The Greg Mandel Trilogy
A Quantum Murder
The Nano Flower
By Peter F. Hamilton
Unabridged recording published by Audible Frontiers
Read by Toby Longworth
Now, before I say anything else, let me recognize that these books have received very favorable critical reviews as have these recorded editions. Apparently there are both reviewers and readers who like these and other works by Peter F. Hamilton. It was because of this that I looked forward to listening to these books. To say I was disappointed is an understatement.
My first impression of Mister Hamilton’s writing style was that he wrote as though he found an unadorned noun or verb to be the very worst form of anathema. In the opening pages there certainly seemed to be more adjectives and adverbs than there were nouns and verbs. There also seemed to be entire paragraphs of descriptive prose between each line of dialogue. It certainly made for slow going when the point should have been to immerse the reader in the action. What’s worse, is the book starts with an action scene, but it falls flat and was unable to engage me. There was too much descriptive word play getting in the way.
The main character, Greg Mandel, is a former member of the English Army’s Mindstar battalion – a group of soldiers who were fitted with a special artificial gland that boosts latent psi powers. The concept was a good one. This should have been a good story, but the first few chapters are dry, with too much verbiage and too little real action or emotion. It read like a police report with slightly less interest.
To be as fair as I can be, I suspect Mister Hamilton would not be impressed by the stories I have written. In many ways our styles are diametrically opposed. Whereas his story is richly described to the point where the dialogue is easy to ignore, my writing it mostly dialogue-driven and somewhat sparse in the descriptive passages – I frequently get to the end of a long passage and realize that I never actually described what was going on around my characters, there was nothing there but dialogue. About then I generally have to go back and see how I can flesh it out a bit. It’s getting it wrong in the other direction.
As the story and, indeed, the whole series progresses, the writing style becomes a little less flowery, and there is some action, but pacing throughout the series is problematic. Greg Mandel is described as a private investigator (in the first book. In the second and third books he claims to be a citrus farmer) and I have read summaries that call these detective stories. I disagree. They are certainly paced like detective novels with lots of long slow searches and a lot of action at the climax. Unfortunately, I don’t see these as detective stories. The fact Mandel is making money as a freelance investigator seems irrelevant to the fact that the nature of the story itself is an adventure. Unfortunately an adventure generally has more action, so in the end we have an adventure that is paced like a detective story and it just doesn’t work.
I think the best of the three stories was probably the middle child, “A Quantum Murder.” It was still slow and less interesting in execution than the subject matter should have made it, but the story held together well and came closest to its promise as a detective tale.
I had a major problem with the “The Nano Flower.” The characters all jumped to the correct conclusion right from the start (that there was an alien somewhere in Sol System who was trying to sell an impossibly fantastic technology) even though the evidence just was not there. Just because you are given a flower that, when examined, turns out to have alien genes, it doesn’t mean there’s an alien nearby. But with flower in hand, everyone assumes that, yes, there is one and that there is only one, even though they cannot figure out how it got here or what it might be up to. Using Occam’s razor I came up with several explanations I thought more believable, but apparently Occam had nothing to do with this story.
The scientific experts brought in to examine those genes proclaim they represent life that is one billion years more advanced than it is here on Earth. Really? How could they tell? The genes were totally alien and there was no telling if they were natural or engineered. Sure, they were more complex than human genes, but they were also built on entirely different lines. And how does one measure time via genetic complexity? In any case, I would like to point out that evolution is not an intelligent process nor does it inevitably go upward to greater complexity. Evolution goes every which way and that which survives is that which is best suited to its environment and its niche. That’s why we call it “Survival of the fittest.” Also Evolution does not progress at a steady pace. It can be very slow or very fast, it all depends on the environment the creatures involved are living in. If there are changes, then those individuals best suited to the changes will survive and pass their traits on to the next generation. I have trouble with someone looking at an alien gene and saying, “Wow! This genetic structure must have evolved a billion years longer than ours has.” I maintain there is no reliable yardstick to measure it by.
I will give Mister Hamilton credit for one of the most original aliens I have encountered in years, but I still had trouble accepting it. Greg’s ESP probably should not have been able to detect anything from something as totally alien as this was, but in spite of the major biological differences, its means of thinking was apparently similar enough. That seemed odd to me considering it had little or no biological processes in in common with humans. Why should its thoughts have produced whatever it is Greg’s senses pick up?
That was actually a minor issue for me, but it sat on on top of quite a few others. Another is that Greg seems to have picked up the annoying habit of saying “No messing,” almost every time he speaks, a slang phrase he uses to express a wide range of emotions. I do not recall him using the phrase in the first two books, so it is both annoying and inconsistent. I know that in real life people will pick up a phrase like that, use it a lot for a while and then later dump it from their vocabulary, but what works in real life does not always work in fiction.
Consequently while it was the best written of the trilogy, it fell flat for me as a story.
Once more, your mileage may vary. Apparently many readers truly enjoyed these books. No accounting for taste.
I got the distinct impression that either Toby Longworth was having a bad day when he read Mindstar Rising or else that was the first time he ever recorded an audio-book. He read most of it as though it was a police report; flatly and emotionlessly. The subject matter at the start might have contributed to that impression, but even in scenes where I’m fairly certain Mister Hamilton meant to portray high emotion, Mister Longworth’s reading came out all too understated. Could this be the famed British stiff upper lip? I doubt it. Last I checked, there were quite a few distinguished actors and actresses from Great Britain all of whom are capable of a wide range of emotion.
Well, if you are planning to embark on a listening tour of the Greg Mandel books, cheer up, he does get better. In fact, Mister Longworth’s performances improve book by book, so by the time he got around to reading The Nano Flower, I felt he did a very good job of it. So while I do not know if these were his first audio books there is certainly a marked improvement in his performance.
I did get annoyed when he mispronounced the name “Vasili” (or possibly Vasily). Hint: it does not sound like the name brand of a well-known petroleum jelly. And not all his accents were very good. Naturally, he handled a number of British accents well, and did a Russian one fairly well and did not for a moment sound like Ensign Pavel Chekov, but strangely a character with a Spanish name (that slips my mind at the moment) also sounded like a Russian.
Summing it all up; I did not enjoy the stories. They did have their good points, but the annoyances and let-downs far outweighed them. I am told that these actually are not Mister Hamilton’s best works, merely his first published series, the one that got his foot in the door. Perhaps, I will eventually get around to experiencing his other works, but probably not any time soon.