Great North Road


The very first sentence of Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road (2012) reads:

As midnight approached, the wild neon colours of the borealis storm came shimmering through the soft snow falling gently across Newcastle upon Tyne.

How is that possible? Auroras take place high in the sky, in the thermosphere (above 80 km), but if it’s snowing then it must be cloudy in the lower troposphere (stratus clouds have a base around 2 km), so it would seem very unlikely that you could see an aurora “through snow”. Some more explanation is needed, and it’s not provided. So is this just an unlucky slip, or an example of systematic failure to think through the consequences of the settings and events in the novel? Let’s read on and find out.1

The background to this novel, which includes interplanetary and interstellar travel, is rather derivative of media franchises like Stargate, Predator, and Aliens.2 But the cyberpunkish police-procedural scenes in a mid-22nd century Newcastle are quite different in tone from the space operatic scenes, and this down-to-earth milieu reveals the presence of shackles on the imagination: some of the chapters portray limitless technological wish-fulfilment, but then other chapters portray minor aspects of early 21st century middle-class life in the UK as immune from change. This is a world in which there are commercial fusion plants everywhere, but people are still dependent on petrol-powered motor vehicles. A world in which “lightwave ships” cross the solar system at close to the speed of light, but the fastest way to cross Europe is by jet plane. A world in which there is interstellar teleportation, but no-one has managed to solve the problem of how children can get to school when both parents have jobs:

“You’ll have to take them to school for me,” Sid announced quickly, hoping it would get overlooked in the general morning chaos.

“No bloody way!” Jacinta exclaimed.3 “We agreed. I’ve got a full cardio replacement booked for this morning.”

A world in which “phase-change materials” act as near-perfect heat stores but the protagonist is unaware that houses can be retrofitted with insulation:

A pleasant enough home, but its age meant it was never designed for the cold of today’s winters, so it cost a fortune to heat.

A world in which it is established that detective Sid has a computer embedded in his skin, that can play images directly into his retina and sounds directly into his ears, and yet:

The alarm clock’s sharp buzz dragged Sid awake. He groaned and reached out for the snooze button. […] Sid picked up the clock and held it close to his face—the only way he could make out the glowing green figures.

The novel is set in 2143,4 in an alternate and more technologically advanced universe (in which human cloning was carried out in 2007), but in the Newcastle sections of the story, there is little evidence for this beyond references to colder winters and hotter summers. For example, a murder victim is found in the water by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. Now, sea level rise could be as much as 2 m by the beginning of the 22nd century5, and that would surely put the embankments around the Tyne under water, at least at some states of the tide.6 So this scene would be an easy opportunity to put in a bit of futuristic backdrop, but the text gives absolutely no indication that anything has changed.

The novel presents little evidence of social change having occurred since 2012. Young people wear the same kinds of clothes to go out to the same kinds of nightclubs. Toyota still make reliable mid-price motor vehicles. Car parking remains a problem:

Sid left for the city morgue, which was housed in a modern annex next to the glass and steel towers of Arevalo Medical’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. As he drew into the car park next to the city morgue block Sid saw notices proclaiming that parking would be suspended for two months so footings could be sunk for the new oncology clinic. “So where do we park?” he muttered to himself.

In this scene Sid drove to the morgue from the police station at the junction of Pilgrim Street and Market Street, a distance of about a kilometre. He learns nothing there that couldn’t have been communicated electronically, but even if he had to go in person, why didn’t he walk? Is this passage supposed to establish his laziness and selfishness?

Selfishness is a bit of a theme of Great North Road. The majority of the characters in the novel work for government agencies such as the police and the military, but that doesn’t stop them engaging in boilerplate libertarian moans about the dead hand of government bureaucracy and the burden of the taxes that pay their salaries. At the same time, the corporate world is presented as a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which everyone is corrupt, and one of the rewards for the winners is the opportunity to sexually exploit the losers. In fact, the novel is so devoid of sympathetic characters that I felt a bit disappointed that the alien monster failed to kill everyone.

  1.  I was given this book for Christmas, and I have to say that having got used to e-books it felt really awkward to lug about a 1,100-page tome that’s nearly as big as my head. I felt a bit embarassed reading it on the Tube.

  2.  There’s a scene early on where Ripley Angela, the only survivor of an alien attack, is persuaded to return to the planet in search of the alien monster. Escorted by a gung-ho team of Colonial Marines HDA Legionnaires, she warns them that their confidence is unwarranted: “You’re on a trip to poke a stick into a monster’s nest. It’ll breed. You’ll die. Everyone in the fucking company. Will die. It will kill you. It will kill all of you. You won’t stand a chance.”

  3.  If you guessed from this passage that Hamilton’s writing suffers from a bit of a case of “said-bookism” then you’d be right.

  4.  But two references to the action taking place in the “twenty-third century” suggest that an earlier draft had placed the novel somewhat farther in the future.

  5.  See Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment, especially figure 10, reproduced below. The novel’s “cheap oil” scenario is surely going to push things towards the high end of the range of predictions.

  6.  Researching this, I was surprised to learn that the Tyne already floods its embankments under rare conditions: for example, this photo was taken on 2011-11-27 when a storm surge in the North Sea coincided with a spring tide. These events are only going to become more frequent.