The writers of The Quill to Live are undertaking a small project this year – we are reading a book series as a group and recording an audio discussion for each installment. The series in question is The Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter Hamilton. The books, starting with The Reality Dysfunction, are absolutely massive, clocking in at over 1200 pages of dense reading apiece. As such, there is a ton to unpack and discuss, especially given that our reviewers did not agree on how we felt about the book. Expect to see that audio discussion sometime this month, but if you would prefer to just read a short review of the first book, we have you covered. Please keep in mind that these are just my (Andrew’s) opinions, and the other site reviewers do not necessarily agree with my review (as you will hear in the coming discussion).
So what is The Reality Dysfunction? To begin with, it is Peter Hamilton’s first book – and as someone who has read most of the larger body of his work, it is interesting to see how far he has come as a writer. Hamilton is one of my favorite science fiction writers, though I think some of his books are definitely better than others. In particular, I am a massive fan of his Pandora’s Star duology. Hamilton brings a degree of anthropology to his books and likes to explore how new technology and information permeates society and how it changes the human experience.
The Reality Dysfunction takes place in a future human confederacy. Our race has spread to the stars, colonized a number of new planets, invented a number of new technologies and cultures, and met a few alien species. We are happily spreading among the stars until an unlucky group of colonists essentially accidentally starts a spiritual plague. People begin to become possed by otherworldly beings and it spreads across humanity like a strange plague. We view these events through a wide and diverse cast of characters. The lead, if there was one, is Joshua Calvert – a young space captain, and notorious sex fiend (we will come back to this). There are also a number of other scientists, leaders, colonists, criminals, and blue-collar workers spread across a number of worlds. Each of these POVs gives you insight into different parts of Hamilton’s world and comes together to build a massive holistic experience.
Reviewing The Reality Dysfunction was hard because while I really enjoyed the book overall, I had a mixed experience with each element of Hamilton’s storytelling. For example, the worldbuilding was incredible. Hamilton, over hundreds and hundreds of pages, slowly and beautifully pieces together a massive human empire that feels like a complex living machine. He does this through insane attention to detail when it comes to economies, environments, cultures, and people to paint what feels like a possible future for our species. On the other hand, Hamilton says the Confederacy is a collection of hundreds of worlds, but we only find ourselves hearing about five – which made the universe feel a bit empty (especially compared to his other books where the galaxy feels a lot more vibrant).
Then we have the plot. The book begins with almost twenty unrelated POVs that take place across the galaxy. As the book progresses, Hamilton hooks you with more than ten exciting subplots that had me coming back for more. At about the midway point in book one, the spirits make an entrance and we start to see how the different subplots are related. I think the biggest sin that Hamilton commits in this book is that the subplots were more interesting than the major possession plotline. That is not to say the possession story is bad, it is just that I was insanely invested in these smaller stories and it almost felt like the possession story was unnecessary. There is A LOT going on in this book (which is unsurprising at page count over 1200). I just wish that Hamilton had done a little more with the main plot to make it feel more integral to the characters’ stories.
Next, we have the characters, which are a little uneven. I called Joshua the theoretical protagonist, but that is only because he is clearly Hamilton’s favorite. Joshua is a walking cyclone of Gary Sue-ness, and the reviewers and I collectively started referring to him as Joshua Hard Penis (JHP), as he fucked literally everything with an orifice in this book. The characters collectively were a wonderful, diverse, and complex cast. However, I feel it could be argued that there might have been some subtle sexism in Hamilton’s writing. The female cast often feels a little less capable and more focused on being sex objects. That being said, I’ve read my fair share of Hamilton and never once felt his writing was sexist. This being his first book, it’s apparent he had yet to work out the sexual kinks.
Following up on this, one of Hamilton’s strongest abilities as a writer is that everything he does is visceral and intense. His descriptions suck you in and make you feel like you are there, his action gives you an adrenaline rush, his torture haunts you for days after you read it, and his sex scenes make you feel like you DEFINITELY shouldn’t be reading what feels like erotica on your subway ride. His writing is extremely evocative and it gives his novels a deep and lasting impression and helps you immerse yourself in his worlds. Most of his books have a respectable amount of sex, but it was super clear that Hamilton was trying to use smut to sell his debut novel. There is so much god damn sex in this book. We are talking anti-gravity sex cages, weird astral projection orgies, and super genetically enhanced genitals. If you really like your sci-fi to have a lot of steamy sex, this book might be your fetish. But, for a lot of people, I suspect that there is simply a little too much sex in this book. All of his later work is a lot more toned down in this area, and I am hoping it will level out in the second book in the series.
The Reality Dysfunction takes a little patience to read, but I think it is worth it. I loved this book, but I do think it is slightly bogged down by first-novel jitters. Having read his later work it is clear that he grew a lot after writing this first book – but The Reality Dysfunction is still a very solid science-fiction novel that will delight most readers. Its biggest hold up is honestly probably its prohibitive size, and I suspect a number of readers will be scared away by its density. For those of you who might be holding out, Hamilton is an expert in taking you to new worlds and I highly recommend you set aside a chunk of time and dig in.
Rating: The Reality Dysfunction – 8.5/10