I approached Fallen Dragon expecting the kind of story upon which Hamilton has largely built his name, that being the large scale epic conflicts characteristic of The Commonwealth Saga and The Nights Dawn Trilogy. I expected to be treated to tales of diverse human colonies on dozens of worlds, of thriving societies made possible by the wonders of faster than light travel. Such is the usual model of Hamilton's stories, featuring utopian societies wrought by a technological dream that are threatened only by outside forces. Having become comfortable with this model, Fallen Dragon hit me as something of a shock.
In Fallen Dragon, faster than light travel is slow and extremely expensive, the colonies that have been founded have mostly developed into clones of Earth, and even this age of colonisation is coming to an end. Trade is prohibitively expensive, making it always cheaper to produce locally. The only commercially viable ventures are "asset realisation." This delightful form of capitalism is essentially legalised plundering; companies on Earth buy out the shares of a colony's founding company and then send warships to collect on their investment by forcibly looting the thriving colony. In this universe, Earth's only exports are military force and fear. It can be quite jarring to our idealistic notions of space travel to hear colonists paint Earth as the villain. Hamilton hammers home this depressing image of a universe where star flight does not provide us the means to solve all our problems throughout the entire book, to significant effect. Technology is not sleek and effective, but rather cheap and functional; free fall is not something humans have adapted to and remains a deeply unpleasant experience, computers perform all complex functions without human intervention, often leaving them little more than squishy passengers. The effect is truly quite depressing, producing the very opposite of the addictive quality usually endemic to Hamilton's writing. At first, I rather wondered what he was doing.
What kept me going were the slimmest glimpses of hope throughout the story. The action takes place almost entirely on the planet Thallspring where the mercenary Lawrence Newton has been posted as part of an asset realisation campaign. Opposing him and his fellow "aliens" is Denise Ebourn, who leads an unusually effective resistance movement. Denise's cover is as a nursery school teacher and the reader is periodically treated, alongside the children, to tales of a universe where star travel was easy and civilisation wrapped its way around the entire Galactic core. The unusual detail of these children's stories is the first hint of hope for relief from the depressingly human main body of the story.
The second comes in the form of flashbacks to the life of Lawrence Newton. Obsessed from a young age with star flight, Newton becomes addicted to a media series that, like Denise's children's stories, paints a universe of opportunity and starflight in unusual depth. Combined, these two most tenuous of hints sustain in the reader a slim hope that the universe might not be as bleak as Hamilton relentlessly paints it. Newton's flashbacks also fulfill a further important function, telling the story of how a son from one of the richest families of one of Earth's only successful colonies came to find himself being shot at, penniless and despised on a backward planet. Through these flashbacks we watch the slow destruction of Lawrence's dreams of becoming a starship pilot as everything of value to him is stripped away, leaving him bitter and jaded. Despite this, Lawrence holds with him a slim core of hope that manifests itself in a physical talisman he holds close to him the same way the reader ends up clinging to Denise's stories.
Whilst Hamilton still lacks the ability to create truly brilliant characters, it becomes almost irrelevant in Fallen Dragon, given the potency of his ability to create in the reader the exact feelings felt by his principal character. The ending that Hamilton creates for Fallen Dragon could so easily have felt contrived, the fact that it instead feels like some combination of transcendence and blessed relief is a monumental achievement in walking a very thin line. Fallen Dragon is perhaps the least immediately appealing of all Hamilton's books, lacking their usual addictive quality and the thrill of discovering new worlds. For those patient enough to see it through however, it is also easily his most personally affecting and cleverly written. Fallen Dragon is a love letter to star flight that recognises the potential for humans to make a mess of anything, sincerely hoping that we won't.