Peter Hamilton assured a place for himself in the pantheon of science-fiction greats after writing the titatanic 'Night's Dawn Trilogy'. His next stand-alone novel, 'Fallen Dragon', was an entertaining read but paled in comparison to the epic scope of his ambitious trilogy. Now Hamilton returns to the space opera with an eagerly anticipated new vision of mankind's future.
Completely seperate from his previous works, 'Pandora's Star' unfolds in the 24th century. Humanity has spread across the stars to establish the Commonwealth. They haven't spread via faster-than-light starships, but through a series of instantaneous wormhole generators. The few alien species they've discovered have been benign, and humanity hasn't bothered with large-scale wars in centuries. People are almost immortal now, being able to enjoy rejuvenation therapies and electronically copy their identities. Every now and then they can enjoy a completely new body as their consciousness carries on. As a result humanity's taken a longer view of the world and the thirst for exploration and change has slowed.
One of the mysteries facing the expanding Commonwealth is the Dyson Pair - two star systems completely enveloped by near impenetrable barriers. The level of technology and energy requirement to create such an enormous edifice is troubling, to say the least. It also raises the puzzling question of whether the shields were erected to contain something, or to exclude something else. All of these questions become undeniably more immediate as astronomer Dudley Bose observes one of these shields switching off almost instantaneously. Granted, given the time light takes to travel such distances, it happened some time ago - but it's still a pressing concern to the entire Commonwealth.
As such, it's time to investigate. The ruling powers of the Commonwealth begin production of an actual interstellar spaceship using wormhole technology to cover vast amounts of space. Its captain is Wilson Kime, once a dedicated astronaut, albeit centuries ago. When wormhole technology was created, it put an end to spaceflight immediately (and in a rather humiliating way). Nevertheless, when approached by Nigel Sheldon - the co-inventor of wormholes - Kime can't resist the opportunity to fly a ship to the stars.
Although this is the main plot thread, Hamilton shows his skills for juggling several simultaneous storylines. Seemingly seperate at first, by the end of the book they converge into an intricate narrative. An interesting thread concerns the neo-hippy Ozzie Isaac (co-incidentally the astronomically rich scientific mind behind the wormholes) determined to seek out definitive answers about the Dyson Pair in his own way. He decides to approach the alien Sylfaen, a group of elf-like creatures present on any number of human planets. Legends about the Sylfaen abound, and Ozzie's quest promises to take him closer to the truth. This narrativeis plodding at times, and fascinating at others. Hamilton manages to find room in his space opera for a backwoods adventure, and in general it's very much appreciated.
Hamilton also includes a lengthy plot-line concerning the investigator Paula Myo, and her decades long mission to track down Adam Elvin, a known terrorist. It takes a while to integrate Myo into the central story and a significant amount of said time is focused on Hamilton's attempt to create a murder mystery in a culture where no one truly dies. It's an interesting read, but seems out of place in 'Pandora's Star'. It comes across as a very stripped down version of Richard Morgan's 'Altered Carbon' and doesn't add much to the story as a whole.
The other major storyline follows the aforementioned Adam Elvin, and his work for the notorious Bradley Johannson. Once a respected commonwealth researcher, Johannson is convinced that a malignant alien intelligence called the Starflyer is influencing humanity for its own ends. His devout followers have caused chaos throughout the Commonwealth in an effort to thwart what they believe is the alien's influence.
Near the end of the book Hamilton ties all of these threads together, in a somehwat looe fashion. Each of them is well written and interesting in their own right, although the central plotline is bound to be the most the intriguing.
'Pandora's Star' marks a return to Hamilton's finest work. He shows his prowess for creating fascinating and engrossing future worlds, as well as captivating technologies and characters. Some of the characters can be difficult to empathize with at first, but through the length of the novel Hamilton builds almost all of them into fully identifiable people. You may not always like them, but that isn't to say you don't believe them. His settings are at the same time familiar, yet wholly alien. Excellent descriptive prose brings the strangest of his creations to life, and again we're treated to very enigmatic alien minds which are always a pleasure to read about.
Hamilton's known for his jaw-dropping action scenes, and it's here that Pandora's Star falters a little bit. Gone are the massive fleet battles of previous books, as humanity's sporting only a single starship during the book. It's actually a significant loss, given that Hamilton is unmatched at scripting space action and making the best use of his unique technologies. The more familiar planetside action remains, and for the most part it's not as nail-biting as in 'The Night's Dawn Trilogy'. It's well written and all, but with humanity not ready for war, the scope of such scenes is limited. Nevertheless, the final conflict is almost classic Hamilton, and the second novel seems poised to deliver loads of intense action.
'Pandora's Star' is long, and although its length shows at times, in general there's enough plot/character development, revelations, and action to keep things running at a pretty healthy pace. Still, with so many narratives, some of them are bound to be slower and Hamilton does little to bring these sections up to speed. There seems to be a good deal of unnecessary material in the book, although it's impossible to be sure until the series has been concluded. Perhaps the biggest problem with the book as it stands, is the fact that the troubles facing humanity don't seem to be anything unique, and don't stretch the imagination by any means. However, it seems Hamilton is working himself towards something much more complex than 'Pandora's Star' appears on the surface, so we'll withold judgement until all the facts are in.
By the end of the novel, Hamilton has yet again managed to work his readers into a fever pitch, eagerly awaiting the next (and apparently final) installment - 'Judas Unchained'. It's great to see a return to classic form, and 'Pandora's Star' is an excellent first half in what will no doubt be a rosuing space opera. The writing has improved, the narrative is a little more focused, and the storyline has the potential to be as engaging as anything Hamilton's written before.
Potential that we can only pray will be fully realized.