Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: The Confederation Handbook

On my camping trip I finished reading a Father's Day acquisition (another used book purchase from the Rediscovered Bookshop), Peter F. Hamilton's The Confederation Handbook, published in 2000. It's subtitled "The Essential Companion Guide to the Night's Dawn Trilogy: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and the Naked God."

Ironically, I started reading the first volume of the Reality Dysfunction and couldn't quite wade through it. It's a general problem that I have with Hamilton's longer work--it's really, really long. I find that in stories that immense and sprawling I lose contact and interest with the characters and events taking place. I might try my hand at his work again, as he's a pretty popular writer in the genre, but just as I felt that Alastair Reynolds's first novel, Revelation Space, was easily 100 pages longer than it needed to be, I think Hamilton could use a more aggressive editor. But the market seems to embrace this excess, as least to a degree: it's one reason why I've simply stopped reading Neal Stephenson's novels.

That said, I actually found The Confederation Handbook to be a bit too short. It's an interesting look at some fairly sophisticated world-building. I picked it up as one of the many references I've gathered on fictional worlds as I embark on my own science fiction and fantasy projects.

The book gives a nice overview of the primary human cultures in the books, the Adamist and Edenist cultures. Although frankly the Edenist culture is presented as so powerful, so nice, and so superior with its use of affinity that links everyone together into a collective group mind that also maintains individuality that it grates a little bit even in a presentation as dry and brief as this one. (That said, I think living in an Edenist culture could be pretty cool. But they come off as Mary Sues here, even with the brief mention of the presence of the very rare Serpents.) You do get an interesting mix of technologies and societies here.

I found the section on Starships and Weapons to be a bit too brief. I still can't visualize the structure of the Adamist starships from reading Hamilton's description here. The main focus is on the voidhawks, which I suppose is appropriate. This section is the first one that really suffers from a lack of any kind of artwork to help you visualize what Hamilton is describing (without a great flair for visual description, I might add).

The Members of the Confederation section is hit or miss. The section on Earth is interesting, as is the stuff on Kulu, Tranquility, Norfolk, the Dorados, and Valisk. These are distinctive enough to be cool and have a lot of potential story hooks laid throughout them. The rest left me kind of blah. It's interesting that so many VERY earthlike planets have been sought out for colonization and it fits with the scope of Hamilton's setting. But I would really have liked a simple time line of when various colonies were settled and some sort of reference outlining the basic steps for founding and developing a typical colony. Too many of the details of that process are hinted at vaguely here. I have a hard time understanding how the starting stage for an interstellar colony always begins with a somewhat backwards agricultural society. I'm not saying it isn't feasible, but Hamilton needs to lay out his logic here more clearly to make it believable after all the other high-tech elements. The whole bit about mixed ethnic-religious colonies being a complete failure also strikes me as a pretty high-handed judgment and is presented as fact without much to back it up. Seems like all the technological elements influencing Adamist culture would have made SOME changes to the way people interact and view each other over several centuries.

The aliens section also suffers greatly from lacking illustrations. The Kiint are interesting while the Tyraca aren't--but primarily because the Tyraca aren't fully described here for fear of giving away spoilers. I think that's another shortcoming of the book--it's rather coy with certain facts that you WANT to know when reading something that bills itself as a handbook.

The book's total absence of even the most rudimentary artwork or illustration is a big letdown and seems a bit puzzling considering that it was a mass-market release tied to a a major science fiction series. I can't see why the publisher couldn't have afforded a few line drawings or diagrams to illustrate some of Hamilton's aliens or spacecraft. Sure, it's a slim, mass market paperback. I've got a fairly crappy anthology of the same dimensions from 1986 (Body Armor: 2000) that includes an article called the Warbots reprinted from an old Galaxy magazine that is loaded with fantastic bits of b/w line art (I've posted an example here of what you can do in a plain paperback). So something simpler than this could have been done for this book. Even a map of interstellar space or simple graphic for the various colonies would have been nice.

The writing in general is rather dry but usually fairly clear with the information that it does try to get across. What's startling here is that no one thought to include quotations or vignettes from the novels to illustrate some of the concepts or places described in the handbook. Really? Those wouldn't have greatly improved the readability, illustrated some of the more difficult concepts more effectively, and held my interest to a greater degree? A rather dumbfounding oversight given that the author of the series is credited as being the author of this handbook. Wasn't he willing to permit himself to quote himself?

Overall, I suspect I'm spoiled by the quality of science fiction RPG supplements over the past ten years, such as Transhuman Space, GURPS Traveller, or Centauri Knights. They provide a more thorough background in what amounts to a similar number of words if you strip out the gaming stats (though the layouts are quite different). I'd argue that a supplement like Centauri Knights actually does more than the Confederation Handbook accomplishes in less space.

I think this book could have been improved by either expanding it and adding some illustrations OR by shortening it to a long essay hitting the highlights of the Adamist and Edenist cultures and given away free on a web site.

So, while mainstream setting handbooks like this are interesting to pick up once in a while, the Confederation Handbook is mediocre even given the advantage of having been written by the author of the books whose setting it references. Probably worth getting it used as I did if you are a fan of the six-book "trilogy" (I know the novels were published as three books in Britain, but they were absurdly long in that form). But don't buy the mass-market edition Amazon is selling--by no stretch of the imagination is this book worth $17. I wouldn't even pay full-price for the earlier printing, but that's closer to the true value.


Aaron DaMommio said...

Hey, good review. I've read all the Neutronium Alchemist etc books, and they're fun, but the problem of exhaustion does set in. If you're reading them as published, instead of all in a stream, it's perhaps less of an issue, oddly. I mean, you'd think it'd be more of a bother to remember stuff when you have to wait for the next book, but instead I find the wait prevents me from getting bored with the series. I've been collecting books lately so that I can read a whole series at once, and now I'm seeing that for some series, I just get bored.

Man, the Serpents of the Edenists are as bad as the Edenists are good. In general, his books have really really evil villains. Torture, rape, mindrape, bad bad stuff.

Doug said...

That's an interesting point about taking breaks between long books in long series. The first time I ran into problem of exhaustion with a series was with the Wheel of Time books. I raced through the first three, I think, and then the agonizingly slow pace of the plots and the overwhelming level of detail just obliterated any enthusiasm I had left for the characters or setting.

Maybe it's because I struggle to get beyond the first chapter, but I have a hard time understanding why an entire cadre of fantasy and science fiction writers can't fit a complete story into less than 800 pages. As long-winded as I am, I'm sure you find that comical to read.