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Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton
Review by John Berlyne
Tor Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0333900707
Date: 08 November 2002 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Misspent Youth comes across as something as a departure for Hamilton - an author more likely, it seems, to offer us hard-boiled SF detective stories (i.e. the Greg Mandel books) or enormous sweeping militarist space operas (The Night's Dawn Trilogy).

His latest novel has a far more pastoral feel it, less about futuristic inventions (though they're by no means absent from the story) and more about the emotions of the characters (not that I'm suggesting this was ignored in Hamilton's previous works).

It is forty or so years in the future and Jeff Baker, the man responsible for the creation of the datasphere -- the information grid that replaced the Internet -- is the first person chosen for an extraordinary gene replacement treatment. After spending months in hospital, the seventy-eight year old emerges in the body of a twenty-year old and the novel explores the effect this has on both him and those around him, his family and friends.

It is an interesting notion and indeed a question we all ask ourselves from time to time. Would we do things differently if we had the chance? Hamilton gives us a "yes and no" kind of answer but displays no ambivalence in the process. In spite of all the wisdom his long-life has brought him, Baker soon finds his twenty-year old body leading him around by his penis, and who can blame him! However his insatiable appetites and the fact that he's not really thinking with his head soon lead him into conflict -- especially with his son, Tim. In exploring Baker's condition, Hamilton touches upon the fragility of age (via his Alzheimer effected mother-in-law) and the hot-headed impulsiveness of the young, and the balance between these two poles is maintained beautifully throughout. Though the book does sometimes dip into perhaps more pedestrian and domestic areas than the average Hamilton reader might prefer, the author keeps it all tightly within an SFnal environment.

Indeed, one of the things Hamilton does so well here is evoke a believable setting -- a Britain with a calm, suburban, almost Colonel Blimp-like feel -- specifically the county of Rutland, where the author currently resides -- though one dominated by the central governing body of the European super state of which is now a part. This latter aspect infringes upon the story with growing intensity until by the last third of the book, it begins to read like the personal author's manifesto railing against the political bureaucracy such a union might bring. This transition is not a particularly comfortable one for the reader, but at the very least it makes the book a demanding one.

I would put it to Hamilton that no character outside the most generic of fantasy novels can believably say "Ye Gods" as an exclamation, unless he's being ironic! Yet in spite of this, there remain few stylistic lapse in this piece -- indeed Hamilton displays admirable cheek with the inclusion as a character of an ancient, though far from doddering, Graham Joyce. Joyce (who accordingly to Hamilton, wins the Booker prize in 2012!) has a new novel due out from Gollancz in December - it'll be interesting to see if he returns the compliment.

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