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Story last updated: 03 Mar 2004 1250 GMT Printable version of this page
Interview with a dystopian
Peter F Hamilton
by Matt Gibson
BBC Bristol website contributor

Peter F Hamilton used to work on a production line in a plastics factory.

Aged 27, he bought a typewriter: nine novels later, he's one of Britain's best-selling science fiction authors.

Utopia would be 'boring', says Hamilton

Hamilton is famous for his epic Night's Dawn, a space opera published in three novels: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist and The Naked God, all set in the far future and featuring a galaxy-spanning society called the Confederation.

We caught up with him at Waterstone's in Bristol where he was reading from his latest book, Pandora's Star.

>> Read the review of the Bristol event

MG: Before Night's Dawn, your novels featured Greg Mandel, a psychic detective. Why did you start off with detective stories?

PFH: Science fiction readers like a puzzle. Also, with the detective story, you've got the perfect opportunity to send your detective down onto those 'mean streets', and really explore the society you're building.

MG: And your streets can be pretty mean. No matter how far into the future you go, there always seems to be a core of poverty and deprivation.

PFH: As with all literature, sci-fi is a reflection of the world we see around us.

Looking around, I don't we are going to achieve Utopia. As a species we are too flawed. It's all very well saying that technology will be wonderful. But we're not all the same, no matter how much people would like us to be, and you have to reflect the differences: some people will always be on the bottom rung.

How we care for them, how much of our tax we spend on them: that's a reflection of our own civilisation. But they will always be there, and there will always be people exploiting them.

MG: At 3,000 pages, Night's Dawn is of quite breathtaking scale, isn't it.

PFH: I did fall into the trap of getting very heavily involved with my characters. Starting them off for one purpose to illustrate one thing, and then thinking, 'Oh, they're quite interesting, I don't want to get rid of them yet.'

This is one of the reasons Night's Dawn grew to its ridiculous/astonishing length - whichever description you prefer!

I thought The Reality Dysfunction would come out about the same size as The Nano Flower. It's not a deliberate commercial decision to sit down and write books that big.

If I'd thought it through from a commercial viewpoint, I'd have made it a 10 part series, which would have made me lots more money, but as it is, it's only three. Although it's 12 in Italy.

MG: So, if you were completely devoid of financial incentive, would you be writing the same stories?

PFH: Yes - and the opposite also applies. If nobody was interested in reading what I was writing, and I had to go and get a proper job, I would still be doing this in the evening. I'm lucky in that what I write appeals to people.

MG: What did you used to do for your 'proper' jobs?

PFH: Odd jobs mainly - most of my employed time was spent working on a line in a plastics factory.

Rutland - near Stamford - is a lovely place to live, but it is very agrarian. There is more industry now, but when I was younger the major employers were two plastics factories.

MG: Your first three novels were set in Rutland, and after Night's Dawn you came back there for Misspent Youth, which met with a lot of controversy.

PFH: It met with, how shall we put it, 'mixed reviews'. Not as many people liked it as liked my other stuff. Whether that came about because they weren't expecting something like that, I don't know.

It's a character study, which is very different for me. I could see why it didn't appeal to a lot of people. It was an unpleasant story about unpleasant people. With hindsight, it was never going to be as popular as my other works.

I do tend to leave most of the other stuff on a fairly uplifting ending.

MG: Not the short stories. I recently re-read your collection A Second Chance at Eden, which is wonderful, but not very optimistic. Especially New Days Old Times, where far into the future, under an oppressive society, the Jews are still being persecuted.

PFH: New Days Old Times looks at why the ethnic streaming of the Confederation happened.

I'd started writing The Reality Dysfunction around the time of the Vance-Owen peace plan for the war in the former Yugoslavia. Night after night on the news, the cameras were down there on the ground with two sets of people who were not going to live with each other.

MG: You've based a lot of your fiction on very topical technological advances, like cloning and genetic engineering.

PFH: The internet and copyright are of great interest to me, especially post-Napster. You can apparently download any books you want.

But the actual gadget for reading them on isn't quite there yet: you get e-book systems, but they still don't have the resolution or the ease of carry of ordinary books.

When everybody has broadband, when the display technology is two notches up from what it is now, publishing is going to be in trouble.

In Misspent Youth, copyright has collapsed. There are no films any more because they're all pirated, so there's no profit and no investment.

There is television, but it's all one-off shows: soap operas, reality TV, whatever… all commercial sponsorship.

The only work writers can get is writing the soap operas.

That was a side-portion of the book. The main theme was rejuvenation. It was more or less the phenomenon we have in our own age: that big projects are not allowed to fail, no matter what the casualties on the way.

Concorde is a great example: financially ludicrous, but magnificent at the end: it was not allowed to fail initially, because that was us going into Europe and Europe being better, technology-wise, than America.

MG: In the end, Concorde was allowed to fail - it's no longer flying, and we've got nothing to replace it.

PFH: It was built in an era when fuel was cheap and plentiful, when environmental issues almost didn't exist. You probably could spend the money and build a replacement supersonic transport, but the political willpower isn't there.

No politician would do that in this day and age. I'm not sure whether that's a shame or not.

MG: If there was one technology that you've written about that you could have right now, what would it be?

PFH: Probably clean fusion. Once you have cheap, available energy on a mass scale, you can do anything. We wouldn't have half the worries we have if energy was cheap and available to everyone.

MG: Do you think we can be trusted with that kind of technology?

PFH: The genetic technology that hopefully will cure Spina Bifida one day could also be used to create viruses that could just wipe us out completely.

But does that mean you should stop researching genetics? We laugh, we hold politicians and the political process in contempt, but the societal structure of international law and order does actually hold that off.

MG: The reason you're here in Bristol is Pandora's Star, your most recent novel. Unusually for you, I believe, the society is Utopian, or near-Utopian?

PFH: It's certainly a lot calmer than the Confederation was. Outwardly, it's quite a pleasant place to live in, purely because people get rejuvenated.

I very much trust the adage that 'with age comes wisdom.' If you're 300 years old, you don't want to be part of a football tribe, kicking people's heads in. You've grown out of that, and you look around you and think more: you're calmer and more reactive, and a better citizen because of it.

So you have this huge influence of wisdom, with the bulk of the population being quite old.

MG: When you see a nice, calm, near-Utopian society at the beginning of a book, we just know that something's about to go horribly wrong.

PFH: Conflict is great narrative, to put it at its bluntest. Utopia would be boring. What's there to write about? 'It's a nice day. It's another nice day. It's another nice day...'"

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