BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Mysterious barriers appear around a pair of stars, the investigation of which unleashes a terrible threat to the human race.
PROS: Immersive stories; distinct and memorable characters; vivid imagery; outstanding world building; did not feel padded despite its length.
CONS: Some may feel the book suffers from too-much world building.
BOTTOM LINE: Don’t be put off by the book’s size, it’s worth every penny.
There’s something to be said for a 760-page hardback (or a 1,000-page mass-market paperback) book that can keep your interest level high and leave you wanting more. For me, Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star is such a book.
(Pandora’s Star is the first part of the Commonwealth Saga duology and will be followed by Judas Unchained, due out in February 2006. Hamilton’s earlier novel, Misspent Youth, while not a prequel, is also set in the same universe and sets the stage for this saga. According to Hamilton’s website, a new outing in the Commonwealth Universe, tentatively called The Void Trilogy, is on the way in 2007.)
The setting of Pandora’s Star is the Intersolar Commonwealth, a 24th century collection of more than 600 human-populated planets whose discovery is made possible by wormhole technology. To very briefly summarize, the main plot (there are several entertaining sub-plots) concerns the discovery of an astronomical anomaly in which the light from a pair of stars suddenly disappears. The cause is deemed to be a gigantic artificial force-field, a sort of Dyson Sphere on a much larger scale. About halfway through the book, the reader discovers what is hidden inside one of the Dyson pair barriers. As expected from the book’s title, what is inside the barrier may have better been left alone.
Given the length of the book, the pacing is about what you’d expect. Although the main plot is slow to start this is not necessarily a slow book. I liken it to 24 and Prison Break (and other season-long story arc shows) where each individual chapter (or episode) is entertaining by itself but also contributes to the longer story arc that is played out across the book (or the television season).
This large-scale, character-driven space opera is typical of Hamilton and will undoubtedly please fans of his Night’s Dawn trilogy. The scale of the story and the cast size is similar. In Pandora’s Star, the author manages to create and juggle dozens of characters in such a way that they are distinct and therefore memorable. I had no trouble keeping track of who was who – even when a character was offstage for 100 or more pages. There’s Wilson Kime, pre-wormhole astronaut, 5-times rejuvenated, who is assigned to take the ship Second Chance to the Dyson pair to assess any possible threat; Dudley Bose, amateur astronomer who discovers the anomaly of the Dyson Pair and politically maneuvers a berth aboard Second Chance where he is able to, well, screw over the whole human race. MorningLightMountain, leader of the hive aliens known as the Prime, a brutal race bent on expanding throughout the universe; Nigel Sheldon, who used the wormhole technology he helped invent and turned it into the planet-exploring Compression Space Transport (CST) Corporation; Ozzie Fernandez Isaac, the hippie-like genius behind wormhole technology who embarks on a journey in the alien worlds of the mysterious, elf-like Silfen to discover the truth behind the Dyson pair barrier; Bradley Johansson, leader of the xenophobic terrorist cult Guardians of Selfhood that believes an alien called the Starflyer is manipulating humans towards the destruction of the species and will stop at nothing to prove it – even if it means the destroying the Second Chance; Adam Elvin, independent terrorist who helps the Guardians achieve their aims; Paula Myo, genetically engineered to be the perfect CST special agent, yet frustrated when her decades-long attempts at stopping Johansson and Elvin repeatedly fail; Mark Vernon, a mechanic disillusioned by life among the stars and hopeful that the Guardians can provide a better life for his wife, Liz, and their kids; Justine Burnelli, socialite whose political family ties are used to manipulate the Commonwealth; Kazimir McFoster, born on the expansion-phase-three planet Far Away into a family clan dedicated to the Guardians’ fight against the Starflyer and enamored over his “angel” Justine; Allasandra Baron, tenacious reporter who uses sex and manipulation to get her story; Mellanie Rescorai, spoiled millionaire’s girlfriend, cast out and finding her own way in the Commonwealth, even if it means allowing the artificial intelligence called SI to partly reside in her memory chips; an unnamed assassin augmented to be the perfect killing machine and in the control of some unknown faction – is it the StarFlyer after all? There are many more characters, each with an interesting part to play in the overall story arc even it was sometimes too coincidental how some storylines intersect.
Hamilton’s very detailed writing style, while sometimes dry, paints a vivid picture that kept me thinking that this would be great material for the screen. (I still have a vivid image of the Marie Skibbow character from Night’s Dawn, for reasons not least of which that I always pictured her as Juliette Lewis. Go figure.) The events are appropriately dramatic without going overboard and the characters are well drawn and sympathetic. Just pages after the introduction of Mark Vernon and a glimpse into his family life, I felt sympathy for him and even panic when he seriously contemplates the xenophobic galactic-spam message of the Guardians terrorist cult.
This book is all about the world building. With multiple character threads, the early parts of the book put the plot in the back seat while the world-building takes the helm. Each character is introduced with a very detailed background that makes them seem real and each backgrounder contributes to the Commonwealth universe, though not necessarily the story. Technologies prevalent in the universe are cool as well. There’s the ability to store/retrieve memories which, combined with cloning and a multitude of worlds to populate, leads to rejuvenation becoming commonplace. An interesting portrayal of this is that murder has mostly been eliminated; what’s the point when a person can be rebuilt and live multiple lifetimes? (An earlier novel set in the same universe, Misspent Youth, deals with the origins of rejuvenation.) There are personal eButlers that connect people to the unisphere, the 24th century version of the Internet. People interface with technology through OCTattoos that give them a stylish circuit board appearance.
All this world building made it appealing to the reader in me who likes the sense of wonder, but I had to keep putting my action-loving reader in check. Put another way: although this book could have easily been 25%-30% slimmer with no loss of plot, it did not feel padded; it just added to the world building. For example, the introduction of CST explorer Oscar Monroe is prefaced with a sense-of-wonder-filled reconnaissance mission on a new planet courtesy of wormhole technology. While this is not necessary to the plot, it does add character background. On the other hand, there was one 25-page party scene that was filled with political maneuvering that probably wasn’t necessary and partly detracted from the book. If this book could be said to suffer from anything, it might be too much world-building, but that is a matter of personal taste.
One other comment about the book’s size: this could easily have been a target of book splitting by Del Rey, and I applaud the fact that it was not. As it stands, Pandora’s Star is a great value and is sure to entertain. I like this universe enough that I will definitely be reading Misspent Youth and Judas Unchained.