Manhattan in Reverse
By Peter F. Hamilton
Published by Macmillan Digital Audio
Read by Sean Barrett, Camilla Mathias, Damon Lynch and Steve Hodson
After I gave a less than glowing review for Peter F. Hamilton’s Greg Mandel Trilogy, several friends informed me that I had perhaps not chosen his best work to start with. Son in the name of fairness I have acquired several other titles by this author, but it in the hope of finding a more representative sampling of his work, I started with this collection of shorter stories.
One thing Mister Hamilton shares in common with me is a preference for novels over short stories. I am not sure what this preference might say about my own shorter works, but in his case I get the impression that he does not really have the knack of a short story. They tend to just go along and stop. Sometimes that can be very effective, but in some cases you just go, “Huh?” This collection had more “Huhs?” than “Wows!” for me.
I am convinced that Mister Hamilton is firmly on the side of “Nature” when it comes to the old “Nature vs Nurture” debate of human behavior. This becomes apparent from the very first story of the collection, “Watching Trees Grow.” This story takes place in a world in which the Roman Empire never collapsed and eventually took over the entire world. That part, while I think it somewhat improbable, was a good concept to go with. However, apparently those ancient Romans also bred themselves for longevity so that by the 1800’s it is not impossible for someone to live over 1000 years. Now what is wrong with this picture? Well, since it seems everyone is living that long, the only way the ancient Romans might have succeeded in this self-breeding program was to ban the vast majority of human population from having kids. Maybe they just killed off 90% of the population?
The concept still does not make sense, really. You do not know if a woman is going to have had a long lifespan until long after she hits menopause. So what are you going to do? Go back and kill all her kids if she ends up dying at only 69?
Well, maybe, being the paternalistic sort Romans were, they only judged lifespan from the age of the father, since some men are capable of siring children at very advanced ages. Still not an easy solution. First of all, not even the Romans could keep younger men at the peak of their sexual lives from having sex, which, let’s face it, without modern birth control will often result in children if they keep at it long enough. (Even modern birth control is not fool proof for that matter) But I suppose we could just kill off the kids if the dad does not live long enough, right? And then there is the other side of that coin – the children of older fathers exhibit an increased incidence of a whole collection of birth defects, possibly lower IQs (that is being debated I hear) and increased chance of Autism. One might argue that advanced Roman medicine might have evolved to face such issues, but I seriously doubt they would have made the connection soon enough. And while the Ancient Romans may not have understood these dangers, they existed none the less.
Now, admittedly, in the story everyone seems to be amazingly healthy too, so I guess they also bred for health and long-term vitality as well? Sorry, not buying it.
The entire setting for the story is, I admit, imaginative and interesting – most of his settings are – but unfortunately Mister Hamilton went to a lot of work setting it up for no good purpose. There is nothing in the entire story that needs such an elaborate and confusing alternate history. The story would have worked equally well in a future history based on the World as it is today so all that additional information does is confuse the reader, since Mister Hamilton does not explain the world very well until about two thirds of the way through the story, and stretches it out far longer than it needed to be.
So, let us try another. “Footvote” is another story in an interesting setting. To give Hamilton his justly deserved compliments, he does have a fantastic ability to come up with interesting alternate worlds and settings for his stories. This is a story in which someone has developed a wormhole to travel to another world. The technology is similar to that in his “Commonwealth” series save that there is only one wormhole. The story is centered over a divorced couple, one of whom is adamantly against the wormhole and all it represents and the other who, with his new sweetie is kidnapping the kids and taking off for the new world. Somehow Mister Hamilton seems to have failed to consider the morality of a kidnapping parent, a hot button topic these days and the ending is both too abrupt and unlikely to my way of thinking. I will admit that the conditions under which people qualify for the new world is amusing and from what I can tell almost no one but a mindless drone would qualify, but that is another aspect that is not sufficiently explored.
“If at First…..” is a sort of time travel story, except you cannot send back anything but your mind back through time. The consciousness you send back then takes over your earlier self, and what happens in this story is that one man is sending himself back to invent various technological marvels before their time. Apparently he is doing this multiple times and not being particularly subtle about it so that a former classmate informs on him and a cop inadvertently goes back in time as well. The story has an abrupt surprise twist at the end that I found all too predictable, and frankly unnecessary.
“The Forever Kitten” A short short involving a step toward rejuvenation, except that it will only work to arrest the development of juveniles. It deals, passingly, with the morality of such a procedure and , again, ends predictably and too abruptly.
