The Web: Lightstorm Peter F Hamilton (Dolphin, £3.50, 90 pages, paperback). February 1998.
After some highly impressive -- if mildly flawed -- early novels, Peter Hamilton has developed into one of our finest exponents of high tech sf adventures on a grand scale. (Reviews of all his books can be found elsewhere in infinity plus.)
With Lightstorm he turns his hand to young adult sf in the shared world of the Web series but unfortunately the result is something of a disappointment.
This, the fifth in the series, is quite different from the first four in terms of style and pace: Hamilton's fondness for exploring and explaining his fictional creations in detail, although toned down here, means that in such a short book very little actually happens. The plot of Lightstorm is thus very simple, the pace rarely more than a gentle saunter. These aren't necessarily flaws in themselves, but the trouble is that when things are moving so slowly the reader has more time to question what's going on, to spot the weaknesses and inconsistencies. And that's where this book starts to fall down.
Aynsley is a bright kid. He lives in Norfolk and he works hard at school so that one day he might fulfil his dream and become an astronaut. When Aynsley starts to see strange lights on his local marshes he 'spins in' to the Web to meet up with his friends and decide what to do.
They approach the local police, but aren't taken seriously. The marshes are being restored as a nature reserve by the multinational Bigene Industrie, so the next obvious step for the children is to tell Bigene what's happening. And of course Bigene have such a squeaky-clean image that they must be bad...
When Bigene try to dismiss the incidents the children decide to investigate for themselves, and so get drawn deeper and deeper into the murky underside of corporate behaviour. The intrigue and action (when it takes place) are all handled pretty well, but throughout I kept asking myself just why the children should be so concerned about a few strange lights... So concerned to the extent that they'll break the law and, later, choose to miss the first human landing on Mars (remember, Aynsley and at least one of his friends are space-obsessed wannabe-astronauts)! It just doesn't ring true.
Part of the trouble is that we're only ever told about the lights: they happen, but off-stage -- Hamilton hasn't thought to show us. Perhaps if he'd opened the book with a bit of a light show -- some drama, some danger -- then what followed would have been so much more believable. As it stands, the characters don't appear convincingly motivated, they're tugged along by the requirements of the plot, with the strings clearly visible.
The true Hamilton shows through in places, but even then he doesn't quite pull it off. In the climactic scene, Aynsley has to investigate what's going on in person. In order to take his virtual friends along, he wears his web-suit in what's called 'provider' mode: this is where someone in the real world becomes a micro-website in their own right and can share their real world experiences with others, who access it all via the Web. This is a clever and striking use of ideas, and at first it's very effective. But soon the boundaries between real and virtual start to blur -- both for the reader and for the writer. The obvious question, when Aynsley is confronted by Web-based enemies, is why the hell doesn't he just disconnect and concentrate on his real world problems? If that's not a viable option, then the author should at least make it clear why not. But that doesn't happen, and we have to take the ride with Aynsley and accept his own solutions.
In fact, the whole scenario isn't particularly convincing: a bit of localised pollution isn't exactly the worst thing a multinational corporation has ever done -- a Lightstorm in a tea-cup, if you like. The other elements of Bigene's wickedness don't really get a look-in -- suffice to say that worse things are going on behind the scenes, but they're not really important to the action of the book and they certainly don't feature prominently enough to play any kind of motivational part in the story's development.
As I say, Lightstorm is a disappointment, in part because of the high expectations raised by the author's adult fiction. But also because it just doesn't hang together: it's too wordy, too slow and ultimately fails to convince.
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© Keith Brooke 22 February 1998