One of the highlights of my weekend was getting to sneak into Peter’s panel. He’s probably my favorite current author, and his duology that starts the Commonwealth universe (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained) are easily high up in my best ever list. But I’m not entirely sure I’m excited by his announcement that it’s being piloted for television.
The story is full of layers and intertwining plots, with a very large cast of amazing characters. What bothers me is I can just see a producer wanting to pare it down to the bare minimum of the humans opening the Dyson Pair forcefield, triggering the war, and focusing only on the splashy action. And worse, doing it on a minimal television budget. I love action as much as the next guy, but this is one of those stories where the action is merely the set dressing for the real plot. You could remove most of the battle scenes (not the last two), and lose nothing of the story. That doesn’t mean they’re filler, but if one HAD to pare down the bang-bang-shield-shield, it’d work out okay.
But Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record at properly adapting stories written for the page. They dump things all the time, gloss over others, and short-shrift the important details. As much of that as went on in the Harry Potter movies, it could’ve been worse still; they were going to cut Dobby before Rowling managed to convince them they’d have some pretty large problems in the later movies if they did. And they still completely changed her ending, along with a lot of other things, even though she won the house elf skirmish.
So while I’d love to see a proper adaptation, I’m just very scared the folks on the left coast won’t bother to do more than phone it in. Over an analog line, using a rotary dial, and not listen to anything that gets shouted back through all that at them.
Having said all that, television would be the right place to do it. To be fair, if Lord of the Rings can be told (pretty well, I should add) in a trio of three hour movies, then I can see how the Commonwealth can be done similarly; but off the top of my head I think it would probably need something on the order of about 15 or so hours to do right. That’d work out to about 22 hour long episodes (commercials, never forget an hour isn’t an hour in TV land). Without going through the motions of looking at a screenplay of the stories, I still think one good solid season could pull it off if the writing and budget were there.
That’s the downer part of the news.
The fun part is how great the story could be if adapted. A human civilization spread across roughly fifty planets using no star ships is just cool. That’s what hooked me into the book when I first looked at it; they use trains to travel from planet to planet. And trains means choo-choo, like railroad; not some sort of flying / space traveling object they just happen to call trains. Steam engines even show up. The real trick is wormholes, but to go from Earth to Far Away (a key planet in the story) or anywhere else still involves riding a train. The wormholes also serve to link everything together digitally, so the internet (Hamilton calls it the Unisphere) spans all of that. I forget if an exact number is ever mentioned, but the population of the Commonwealth is well into the multi tens of billions. And they’re all connected to each other in real time, with little more delay than we here on Earth deal with when connecting London to Sydney or Tokyo to New York.
Wormhole technology is half of the core technology that squarely places these stories in the science fiction category. It’s used throughout both books in all sorts of ways, showcasing how it has changed and shaped the society. The other half is a combination of regenerative medical procedures and the ability to both download and upload human neural patterns. That twofer allows for people to not only ‘go under’ for a two or three year procedure that de-ages their body back down to an intact 20s (plus most any kind of change you could possibly conceive of the most advanced plastic surgery accomplishing along the way), but even if they meet some sort of untimely end they can be cloned and reloaded back into it as a ‘relife’ procedure so they don’t truly die; everyone ‘backs up’ regularly so they don’t lose their memories or selves if such an accident does occur. Hamilton wisely skips any religious interference with this; it would only distract from the fun of the tale.
It’s space opera, and hard space opera at that. I don’t require ‘hard’ SF to show equations or give a step-by-step of how to implement the tech in the story. Frankly, I feel anyone who does is being exceptionally overly demanding. Hamilton makes his demands of belief suspension with these sorts of core technologies, and otherwise focuses entirely on the characters as they live and move and breathe in the world that results.
As for the cast, it’s a large one. Plenty of opportunities for great actors to step up. Paula Myo and Gore Bernelli are amazing roles for any actor to aspire to, and they’re just two. Mellanie Rescorai and Justine Bernelli (Gore’s daughter) are quite good as well, and will be even more challenging to cast since as written both roles are physically young women but mentally much older. In Mellanie’s case, she’s actually as young as she looks, but develops pretty quickly along the way and spends a good chunk of time playing with the ‘old’ people. Justine is something like three (maybe more) times older than she appears, so the standard vapid starlet with air leaking out her ears would ruin it. A number of politicians, high level corporate types, kings of industry to make current industry kings jealous in the extreme, a space navy that eventually shows up, and of course the alien’s body-snatched humans as it puppets its way through the Commonwealth. Twists, turns, it’s all there. A grand story that holds water with the best ever written.
If only they don’t fuck it up.
Cross your fingers, Hamilton fans. Not for him; for us. We all suffer if Hollywood doesn’t do it justice.