If there is any marked difference between space opera as it first appeared on the market and space opera today, it’s size (along with a public/editorial acceptance of more graphic content). What was first published in magazines at short story to novella length appears today in door stopper tomes of lengthy series. The evolution a natural one, the inherent qualities of the sub-genre seem to require a broad canvas, one which marketing and changes in publishing have supported. One of the modern masters (for what it’s worth) of the form is Peter Hamilton. Fitting the space opera stereotype to a T, the length of his books, the size of the universes he describes, and the action fast and simple, his books are everything one would expect from space opera. Delving into his third major series, and second in the Commonwealth universe, The Dreaming Void (2007) is the first of a trio of more big—in more ways than one—science fiction.
Set 1,500 years after the story told in Judas Unchained and Pandora’s Star, The Dreaming Void sets the scene in the universe at large as it deals with a massive void slowly expanding to engulf star systems. A religious order is also growing in belief of the void. Led by the enigmatic Ethan, its pilgrims prepare to make a trip inside, believing it offers salvation. Local aliens against the idea, thinking such an intrusion will cause the void to expand dynamically and swallow their nearby systems, tensions run high in human/alien relations. Meanwhile, a government scientist is tasked with creating a super-ultradrive that may affect the diplomacy, and behind those scenes, a man whose past is blurry even to himself, sets out to find a person named Inigo who may, or may not, have extensive knowledge about what the void really is. His methods violent, he will stop at nothing at find Inigo—or at least virtually.
But the most important character in The Dreaming Void is Edeard. Possessing fledgling psi-powers beyond his comprehension, his talents as a young animal shaper are well known in his little village. But attacked one day by bandits, his greater powers of telekinesis and telepathy are revealed in a flash, and recede just as quickly as the attack is quelled. The bandits seeking revenge in the aftermath, Edeard, and his fellow villagers, are in for a major surprise as the young man finds his way toward a better understanding of himself. What role he plays in the existence of the void is only hinted at, but certainly important as legends spread across the galaxy of the Waterwalker.
Never moving beyond the bounds of what one expects, The Dreaming Void, like Hamilton’s previous series, is space opera of the purest distillation. Hyperspace, wormhole travel, tentacled aliens, laser guns, biomodified secret agents, space ships, psi powers,techy language, conspiracies—nearly all the standard devices and motifs are employed. Never getting bogged down in excessive descriptions or extraneous exposition, Hamilton keeps the plot moving briskly, alternating randomly through the handful of main characters’ perspectives. How they all relate only slowly becoming clear, at the end of the novel it’s obvious there is still a lot of story to tell.
There is no clear failing in The Dreaming Void. What Hamilton sets out to do, he accomplishes. Unlike many space opera writers, his writing style is clear, doesn’t get caught up in excessive descriptions, and appears to have control over the individual character arcs. That being said, The Dreaming Void is not complex literature. Dependent on relevant action sequences, scattered sex scenes, overt character interaction, simple morals, and the eye candy one expects in the sub-genre, it is shallow storytelling, and will therefore disappoint the reader looking to engage with books at a deeper level. The only depth it possesses is plot complexity, but that only gets the active reader so far.
In the end, The Dreaming Void, like Hamilton’s previous series, is standard space opera that will surely appeal to the portion of science fiction fans who love such stories. Vigorous, efficient, base, familiar, massive—it has all the hallmarks of classic space opera. For sub-text, however, there indeed is a void…