Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

Misspent Youth

Peter Hamilton

Macmillan / Pan Macmillan

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-333-90070-7

Publication Date: 11-08-2002

358 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 12-06-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction, General

02-05-02, 02-14-02, 03-07-02, 03-21-02, 07-30-02, 09-20-02, 10-03-02, 12-06-02, 12-13-02, 12-31-02

Peter F. Hamilton is known for his big-screen space operas, some of the finest examples of the form readers can hope to find. In 'Misspent Youth', he takes a completely new tack. Set in a United Europe only 40 years in the future, 'Misspent Youth' is the tale of Jeff Baker, the philanthropic inventor of the 'datasphere', the all-pervading successor to the Internet. If information wanted to be free, it was Jeff Baker managed the trick. Now an elderly man in his late 70's, he's married to an ex-model nearly 40 years his junior, and father to a teenage son about to graduate and head off for college. This all seems like brand-new territory for Hamilton, but it really isn't. In both the 'Night's Dawn Trilogy' and 'Fallen Dragon', he paid a fair amount of attention to domestic concerns, though reader's memories tend to focus on the awesome scenes of terror and battle. Here the battles are all in the bedroom. It's compelling reading, but your ability to enjoy the work may hinge on your tolerance for despicable characters. Hamilton's usual assortment of bright-white heroes is definitely on vacation for this novel, and his sense of justice seems to have taken a leave of absence as well.

As the novel begins, we get a glimpse of the life of a typical troubled but privileged teenaged Tim Baker. He's got hormones to spare, but is clumsy with the girls. It's not a new story, but Hamilton hits all the right notes. The author then serves up the novel's main course: Jeff Baker, Tim's father has been chosen as the first subject for a full rejuvenation. Upon his return to the family manor, he'll have the body and even the brains of a twenty-something male with most of his memories of years of experience. Sounds great, doesn't it? In Hamilton's hands it rapidly devolves into a viagra-powered 21st century update on Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Hamilton manages to have a hell of a lot of fun before the clock runs out. As events unfurl, 'Misspent Youth' moves from domestic drama to domestic farce to domestic outrage. All that's left is for things to get political, and eventually that happens as well.

Hamilton's best in the early and mid portions of the novel as the character of Jeff Baker and his teenaged son, both now fully under the influence of their hormones, bring out the worst in each other in the best fashion of father and son combat. Hamilton is convincing enough to make the reader think that he must indeed be a privileged father of a privileged son, since the behavior his son exhibits seems so natural. And Hamilton doesn't shrink from turning characters who at first seem likable into despicable cads. As the domestic consequences of rejuvenated father, teenaged son and younger wife play out in catastrophic fashion, the novel is gripping, funny and insightful. Since this is essentially a sex farce, it helps that Hamilton starts out with an excellent sense of what to show and what to hide.

What follows will be a cause for more than a little controversy. You're reading a novel titled 'Misspent Youth', and you're on the chapter titled 'Male Fantasy Island'. Well, it all lives up to the titles, though since what we're seeing is essentially a letter to Penthouse it starts to read a bit like a letter to Penthouse. Readers with a low threshold for that sort of thing may balk as the cad-o-meter starts to hit the red zone. Others will find it delightfully devilish. Of course, once things get political -- and they must in this sort of United Europe setting -- more needles will hit the red zone. As the drinking, the drugs and the women reach epic proportions, the riots start and what was once more of a joke starts to take on darker shadings. And for a bunch of rich bastards like this, it starts to seem as if a punishment worse than death is far too kind.

Hamilton may piss off a few readers and alienate those who were hoping for a alien-oriented battle scene, but his staging of the final portions of the novel once again demonstrates his skill for orchestrating mass mayhem. The pictures are stuck in the reader's heads whether or not they want them there. And depending on your political feelings about the very concept of a United Europe, you may feel like you've seen the home team rundown and backed over by some uncouth slobs. It's no matter because Hamilton winds this book up fast and pitches it hard. There's a familiar bit of sentiment that starts to seep in as the characters learn the comparative power of the love between parents and children versus hot sex with young women. It's a lot more even match than most readers will want to admit. But Hamilton certainly can't be accused of pulling his punches or nice-ing up a nasty situation. 'Misspent Youth' gives readers an eyeful of what happens when all the testosterone of a space opera is re-directed into hearth and home. It may not be a pretty picture, but it's pretty compelling to read.