From the Desk of Peter F. Hamilton
As you’d expect in a 1,000 page novel like Great North Road, there are quite a lot of characters. However, most of them are secondary (important—as I’d be the first to assure them—but the whole plot doesn’t hinge around them). It is, as always, just an elite few who carry the story forwards. These have to be the ones that the reader recognises and empathises with. So authors normally have to choose someone who resonates with real life experiences, someone who has a problem, someone who has financial difficulty, or has failed in love, or maybe they can’t get a friend to understand their difficulty. Kids who are a handful always strike a chord with parents. You need something the reader can go: “Oh yeah, I get that.”
Which is why I decided to not do that for the main character in Great North Road.
I know, I know. And one day I’ll get round to reading that “How to Write a Proper Novel Properly” help book. Instead, I went for the more difficult approach of someone who has lost everything. Basically, if you’re reading this letter or the book, that’s not you. So if they’re not the most sympathetic of characters, how do I hold your interest? My choice was to give that character a very mysterious past. There’s a reason they have nothing to lose, and it becomes apparent during a slow reveal that plays out through the book. Such a person also adds a level of intrigue, because you just don’t know how they’ll react to anything. Their choices aren’t based on the same concerns and social rules as you or I. They make their own way through life, developing their own code as they do so.
Okay, I thought, that’s a good starting point. But what made them like that in the first place? Almost inevitably it had to be a miscarriage of justice. I’m not doing spoilers here, but I realized that the best way to play this was someone who did have it all. So we have someone whose life was systematically broken until they were left with nothing to lose, and now they also have a grudge. That makes them a very powerful force in any civilization.
I had a lot of fun writing that character, getting the motivations straight, and making them do things that ultimately the reader would understand and hopefully wind up respecting.
All of which makes the setting important. Great North Road takes place in 2143, which isn’t too far into the future. A lot of things will still be recognisable to anyone alive today, with some new technologies thrown into the mix to change if not the way we live then certainly our outlook on life. It was interesting trying to integrate extrapolations of today’s trends into society, how 3D printing will change companies and commerce, reducing dependence on big heavy-industry factories but bringing designers into a greater level of prominence and importance than today.
Energy usage, too, will change, I reasoned. Machines and consumer goodies will use less power, a tendency that is already well under way. But less doesn’t mean zero. Energy sources will still be important. And safeguarding them will continue to form a major part of every government policy. Politicians, then, won’t change much. Surprise. But I never set out to build a perfect future world, only one you can immerse yourself in and understand.
Peter F. Hamilton