Published by Del Rey
Mass Market Paperback January 2005
First Contact. Futuristic-Murder Mystery. Space Opera. Sociological SF. Hard SF. Science Fantasy These are just a few of the sub-genres of Speculative Fiction. Peter F. Hamilton manages to weave these elements together in his brilliant Pandora’s Star, which can be surmised in a rather paradoxically succinct term – EPIC. This makes it particularly difficult to distill such a large, impressive novel, which is just one half of the story itself, into a review that can arguably do justice to the stories Hamilton weaves into the larger narrative.
The novel opens with one of the more canonical SF scenes, man landing on Mars. However, when astronaut Wilson Kime lands on Mars in the early days of the 21st Century, men greet him through what turns out to be the first wormhole. Fast forward 350 years and humanity has spread across the universe through the advancement of wormholes, cloning and a perfected rejuvenation process. The Commonwealth, as the great galactic civilization (and title of the duology) is named also includes a few alien species, as well.
The novel properly begins when Dudley Bose, astronomer and University Professor, observes something strange about the Dyson Pair, two planets light-years from the outer rim of Commonwealth Planets and both seemingly enclosed in some kind of barrier. One of the planets disappears. This sets off a chain reaction of events in which Hamilton pulls the reader through the nearly 1,000 pages of story. Despite the size of the book, I never really felt the story lagged and Hamilton kept my interest piqued, and nearly addicted, throughout the entire story. Of course some of the scenes were paced better than others, but even when Hamilton, for lack of a better term, drops an info-dump, it flows so well and builds so well on the existing story and characters that the greater narrative does not lose any of the great pace.
In addition to the enormous society of human and alien interaction, Hamilton does not skimp on the science and technology of his future universe. The primary reason the Commonwealth was able to rise up is because of the wormhole travel. Numerous planets have been colonized and have become part of the Commonwealth because of this instantaneous travel mode. Thanks to various electronic OCTattoos, people have instantaneous connectivity to the 24th Century equivalent to the Internet. Many people have life experiences ranging over one hundred years because of the rejuvenation technology developed in the 21st Century. One thing this rejuvenation process allows Hamilton to explore is the concept of immortality and how it frees people from the fear of death.
Hamilton does a superlative job of laying out rich back-stories for the majority of these characters including: larger-than-life astronauts like Wilson Kime, scientist celebrity Nigel Sheldon, co-inventor of the wormhole technology; wandering traveler Ozzie Isaac (fellow co-inventor of wormholes) in search of the ultimate world; detective Paula Myo, genetically superior to her peers having only one unsolved case on her century-long resume; media-hungry reporter Allesandra Baron; a living alien space ship, The High Angel; and hippie-like holier-than-thou cult, the Guardians of Selfhood, looking to halt humanity’s efforts to reach the Dyson Pair.
Throughout the majority of these storylines, the why of the Dyson disappearance is a recurrent theme. At the very outset of the mission to Dyson, from the construction of the starship Second Chance, which will travel to the Dyson Pair, the Guardians of Selfhood claim an alien being, the Starflayer, is manipulating the Commonwealth into visiting the star, and the Guardians predict only doom and gloom can come from the humanity’s visit. The title references, of course, the mythical Pandora’s Box, which holds the misfortunes and dark deeds of man. When the Second Chance arrives, the barrier surrounding Dyson Alpha disappears. What Pandora found in her box has nothing on what is truly behind the Dyson barrier.
The scale of the story and the future Hamilton has mapped out compliment each other very well. One technique in common with both Pandora’s Star and his previous novel, Fallen Dragon, is how he takes a concept more commonly associated with Fantasy and posits it in his futuristic SF world. For example the titular Fallen Dragon conjures up great winged beasts, but was an encapsulation of an alien species. In Pandora’s Star one of these elements are the Silfen, which equate to alien “elves” in Hamilton universe.. Another example of this in Pandora’s Star is the reference to the Big Dumb Object as a Dark Fortress and the evil overlord. Simon R. Green did this to a lesser extent in his Deathwalker novels, but here Hamilton imbues such things with the necessary sense of wonder.
Humans and the Commonwealth are not the only characters and races Hamilton lays out. The aliens behind the Dyson Barrier, the Primes, particularly the Prime MorningLightMountain, are simply captivating. As fascinating as it was to learn about the Primes, it was equally, if not more fascinating to read MLM’s reactions to the two alien motiles, their annoying noises, the strange red and yellow liquids that came out of the motile’s bodies, and the stench the motiles exuded. The "aliens’-reaction-to-humans" theme has been visited before, but the way in which Hamilton wove the biological science and the truly alien reactions into the narrative was utterly gripping.
The only negative remark, which at this point is miniscule compared to how much I really enjoyed the novel, is that the publishers really should have added a 'dramatis personae' or glossary of characters type of page, especially with upwards of a hundred pages between characters reappearing.
I’m afraid there is a lot more to this book than what I’ve said above. To restate, this is an incredibly epic story, audacious just short of being a fault, and for my tastes, exactly the type of story, characterization, narrative flow, technological extrapolations, and utter sense of wonder I look for when I open up a Science Fiction book. Thankfully, I won’t have to wait another year for Judas Unchained, I will be opening it up very shortly to see if Hamilton can conclude this epic story as deftly and amazingly as he began it.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford
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