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Anticipating reality – Peter F Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon

Although the title of Peter F Hamilton’s Fallen Dragon (Pan Books, 2001) creates the impression that it belongs to the fantasy genre (not really my cup of tea), one soon learns that you are dealing with science fiction. And you know that you are dealing with a master of science fiction when many of the painstakingly described technical devices and scientific procedures that are interwoven with a riveting narrative are so plausible that, in all probability, they are already being developed by the US military or some other country, and if not, will be soon. In other words, this is astonishingly prescient science fiction — not the kind of literature that most people would consider world-class literature, and yet, it can hold a candle to many literary texts that are discussed and critically dissected in august literary circles.

In addition to being a tale about a young man called Lawrence Newton, born to a wealthy family on the planet Amethi in the 24th century, whose deepest desire is to join starships seeking new worlds, Fallen Dragon teems with profound psychological insights — into human relationships (between lovers, or between officers and the men they command, for example), particularly as these are affected by power and by ideological differences; into capitalism, specifically regarding the forces that drive it; and into power struggles, especially between corporations and people who are at the receiving end of their quest for profit.

In the 24th century the quest for profit has taken a new, galactic turn: not being able to maximise profits on planet Earth any longer, giant corporations have embarked on interstellar expeditions to planets where human settlements were started soon after space flight became possible. These are not friendly neighbourly visits, though — euphemistically known as “asset realisation”, they are hostile invasions intent on robbing these (usually militarily unprepared) worlds of everything of great economic value. In other words, they were really acts of piracy, as the military nature of these expeditions clearly shows.

After abruptly catching a starship to earth from Amethi, upon discovering deceit on the part of those closest to him, Lawrence joins one of these corporations, known as Zantiu-Braun, as a “squaddie”, and some twenty years later, as a sergeant in the force, he persuades an erstwhile officer friend to arrange the inclusion of his platoon in the second asset realisation trip to the planet Thallspring. Lawrence got to know Thallspring the first time around, when he was instrumental in preventing three Z-B squaddies from raping a teenage girl in a rural province. What he saw there was enough to convince him that a second visit could net him a prodigious (but overlooked) “asset” in his personal capacity; hence his need for strings being pulled by the officer.

I really don’t want to spoil the suspenseful unravelling of the narrative for potential readers, so I won’t say any more about the denouement. More importantly, I want to demonstrate briefly why this is superb science fiction. Take the squaddies’ standard battle outfit, called “Skin”, as an example of Hamilton’s inventiveness. “Skin” is exactly what the word says — it is literally a second, almost impenetrable skin that one wears over your body, with blood vessels linked to your own via “valves” surgically constructed in your neck, and musculature to enhance and augment your own. This is not all, though — your “Skin” is also equipped with a host of weaponry: poisoned darts that can be fired from the arms; a 9 mm. pistol and a carbine (all hidden within the bulky carapace until needed) — as well as sedatives and even narcotics that are injected into your own flesh when the Skin’s diagnostic devices and life-support systems detect indications that its wearer needs these for his or her survival. It is even fire-resistant to the point where one can walk through flames that would incinerate flesh in a matter of seconds, while generating low interior temperatures for counteracting the heat.

Nevertheless, such is Hamilton’s imaginative construction of alien worlds and technologies that the Z-B squaddies do sometimes encounter their match when the inhabitants of planets targeted for asset realisation fight back. In the case of the planet, Santa Chico, fierce resistance is experienced from the start, from the most unlikely looking descendants of the humans who initially colonised the planet — creatures strong enough to overpower a soldier in Skin, with a mixture of mammalian, reptilian and insect-features, but who nevertheless speak what is recognisable human languages, and whose intelligent eyes give away their human descent. This is where Hamilton shows his ability to interweave science and fiction in a manner reminiscent of William Gibson, but with greater emphasis on detail. What made the motley group of genetically mixed beings possible was rooted in the biotechnology going back to the 20th century (p. 558):

“Rejuvenation was the main goal, biotechnology’s holy grail, though to that should be added enhanced body and organ functions, new and expanded senses, innovative methods of pleasure stimulation, and limb redesign, among others. Athletes, professional and amateur, were keen devotees. The cosmetic applications were also hot topics; California’s ultimate deity. Just as the Internet had broken down the privacy and censorship barriers fifteen years before, so the tidal wave of quasi-legal medical, genomorph, and cosmetic products helped overwhelm the moral legislators.”

I’m willing to bet that Hamilton is here imaginatively extrapolating what is already happening in certain global quarters, driven by the same age-old goal of rejuvenation (the Renaissance “elixir of youth” that features in Goethe’s Faust, among others).

Although not as graphically and immediately effective as the means employed by the “new natives” of Santa Chico (where many of Z-B’s soldiers perished before the rest managed to retreat to their starships empty-handed), those resorted to by the people of Thallspring during Z-B’s second harvesting visit turn out to be more subtle, but no less effective in the long run. What’s more, although most of the soldiers possess genetic modifications, including viral-written cells that impart special neural-physical capabilities and “optronic membranes” for direct access to neurally transmitted computer data, some of their adversaries have genetically engineered capabilities far exceeding their own, “d-written” into their genes. One of these, a resistance leader called Denise, turns out to be the sister of the girl Lawrence rescued from being raped years before, and she crosses Lawrence’s path when he sets out to find his own “life-changing asset”.

One of the most valuable lessons one can learn from Hamilton’s fiction here concerns what a Santa Chico inhabitant, Calandrinia, tells the squaddies, which amounts to the harshest possible criticism of exploitative human attitudes to planet Earth today. In the face of their uncomprehending scepticism, she explains to them why “people” on Santa Chico appear “monstrous” to the invaders, and live what seems like a “regressive” life. In a nutshell, instead of imposing themselves on the planet, they decided to adapt to the planet’s conditions instead, which required genetic modifications enabling them to live in an atmosphere with 30% oxygen content (much higher than on earth) to begin with. In the end it meant developing biological counterparts to what Z-B personnel and other humans still know as “external”, mechanical technology. Even their houses were living beings, adapting to changing climatic circumstances all the time.

But it isn’t only sci-fi stuff that you find in this thought-provoking novel. One of Hamilton’s insights that chimes only too audibly with present global society emerges in the context of a brief love affair that Lawrence has with a fiery Scottish lass called Joona Beaumont, an anti-corporation protester whom he meets when he goes to Amsterdam for officer-selection tests. In several of their adversarial discussions Joona mocks what she calls the corporations’ “uniculture”, which is transplanted even to other planets, so that they become Xerox copies of the parent culture on earth. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?