“Blessed by an Angel” I found amazingly creepy. It also, like the rest of the collection takes place in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe. I found the arguments being shot back and forth within the story to be shallow and not overly consistent, but then they seemed to be held by the characters as almost religious doctrines, so maybe that is why. I have not read the stories it depends on though, so maybe I am missing something. However, I really believe that if a story cannot stand on its own, it should not be presented as such.
“The Demon Trap” and “Manhattan in Reverse” I think you have to be a real fan and avid reader of Mister Hamilton to follow what happens in these stories. They feature the character Paula Myo from the Commonwelth universe. Paula has been genetically engineered to be a detective. At this point I would like to call “Shenanigans!” Apparently her entire homeworld is genetically engineered to be best at their assigned tasks. Really? Yeah, okay. I’m somewhat confused as to which gene is the one that makes her a dogged investigator and not just the puzzles editor of the New York Times. It seems to me that the traits best suited to a detective are broad and general enough to be the same for any number of jobs in which a person must be imaginative, intelligent and really good at solving problems. At one point Paula comments that she is what she is. Once again, Mister Hamilton is assuming that behavior is purely genetic and that she has been genetically engineered to be a cop. Sorry, I just don’t buy the premise. She could just as easily be a physicist or an archaeologist, a research physician or… well nearly anything.
I found “The Demon Trap” to be unnecessarily convoluted, a Hamilton style trait I am starting to believe, and also it dragged out far too long. I will admit it took over half the story for me to even start to figure out what was happening. (Writers; confusing your readers without really good cause is a good way to lose your readers!) I also came up with several neater solutions as Ms Myo waded her way through the morass. There was also a touch of the old “Deus ex Machina” near the end when Paula just happened to have some sort of recording device implanted subdermally (a tattoo of some sort) and which the people she was recording conveniently did not recognize. It seemed all too pat and the conclusion just did not work for me and Paula seems to be quite the vindictive type as well. Not someone I would ever want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.
“Manhattan in Reverse” Paula Myo in a different sort of case but once again blaming her genetics for who and what she is. I understand she is a very popular character, so it is possible these two stories were not her best showcase. I did not like either of them, I am afraid. However, she did rely on the tattoos more in this story than the first, so I imagine they are the tools of her trade in other stories. The actual mystery was all too predictable, however and very dissatisfying. I don’t usually guess the solution before the detective presents it, so if I see it coming, it must have a dozen billboards giving it away.
The multiplicity of readers left me not really knowing who was reading which story, except for when Camilla Mathias was reading. Being the only female reader in the collection made her easy to pick out of the line-up.
The readers’ performances were as varied as the readers themselves. Whoever was reading “watching Trees Grow,” for example sounded like he was reading a police report. Perhaps that was the fault of the story. Mister Hamilton frequently slips into a Dragnet/Joe Friday (but with a British accent) mode. None of his detectives (the ones I have read, anyway) seem particularly emotional, so maybe it is not entirely the fault of the reader, but I felt that whoever read this one, and the male reader of “Footvote” had been particularly bored by the story and essentially mailed in the readings. Camilla Mathias also failed to find a spark in the character she was reading. Instead the character came off as a tired stereotype, which, once again, she probably was, but I think a good reading could have salvaged the story.
Whoever read the Paula Myo stories did a better job. I did not like the stories but they were technically read well so I listened to them without as much pain as I might have experienced.
Summing it up. Peter Hamilton is a very successful and popular writer and while I am panning this collection, I feel I need to at least point out that that just because I have not found any of his works that I truly enjoyed yet, that does not mean you will not. However, this is probably not the right place to start if you have yet to read anything by him. I felt there was too much he expected the reader to know about in his future history of the Commonwealth that was not explained in, and in the first story, he built an incredibly complex alternative history that had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual story. It could have happened in any future history. I have other nitpicks with his stance on genetics over environment and his faith that Mankind will continue to improve technology at an increasingly breakneck speed, but these are personal beliefs and they did not really detract from the stories.
The readers of this collection were, for the most part, barely doing their jobs. Yes the reader of the Paula Myo Stories did a better job than those of the earlier stories but his performance was acceptable and only seemed very good when compared to the readings that came before.
If you are a fan of Peter F. Hamilton and want to read this book, you will might well enjoy it, but do not buy the audiobook. It will leave you demanding a refund.