. However, it feels like Hamilton is going through the motions, and the end result is something considerably below his usual standard. The chief crime is that he spends such a phenomenal time doing it; the book is long, and yet not a great deal seems to happen. When I’d finished, I looked back and wondered quite where all my time had gone. A deeply frustrating book by his usual standards, Hamilton seems to have discarded better ideas to produce something self-indulgent, something that’s ultimately a waste of his talent, and both his, and your, time.

This article originally appeared on, written by Vahl Ahashion.

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