The Mandel Files Volume 2: The Nano Flower by Peter F. Hamilton (book review).
This book is a re-issue of ‘The Nano Flower’, the final volume in Peter F. Hamilton’s first published trilogy of Science Fiction novels. I reviewed volume one, which contained the first two books from the trilogy, ‘Mindstar Rising’ and ‘A Quantum Murder’, back in August and thought it was excellent. So does this story bring the series to a suitably epic conclusion?
‘The Nano Flower’ is set in 2047, some fifteen years after the events portrayed in ‘A Quantum Murder’. Former military telepath and private detective Greg Mandel retired at the end of that story. Now fifty-two, he is enjoying a slower, quieter life as a gentleman farmer. He is happily married to the much younger Eleanor and they have four children, with a fifth on the way. Life is good.
His blissful existence is rudely interrupted when his old friend, Julia Evans, Chief Executive of giant multinational company Event Horizon and the richest woman in Europe, turns up unannounced at his farm. In the first two books, Greg worked for Julia, using his telepathy and military training to solve some serious problems for Event Horizon. Since then, however, Greg’s relationship with Julia has been purely social. Now Julia tells Greg that her husband, Royan, whom Greg has also known for years, has been missing for the last eight months. Royan often goes on extended trips without warning, so she hasn’t been worried. However, she has just received by courier an exotic flower accompanied by a card in Royan’s handwriting. What has scared Julia is that the flower is extra-terrestrial in origin.
So far, so odd. However, when a small and previously unknown company approached Event Horizon on almost the same day, saying that they had invented a revolutionary new means of structuring matter at the sub-atomic level and suggesting a joint venture to exploit it, Julia guessed it wasn’t a coincidence. She asks Greg to put his happy home life on hold, come out of retirement and use his skills to establish where the alien flower has come from and how it is linked to the new atomic structuring technology, then find her husband and rescue him from whatever he’s got himself mixed up in.
Although Greg is reluctant to come out of retirement after so long away from fieldwork, Julia and Royan are two of his closest friends. His sense of duty drives him to say yes. What follows is a high octane chase across Europe, as Greg and his team try to track down the source of the alien flower and track that back to Royan. When they realise they are being followed by a group of trigger-happy mercenaries who seem to have the same objective, the stakes increase still further. Can they find Royan before the other group does?
As with the previous two novels, one of the things that impressed me most about ‘The Nano Flower’ was the technical depth of Hamilton’s vision for the future. He anticipates a number of technologies that did not exist or existed only in embryonic form, when the novel was originally published in 1995. Alongside these, he adds several exciting and radical near future technologies, such as giga-conductors, quantum wire processors chips, neural networks capable of hosting a human mind and quark-level nanotechnology. The book may be over fifteen years old but it wears its age very lightly.
On the subject of Hamilton’s predictions for the future, fans of his well-known ‘Night’s Dawn’ trilogy will be interested to read the description in chapter 29 of this book of the interior of the New London asteroid that Greg and his team travel to in their search for Royan. It reminded me very closely of the interior of the Edenist space habitats in the later books. It would appear that Hamilton had worked out this aspect of humanity’s predicted future evolution in some detail pretty early in his writing career, which I found impressive.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing but technology in this story. There is a large cast of characters and Hamilton does a good job of showing us the major characters’ inner lives and their evolving personal relationships.
The plot is complex and multi-layered, yet I did not find it confusing. As soon as one problem seems to have been dealt with, another one pops up to take its place. Much of the action takes place at breakneck speed, so although it’s a long book, I raced through the chapters. This feeling only intensified as I got nearer to the story’s conclusion and I found it impossible to put the book down while reading the last hundred pages.
There were two aspects of the book that bothered me. The first and more serious shortcoming for me was the presentation of the politics of mid-twenty-first century England. The back story to all three books is that runaway climate change flooded much of the UK and devastated British society. The political reaction was to introduce a deeply illiberal socialist government that nationalised everything and did a passable impression of the USSR under Stalin. After ten years of this, there was a popular revolution, the socialists were thrown out and a new Conservative government swept to power. My problem does not lie with the question of which side are seen as the goodies and which the baddies, but the fact that the division is so stark and one-dimensional. Although the occasional socialist may be an OK person, the socialist project is projected as entirely evil and doomed to fail from the start. In the same way, while some conservative politicians may be power-hungry egotists, the conservative government as a whole can seemingly do no wrong, economically speaking. Although it is fun to pretend that politics is a matter of black and white, real life politics is painted in shades of grey. Whereas most of Hamilton’s major characters come across as three-dimensional figures with strengths and weaknesses, his treatment of the politics is not believable in the same way. This weakened the story for me.
The second and much more trivial problem lies in the irritating vocal mannerisms that Hamilton decided to give Greg Mandel. His repeated use of the phrases ‘Tell you’, when he means ‘I’ll tell you something’ and ‘No messing’ in response to almost any question put to him, regardless of whether it makes sense as an answer or not, may have started off as a good way of differentiating Greg’s dialogue from that of the other characters. After three lengthy books, however, they become irredeemably annoying. Clearly Hamilton learned this lesson, as I don’t recall the dialogue in any of his later books bothering me like this.
‘The Nano Flower’ is a thought-provoking and exciting end to an epic trilogy. Back in the early 1990s, it marked the entry into the SF world of a major talent who has produced blockbuster after blockbuster ever since. If you enjoy hard SF full of technological speculations and haven’t read Hamilton’s first foray into the field, it will be well worth your while getting hold of Del Rey’s excellent new re-issue.
(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 599 page enlarged paperback. Price: $19.95 (US), $23.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-53314-2)
check out websites: http://www.delreydigital.com/ and www.peterfhamilton.co.uk