‘Escape Route’ by Peter F Hamilton
Returning to The Space Opera Renaissance after some time away (a mere three months this time) is to be struck anew by the poverty of the introduction Hartwell and Cramer have burdened the stories in their anthology with. The introduction to Peter F Hamilton’s ‘Escape Route’ makes a good case study so I’ll go through it in some detail. See if you can spot a unifying thread running through.
The first paragraph is, sensibly enough, an encyclopaedia style précis of Hamilton’s career. The second paragraph begins: “Hamilton’s universe is not a hard SF construct: Dead souls come back to threaten the living, and take possession of living people.” This is both terrible writing (the repetition of ‘living’, the nonsense of ‘dead souls’) and terrible criticism: which of Hamilton’s fiction universes are they referring to? The editors have mentioned several in the first paragraph but you need to be familiar with the Night’s Dawn trilogy to realise they are referring to the Confederation universe where (unmentioned) this story is set. (I’ve no idea why the editors are playing the hard SF game but since they are I will note that ‘Escape route’ is much more of a hard SF story than the majority collected in The Ascent Of Wonder.) The rest of the paragraph is given over to a quote from Hamilton (sloppily identified as “late-1990s Locus”) than unconvincingly discusses the ways in which the trilogy is not militaristic. Again, the relevance is unclear.
The third paragraph is a discussion of Hamilton’s politics which surprisingly concludes: “It seems to us as if Hamilton is essentially nearly apolitical.” There is plenty of scope to quibble over whether it is even possible to be an apolitical writer or whether to be so is actually to simply embed unexamined political assumptions. Regardless of that, however, the editors have just quoted Hamilton describing Mindstar Rising, his debut novel, thus: “I had the socialists as the bad guys, purely because of plot.” Let’s permit ourselves a chuckle at “purely because of plot”, as if this was an externality imposed on him, and quickly move on to scratching our heads at Hartwell and Cramer’s final pronouncement. I’m not sure how a novel who deliberately hinges the denouement of his debut novel on the question of infrastructure nationalisation can be described as apolitical.
The fourth paragraph then sidesteps into another irrelevant quote from Hamilton in which he describes a childhood passion for EE “Doc” Smith. The fifth paragraph sees the editors abdicating responsibility to a fellow editor, Gardner Dozois, quoting from one of his editorials before blandly concluding: “We generally agree with his perception in that regard.” Oh really? I wondered why you’d just quoted him!
The sixth and final paragraph is simply synopsis. Taken as a whole, the introduction is shabby and incoherent and I can’t work out what Hartwell and Cramer are trying to achieve. This is neither curation or criticism and it certainly isn’t the work of supposedly world class editors. The Space Opera Renaissance is severely weakened by these interventions.
So on to the story then. ‘Escape Route’ is pure space opera (not exactly ‘new’ but new enough) that is distinctively Hamiltonian in two respects: its length and its conservatism. Marcus Calvert is the embodiment of entrepreneurship, rugged individualism and aspirational capitalism. He is, essentially, a man-with-a-van but this always seems more exciting and romantic in space where Culvert’s battles with red tape can be set against the backdrop of the stars. He is offered a job by Antonio Ribeiro, Eurotrash (boo) and covert revolutionary (double boo). After five pages of um-ing and ah-ing, Calvert accepts and jets off in his white van for a spot of interstellar mining (another page is spent describing this take off).
Calvert is hoping to find gold, Ribeiro is hoping to find uranium but what they actually find are the remains of an alien spaceship. This spaceship contains working anti-gravity, universal replicators and even a time machine; in other words, discovering this relic makes crew and client the richest people in the universe. But Calvert clashes with Ribeiro (who planned to blackmail the corporation that owns the asteroid he comes from into granting independence) and, in the evitable showdown, clumsily destroys the spaceship in his haste to escape. This destruction of the single greatest discovery in human history causes Calvert to breathe a sigh of relief because it would have meant changes to the existing economic order. Clearly he fears social revolution as much as political revolution. It is a view he shares with Hamilton and one that is heavily present in the Night’s Dawn trilogy. ‘Escape Route’ encapsulates the fact that the Confederation is the anti-Culture: a series that will go to any lengths to escape from post-scarcity into the comforting embrace of capitalism.