WATCHING TREES GROW
by Peter F. Hamilton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Watching Trees Grow is Peter F. Hamiltonís millennia-spanning mystery novella. Although it apparently begins at a nineteenth century British college, it quickly becomes apparent that the Empire is an offshoot of a Roman Empire that managed to perfect a sort of near-universal immortality. The story opens with the death by murder of a young and promising student. Two family patriarchs are called in to oversee the police investigation into the death.
When Justin Ascham Raleigh is found murdered in his room, Edward Buchanan Raleigh is summoned to Oxford to assist Raleigh family patriarch, Francis Haughton Raleigh in the investigation. This initial investigation, which forms a significant part of the story, sets the scene and introduces the characters, but fails to come to a resolution, which is, in fact, the point of Watching Trees Grow. Given the infinite lifespans of the characters, Edward is under no impetus to conclude his investigations in a timely manner. Rather than speed, his goal is for a successful conclusion.
Subsequent chapters are set at various points in the future, ranging from a mere twenty-one years after the crime until more than two centuries after Justinís murder. It is clear that Edward is pursuing other activities during most of that time. Hamilton has chosen to focus on him only when he is able to apply new technology to clues which were recovered at the time of the murder.
The Raleigh family understands that future technology will advance in ways which canít yet be determined. Because of this, they plan for the future, taking a long-term look at the possible forensic evidence in the case and safe-guarding it until the time when it could be used. The story does not become a simple paean to the wonders of technology because of the manner in which Hamilton has integrated this theme into the general narrative.
It is possible for the reader to figure out who committed the crime, but Hamiltonís intention does not seem to have been to write a pot boilers, but instead to use the tropes of a mystery in order to examine the way technology can be used to solve mysteries. In fact, Justinís murder is only one of the mysteries included in the novella. Hamiltonís characters are equally interested in using the new technological advances to resolve the mysteries of the universe.
Although Hamiltonís culture and history donít quite work together, the double focus on the story is the murder and the technological advances which are made in the centuries following it. Because of this, there seems to be no reason that Hamilton couldnít have set the entire story in a futuristic setting which would have removed the biggest weakness.
Watching Trees Grow is an enjoyable mystery which includes science fictional speculation to make it work and allow Edward to solve Justin's murder. While his setting and the history leading up to it may not work, it is such a minor part of the tale that it doesn't distract from the themes and messages Hamilton successfully conveys.