Peter F. Hamilton: Manhattan in Reverse

Oxford, England AD 1832: If I was dreaming that night I forgot it the instant when that blasted telephone woke me with its shrill two-tone whistle. I fumbled round for the bedside light …

Wrong order

I haven’t read any other Peter F. Hamilton books before this one, and I’ve had to work hard at not reading them. This is because J is quite a fan and has a whole bookshelf of them which he recommends to me. Incessantly. Once, at his suggestion, I picked up Pandora’s Star but didn’t get very far into it. It was too big and sprawling for me at the time – one of those bricks-of-a-book whose spine has sagged inwards in a crescent, like the back of a pregnant lady. Holding it was like trying to pick up a works hamburger with too much filling for its bun. I had horrible flashbacks to high school experiences with Stephen Donaldson (those tedious epics put me off fantasy – and most large novels – forever), and I got scared away from Peter F. Hamilton for a while.

A fortnight ago, though, J bought Manhattan in Reverse while we were book shopping together. Then he forgot to take it with him when he traveled back to Tamworth for work that Monday. He left it by the bath, in fact, which is where I found it. In need of both a bath and some escapism I delved in to both. I’d been warned the book would probably make more sense if I read it after Pandora’s Star. I decided not to care.

Right start

This is a collection of short stories, although several are long enough to be novellas.

Normally I don’t like the long-format short-story; it feels like the writer’s either been too lazy to cut the fat out of a long story, or to find the extra detail to pad it out into a proper novel. This time though they fit my mood.

The first story, especially, was – and remains – my absolute favourite. It’s 1832, but there are Bakelite telephones and bedside electric lights – huh? The anachronisms were a delicious mystery. They pulled me in. Solving the mystery of where this alternate history diverged is a fun exercise, even though it does end up getting spelled out for you pretty clearly later on.

The story follows a detective who is trying to solve a murder. In 1832 he doesn’t get far, but as the years go by and technology improves, he’s able to revisit the case at intervals armed with new evidence. And thanks to longevity treatment, those intervals are able to stretch very far into the future indeed. It’s just a beautiful example of taking a simple what-if scenario and extrapolating with finesse into the future, exploring its repercussions for politics, morality, technological development, gender issues and so forth. It’s lovely.

It tapped into some deeper issues like the moral dangers of materialism etc but for me they never really lifted off. For me the pleasure of reading was all to do with the flow of ideas and the murder mystery. Nothing like a mystery for good escapist reading.

Reasonable progression

The stories that followed were able to stand alone, but had little spider-web threads of linkage with each other. You could tell they were in the same universe because everything was made of plyplastic or malmetal no matter which story you were in.

The back-cover blurb made it clear that the stories used characters and settings that’d be well-known to veteran PFH readers, but to me it didn’t matter I hadn’t read them. Context works its magic and you work out what is going on. You also get to look forward to re-reading it later, perhaps returning to it after Pandora’s Star, when you know inside knowledge will give you an extra level of enjoyment.

In short: murder + mystery + action + fantastic settings + smarts – too much depth or importance = perfect escapist reading. And that is all I have to say about this book for now.

This book was mostly read at frankies cafe. It was also partly read in the bath.

Linkage: Peter F. Hamilton’s website/blog; publisher siteamazon.co.uk reviews; goodreads page; and some other reviews available on the net. Oh, and one of the stories is available to read online for free.

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