Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

28Dec/100

“Pandora’s Star” by Peter F. Hamilton

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After the relative disappointments of “Fallen Dragon” and “Misspent Youth” (which I haven’t read yet, but seems to get universally poor or mediocre reviews) Hamilton bounced back to form with a two-book series that saw a return to the epic scale and compelling storytelling of the “Night’s Dawn Trilogy”.

The two books, “Pandora’s Star” and the sequel “Judas Unchained”, are set in another human civilisation covering hundreds of star systems, the Intersolar Commonwealth. The primary difference in world-building compared to the Night’s Dawn Universe is the method of interstellar travel, whereas the Night’s Dawn books used the traditional starships, in the Commonwealth interstellar travel is done through fixed wormholes which allow instantaneous travel between the surfaces of different planets. In a slightly anachronistic (but sensible) touch most of the travel through the wormholes is done by trains, the railways being a more efficient means of getting a lot of people through a wormhole compared to letting individual vehicles go through. The Commonwealth is a fairly peaceful place, the steady colonisation of new planets reduces population pressure and the only alien life so far encountered by humanity has been peaceful. In the late-24th Century setting there have inevitably been plenty of technological developments, most prominently the rejuvenation treatments which can heal bodies to the extent that even elderly people can return to their youth. Even death can be conquered in some cases, electronic devices implanted in people’s bodies record all their experiences and can allow people to be resurrected in clone bodies. There is also the ‘Unisphere’, an interstellar evolution of the Internet and a genuine superhuman artificial intelligence, the ‘Sentient Intelligence’ or SI, a seemingly benevolent presence in human society as well as plenty of other technological wonders mentioned in passing by Hamilton. Politically most of the Commonwealth is an American-style capitalist democracy, although there are some underground rebels and terrorist movements protesting against the domination of the Commonwealth by a small elite of rich families.

Although the novel features a huge number of subplots, there are two primary plots which initially seem unconnected but, unsurprisingly, end up weaving together into a single plotline. The first plot deals with the star of the title, the novel’s first chapter featuring the undistinguished astronomer, Dudley Bose, whose observations of a mysterious stellar anomaly turn him into an instant celebrity and kick off one of humanity’s most ambitious endeavours. Bose is investigating the so-called ‘Dyson Pair’, two neighbouring stars several hundred light years distant from human space. Bose observes first one star and then the other instantaneously disappear from view, no longer emitting light although they continue to emit infra-red radiation. Since stars do not naturally disappear he knows there has to be an artificial explanation and he concludes that both stars must have been enveloped in giant solar-system spanning forcefields cutting them off from the rest of the galaxy. This discovery excites a great deal of interest in the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth’s rulers decide that they must send a mission to the stars to investigate what happened to make them disappear. Enveloping a star in a forcefield would seem to have only two motivations – to keep something out or to keep something in, and the Commonwealth is determined to find out which. If there is an alien race out there which can cut off star systems (or one so dangerous that star systems would cut themselves off as a means of self-defence) they want to know about it in case it ever encounters humans. Since the Dyson pair are too far away for current wormhole technology to reach, the only way to do the mission is to develop and fly an interstellar starship there. The Commonwealth’s immense scientific resources quickly manage to develop a ship – the ‘Second Chance’ - which sets off on its mission to the distant stars. The mission is lead by Wilson Kime, the last man to fly a spaceship, a former NASA astronaut whose career-defining first mission to Mars was made instantly irrelevant by the invention of wormhole travel.

The second major plot thread deals with an underground cult-like terrorist organisation called the ‘Guardians of Selfhood’. The Guardians are fervent believers in what is generally considered to be a fanciful conspiracy regarding a crashed alien spacecraft nicknamed the ‘Marie Celeste’ found on a distant planet. The spacecraft was found abandoned with no trace of its crew and despite extensive study of it by a huge research institute on the planet (the aptly named ‘Far Away’) little is known about the aliens that built it. The Guardians insist that an alien, what they call the ‘Starflyer’ survived the crash and managed to infiltrate human society, controlling the Marie Celeste research institute and many prominent humans. They conduct frequent paramilitary raids against the research institute’s staff as well as attempting to thwart the launch of the Second Chance, claiming it is all part of the Starflyer’s plot. The plot thread focuses on detective Paula Myo’s decades-long quest to arrest Bradley Johansen, the Guardians’ charismatic leader and shut down the organisation. An expert investigator who has solved every other case she has worked on she is determined to make the Guardians face justice, but as she continues her investigation she starts to question whether their conspiracy theory might actually turn out to have some truth in it.

This being a Hamilton novel, there are also plenty of other plot threads, including some of Paula Myo’s other cases and wormhole inventor Ozzie Isaac’s quixotic attempt to investigate the Dyson pair by wandering the ‘Silfen paths’, a mysterious system of paths between different star systems built by the Slifen, enigmatic elf-like aliens. As the book continues other plot threads appear, as the Commonwealth’s time of peace comes to an abrupt end.

The two novels are not perfect, but they are a definite return to form and manage to combine a compelling page-turning story with plenty of great SF ideas. Hamilton’s future world is well thought-out and although occasionally reminiscent of the Night’s Dawn universe’s Confederation it does have a distinct character. Hamilton throws in plenty of good pieces of scientific speculation and interesting alien races, sometimes as major plot points, sometimes as minor pieces of background. The Dyson aliens, when they eventually appear, are a particularly fascinating and distinctive alien race.

The plot is undeniably slow to start with, and the reader has to get through hundreds of pages of entertaining but seemingly irrelevant subplots before the main action starts as the Second Chance arrives at the Dyson pair. The initial investigation of the ‘Dark Fortress’ that surrounds the star is the first really great bit of the book, the characters are exploring the unknown and it is very difficult for either they or the reader to know what will they will find. What they find and the fall-out of that discovery is also interesting and it all leads to the action-filled ending of the book as the Commonwealth itself comes under threat. The investigation into the Guardians is very different in character, Paula Myo’s investigation making this bit of the story more similar to Hamilton’s earlier Greg Mandel books, a detective story (with a healthy dose of conspiracy theorising) in a science fiction setting. Both main plots are executed well unfortunately some of the sub-plots aren’t quite as compelling. Ozzie’s wander through alien worlds accompanied by teenage runaway Orion and exotic alien librarian Tochee is fun but it does seem like a distraction from the main plot and it doesn’t end up having enough relevance to the main storyline to really make it worthwhile. The huge cast of characters is also a bit variable, some characters such as Paula Myo, Ozzie or Adam Elvin (the Guardians’ weapons supplier) are interesting, but some of the supporting characters such as weak-willed astronomer Dudley Bose are either slightly irritating or a bit bland.

In summary, this is a very good but not perfect piece of science fiction. The book is significantly longer than it needs to be and the proliferation of subplots does distract a bit from the two fascinating main plotlines. Despite the occasional pacing problems and the sometimes uninspired characterisation the novel’s convincing future setting and the excellent portrayal of the investigation of the Dyson Pair and the later attack on Commonwealth makes this one of Hamilton’s strongest novels.

Rating : 9/10

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