In a relatively short space of time Peter F Hamilton has established himself as one of today’s bestselling British SF authors, due in no small part to the Night’s Dawn trilogy. This success has given him the freedom to explore new territories, and his latest novel marks an admirable departure from his usual fare. Unfortunately enough, Misspent Youth isn’t very good.
Misspent Youth tells the story of an aged scientist, Jeff Baker, who is chosen as the first recipient of a newly developed rejuvenation treatment. Baker’s work on data storage technology led to the creation of the Internet’s successor, the Datasphere, and so he is considered to be worthy of the extravagent expense that is entailed. After eighteen months in a German clinic, Baker emerges as a seventy year old man in a twenty year old’s body and is determined to make the most of his regained vitality. His teenage son, Tim, bears the brunt of his inconsiderate actions and must deal with the consequences of Baker’s wish-fulfillment. Set against the background of a federal Europe under threat from separatist terrorists, the Baker family’s upheavals may have further reaching consequences than anyone could have predicted.
Using the perspectives of both Tim and Jeff to narrate the story, with occasional interludes from Tim’s girlfriend Annabelle, Hamilton contrasts the angst of Tim’s teenage years with the hedonism of Jeff’s second youth. Jeff has been there and done that before, and this time around he is fully intent on enjoying himself without the crutch of inexperience. Tim has no such wisdom to his name and so lurches from crisis to crisis as he desperately strives to be accepted as one of the guys. In the initial stages this works quite well and it’s enjoyable to watch Tim adapt in the wake of the havoc wreacked by Jeff and to empathise with his concerns, even if they are of the teen soap variety.
In comparison, the character of Jeff does not bear up so well in the face of close scrutiny. Jeff’s reaction to his new found youth is limited to alienating his old friends and sleeping with every woman he meets, including many of Tim’s classmates, who are as one-dimensional and devoid of substance as Jeff himself. His attempt to rejoin the scientific community and continue his research is sketched out almost as an afterthought, whilst his musings over his earlier success imply that science is more about luck than hard work and dedication and so there’s no point to it once you’ve made your money. The description of Jeff’s life after rejuvenation centers wholly around sex and only scratches the surface of what could have been achieved with the premise of a man in search of a new purpose to his extended life. After a few chapters of Jeff’s exploits, it becomes clear that the plot is going to center around Jeff and Tim falling out and their reconcilation. Other than the lurid sex scenes, this pretty much sums up the entire story.
One of the advantages of using a near-future setting is that less effort is diverted towards the worldbuilding and so one can concentrate on the characters and the story. This does not mean that the background can lack credibility in any way and this is the case here and it is doubly so when the characters and story lack depth. Hamilton’s vision of a United Europe domineering over an isolationist United States just does not ring true and is largely in the background until the closing chapters of the book. The characters opposed to the United Europe, such as Tim, merely regurgitate nationalistic rhetoric commonly heard today and no effort is made to show the flip side of the coin. Hence readers must endure a polemic diatribe on the evils of a European Union that is frankly insulting.
If this was truly intended as a social comedy, then Hamilton wasted countless opportunities to show up Jeff’s outmoded way of thinking and social graces amongst the younger generation. The only interesting fact about Baker is the real reason why he refused to patent the data crystal technology, though it is well in keeping with his character. As a result, even when Baker starts to change his ways, one is sceptical of his motives and a special effort is required to feel any sympathy for him when things all start to go wrong. Misspent Youth might have been salvaged if the story had been told in its entirety from Tim’s perspective. This would have meant losing the viewpoint of Tim’s girlfriend, including the hilarious moment where a romantic encounter between Tim and Annabelle is shown from both sides, but as this is the only highlight of her contributions it would have been a bearable sacrifice to make.
To give Hamilton his due, he is trying out new areas and this is to be applauded in a time where authors are more comfortable finding themselves a niche and plundering it for all its worth rather than take any chances. It’s just a shame that he attempted to write a character drama and neglected to create a cast of people that the reader can empathise with. A leash on the polemic ranting about the evils of the European Union would also have been useful.
At 368 pages, Misspent Youth is practically a short story by Hamilton’s usual standards but this should be viewed as a positive aspect. It’s all over very quickly, with Hamilton’s fluid writing making strangely compelling reading, though more in the manner of watching a train wreck than due to any inherent tension or an unpredictable plot. Hamilton has done far better than this in the past and one hopes that his next book will mark a return to form, whether in the far reaches of space or somewhere else.
This review first appeared in The Alien Online (March, 2003)
Lex Falk, you are an acclaimed correspondent with several agency awards to your name and a reputation for hard facts and penetrating coverage, therefore the SO is very pleased to welcome you to Settlement Eighty-Six, and to validate your accreditation. Having you here proves to the public back home that, despite reports of open conflict, the Settlement Office has nothing to conceal on Eighty-Six, and your reportage will be received as unvarnished and credible.
You will, of course, report only what we permit you to report.” (1% )
Suffering from the burnout that comes with decades of space travel, Falk has come to Settlement Eighty-Six in expectation of the usual media show-and-tell and a fat pay cheque, not because he actually gives a shit about what may or may not be happening. According to the Settlement Office Military Directorate, an outfit not so much an army as a “very, very slick PR company with added guns” (12%), Eighty-Six is the site of a local dispute with anti-corporate paramilitaries and not, as rumour would have it, a war with Central Bloc forces.
