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A future trip on the Great North Road'

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Science fiction epic offers snapshot of humanity's future

The science fiction epic has become an increasingly rare thing. The genre has become a world of multi-book storylines and ongoing series to its ultimate benefit, truth be told. However, there is no reading experience quite like the well-done inches-thick doorstop of a sci-fi novel. Sometimes, you just crave 1,000 pages of future thriller.

Of course, there's nothing worse than getting stuck with a dud. That much mediocrity can be a too-tough slog. So when you find yourself faced with a new one, all you can do is head to page one and hope.

'Great North Road' (Del Rey; $30), by Peter F. Hamilton, is one of those books that ultimately earns the commitment its size (976 pages) demands.

In the world of more than a century from now, mankind has discovered a method of traveling interstellar distances instantaneously. From this one innovation, solutions for many of humanity's problems have been found. However, this technology is controlled by one 'family' the Norths - composed of successive generations of clones, although the three brother-patriarchs of the clan have gone their separate ways.

When one of the Norths turns up dead in a Newcastle river, a lot of very powerful people want answers. It falls to Detective Sidney North to solve the case a case that grows more and more complex the deeper he delves, with a method of murder seen only once before, 20 years in the past.

There's a woman sitting in a maximum-security named Angela Tramelo convicted for that previous crime. She has spent the last 20 years insisting that she was not the person who murdered Bartram North and 13 other people. She claims that an alien monster did it and now she's being given a chance to prove it.

On Earth, Sidney Hurst tries to work his way through layers of bureaucracy and secrecy at the highest levels of government, finance and the military in a search for a murderer. On the planet of St. Libra, Angela is enlisted by the powers that be to assist in a mission to determine if there really might be an alien enemy to fear.

'Great North Road' is broadly ambitious; its multiple storylines and constantly shifting perspective deign to create a detailed glimpse at a small slice of the future. And it's generally quite successful the people and places Hamilton has created offer a nuanced look at this world. His 2143 feels like a genuine and believable future.

And it's a future with a pretty significant population. Hamilton is unafraid to introduce a wealth of characters; we're following a lot of people. In a book with as many branching substories as this one, there's always a risk of subplots that meander or disappear. Here, they provide wonderful details that develop not only the characters, but the world that they live in. The primary characters never feel like stereotypes or clichs with names.

'Great North Road' is almost two books and not just in length. On the one hand, we have a straight sci-fi yarn, a quest on an alien world. On the other, we have a taut police thriller. The overlap between the two is indirect in a way that allows them to be intertwined without actively affecting one another, ultimately resulting in an eminently satisfying payoff. Hamilton strikes just the right balance.

In 'Great North Road,' Peter Hamilton has created a work that is undeniably epic, a future world where humanity has grown in many ways, yet still remains the same in some of the most important ones. And daunting size aside, it's one heck of a good story.


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