Watching Trees Grow is an alternate history look at what would have happened if the roman empire had continued and gone on from strength to strength. With big families dominating the upper classes and the empire unrivaled across the planet there is a golden age of sorts. Through selective breeding in the ‘Sport of Emperors’, life spans of the families are now measured in centuries rather than decades of the Shorts, those without the selective breeding.
With the murder of Justin Ascham Raleigh, a family representative – Edward Bucahanan Raleigh – is charged with finding the murderer. With the options limited he delves into the friendships of those who were with him that night trying to find motivations and suspects for the act. With the investigation starting on the night of the murder, the pieces slowly come together to reveal the full picture centuries later.
At its heart Watching Trees Grow is essentially a murder mystery, but unlike others it doesn’t really give you the clues to fully guess the murderer. Yes, it does pretty much tell you who it could be out of a handful of suspects, but I seriously doubt that anyone could find solid clues.
What this story does is display what Peter F Hamilton is truly good at: world building. Peter takes the roman empire as a base and extrapolates the alternate history we find ourselves in. As it is a short novella, and due to the fact that we jump through four different periods over a couple of centuries, the information is simply dumped on us. That may sound bad, but it really isn’t. Those who have read Peter’s work before will know what I mean and for others, well, it just fits in with the flow. With the first person narrative it feels like we’re being told a story, not given a page of notes on the subject.
That the story in itself is enjoyable enough is one reason to read this, but it’s the deep history that is conveyed in such a short time that is the most impressive part. It would be great to see this setting taken forward in a larger role, perhaps a full sized novel. Until that time this will more than suffice – it certainly has enough crammed in to warrant a re-read on more than one occasion.