“The Cold War’s been cold for nearly three hundred years, Falk. As we move out and expand, all it ever does is get colder and colder. Hard space sucks all the warmth out of it. We were at close quarters when it started, sharing one world, and still it started cold. It must be approaching heat death by now.” (8%)
Aha! It’s an alternate future history! Through casual conversation and narrative musings by Falk, we discover that Earth has diverged significantly from our present history and is made up of three superpowers: the United Status, the Central Bloc (aka the Russians) and China, all of whom compete for resources on each newly discovered planet, as overseen by the nominally neutral Settlement Office and its military arm. In this future, media control is extremely tight to the point where journalists are given hundred-page long vocabulary guides (“dispute” should be used instead of the sensitivity-averse word “conflict”) and corporations sponsor expletives and ling-patches that force journalists and soldiers to say the safe expletive in place of any other swear word.
Naturally Falk is too cynical to believe the SO cover story. In fact no one believes it, least of all the post-global corporations who are taking the blame for the situation. When Falk meets his former data engineer, Cleesh who has been forced out of orbit for health reasons, she hints at the bigger picture but refuses to let him in for fear of him scooping her. Meanwhile, Falk does some investigation of his own and partners up with a rookie reporter who finds hard evidence the official story is bullshit.
The rookie shags Falk to keep him on side and promptly takes a back seat after Cleesh introduces Falk to a corporation who intends to get the real story out there by embedding war reporters in the warzone. Since the SOMD won’t allow journalists to travel to the real front line, the corporation intends to “embed” Falk’s consciousness into the head of a chipped active duty soldier.
Falk’s embeddee is Private First Nestor Bloom, a twenty-something alpha male whose male and female buddies talk with gung-ho machismo, complete with fist-bumping and “bringing [one’s] A game”. Witness the briefing from Bloom’s staff sergeant Huck:
“This is no fuckabout. It’s come down from the top, the gloves are off. We’re going in live, so I do not expect you rat-ass motherfuckers to make me look like a pretard. Every day for months you’ve been telling me you want the real thing. Here we go, the real thing. You fumble this, so help me I will sodomise each and every one of you with a loaded PAP 20.” (27%)
Nice. Being experimental technology, nobody is entirely sure what the embedding experience will feel like for either person involved. What happens is that Falk’s anxiety starts to affect Bloom’s performance, leading to a serious case of nerves just when the team is deployed to the front line. “He felt the other him pulling against him, like an anti-him, equal and opposite, blocking his ever urge, his every desire, negating his every move.” (28%) Things promptly go to hell in a hand basket and most of Team Kilo get, as parlance has it, scorched. Bloom himself is critically injured and Falk finds himself in control of Bloom’s body, with the aims of getting Bloom out of the firing line without giving himself away and trying to find out precisely what is worth starting a hot war over.
Being mil-sf and not from the hand of David Weber or Elizabeth Moon, I didn’t go in expecting strong female characterisation, but Pyrofennec’s enthusiastic review of Abnett’s Warhammer 40K trilogy Ravenor led me to hope otherwise. However at this point I was in despair. I’d been disappointed by Noma Berlin shagging Falk, even if it was shown as being entirely her choice to keep him from breaking the story early, disappointed by Cleesh being reduced to technical support and then even more disappointed when Salter, the sole female member of Team Kilo gets killed off so that Falk could experience Bloom’s subconscious grief. It gets even better when the three Central Bloc Russian sex slaves show up in a bizarrely tangential sub-plot, though at least one of them gets to save the day by driving everyone to safety. Fuck yeah!
In between tightly written, albeit slightly samey firefights, Falk starts putting the pieces together and discovers that the SO has been illegally giving prime planetary resources to the US. Whilst this seems like a good way of providing some balance it comes so late in the book as to be utterly redundant. There’s no obvious ideological slant, which makes a refreshing change from the usual gamut of mil-sf, but the narrative places the Central Bloc squarely as the bad guys, guilty of procuring sex slaves and slaughtering a large number of Eighty-Six’s settlers (I refuse to use Abnett’s word “settlementeer” because it’s clunky as hell, like the other neologisms scattered about such as “presearch”, “undertractive”, “conflirtation” and “pretard”). There’s no attempt to paint the Central Bloc in a favourable light even though the ultimate prize is something that every side would quite happily go to war over. Also, where the hell were the Chinese in this? All three superpowers provide military personnel to the SOMD and yet we only ever see the perspective of US soldiers. It would have been nice to have had confused Central Bloc SOMD units involved, or some oblivious Chinese units who simply got caught in the crossfire.
Going back a little, the concept of a future conflict with Russia the Central Bloc seems like a misstep of sorts. Despite being a modern mil-sf novel, there was a quaint feel to the proceedings that one gets from reading Cold War era sf after the Cold War ended (Greg Bear’s Eon would be a prime example). I’d almost have been happier if it had been the Chinese who were the bad guys, although that would have come under heavy scrutiny if they had been as obviously villainous as the Central Bloc here and I suppose one should be grateful that he avoided dragging the Middle East into this.
The ending when it comes is rather abrupt, with the macguffin (well, the second if one counts the sketchily described embedding technology) being painfully obvious and yet not explicitly stated. Make of that what you will, but in certain respects it’s good when an author leaves something to the imagination instead of tying off all the loose ends in painstakingly tedious detail.
Anyone coming in for instant gratification like that girl on GoodReads who gave up after a few chapters should adjust their expectations accordingly. Abnett takes his time with a slow burn start before the Hollywood-styled action mayhem begins. Overall, it’s a good read and a refreshing change from the usual right-wing weapon fetish junk, but sadly it’s too under developed to warrant re-reading.
 Page numbers are sadly lacking on my Kindle edition of Embedded so quotations are referenced by how far into the book they are. I have no idea if this is Amazon or Angry Robot’s problem but someone sort this shit out please.