Books: the Greg Mandel trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton

Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel books are the only cyberpunk stories I know of set in and around Peterborough. As my memories of the place are of being dragged around the big shopping centres there as a kid, it’s hardly a name to conjure with: it’s like setting your story in Milton Keynes, or something (though Charles Stross did that successfully). After global warming, Peterborough has a Mediterranean climate (a little far-fetched, perhaps, but I can’t quite remember how much we knew about global warming in 1993, when the first book was published). At the edge of the flooded Fens, it’s thriving port, filled with refugees from the floods, smugglers and whatnot.

The trilogy follows Greg Mandel, a former officer in the English Army who fought in the Jihad Wars. Mandel was given psychic powers as part of an experimental unit, the Mindstar Brigade. He can sense strong emotions, and gets flashes of intuition. Now a civilian, he makes a living as a private detective. As the trilogy begins, England has just revolted against the People’s Socialist Party, who took power in the chaos after the Warming. When the PSP largely disbanded the army, Mandel spent some time as an urban guerilla on the council estates of Peterborough, fighting with the PSP’s supporters. As we first meet him, he’s on his way to assassinate a former member of the hated People’s Constables, who used to beat people well with their magic wellness sticks. He’s soon tangled up in solving problems for Event Horizon, an emerging English mega-corporation. Event Horizon aren’t a stereotypical evil corporation: they’re the good guys, a sort of mega family firm. Julia Evans, the boss, is another recurring character in the books, though, reassuringly, she’s not Mandel’s love interest.

Reading the books after The Magicians, I found Hamilton’s style tight and easy to read rather than sparkling or poetic. Sometimes we get a cyberpunk version of Hello magazine: he’s got an irritating habit of carefully describing what people are wearing when he introduces them and detailing the makes and models of cars, weapons and so on; and almost everyone is beautiful. That said, the plot rattles along satisfyingly, with some gripping set-pieces. Of course, there are big corporations who duel via their hired mercenaries, spies and hackers, but these standard cyperpunk elements are combined with mysteries for Mandel to solve, mixing the SF stuff with detective fiction.

Hamilton went on to write several door-stops in the Night’s Dawn trilogy (the dead come back… in space, with Al Capone as the principal villain: strangely not as bad as it sounds, although the ending was a let down) and the Commonwealth Saga (which contains the neat idea of running railway lines through stable wormholes). I like the Greg Mandel books for their comparative brevity, pace, and their English take on cyberpunk.

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