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Book cover art by John Harris (1st); Jim Burns (2nd); Steve Stone (3rd).
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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The tireless Peter F. Hamilton returns with another gargantuan space opera that shores up his reputation as SF's go-to guy for adventure on a truly interstellar scale. Considering that Hamilton seems congenitally incapable of working on anything less than an enormous palette — he's only written one novel under 750 pages in over a decade — one marvels at exactly how much room there is for so much to go so wrong in his books, and how little actually does. Hamilton's storytelling is both staggering and poetic. In The Reality Dysfunction, the first book of his Night's Dawn trilogy, he displayed the sort of range that allowed him to spin a propulsive, galaxy-spanning story involving the potential destruction of all life in the known universe, and then end the volume with the plaintive image of a lost dog, without the least hint of self-consciousness. When you have that kind of confidence as a writer, the sky isn't even the limit any more.

Of course, you can fall back on the familiar just as easily. Pandora's Star, the first of two volumes, lacks some of the creative fearlessness that made Night's Dawn so extraordinary. There are a number of scenes where we get to see things we've seen all too often before. But the book is still remarkable. When you think about it, Hamilton writes novels the way they were commonly written, oh, 150 years or so ago. Multi-volume epics were the norm in Dickens' day. A story spanned an entire hero's life. The uncut version of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo runs 1500 pages. Hamilton has simply hit upon how to do a novel this size correctly (and I wish many of his colleagues in the fantasy genre would take note). Never allow complexity to overwhelm clarity. No matter how many multiple plotlines you have running, don't get them tangled up and confused. Make your characters distinctive. And though it's probably impossible to write a 900-page doorstopper that doesn't have at least a few draggy bits — and there are several here — keep everything moving briskly enough that your readers don't get just plain fatigued. Gee, I make it sound so easy. In Pandora's Star, Hamilton runs about a 70% success rate on all those goals. Maybe not a personal best, but better than most.

It's the late 24th century. Wormhole technology — invented, with delicious Hamiltonian snarkiness, by a couple of wiseass pranksters — has opened up the galaxy to human expansion, and expand we have. The Commonwealth is the governing body over all human spacefaring endeavors, and colonization plans are drawn up in carefully determined phases, with new sectors of habitable space opening up gradually as wormholes are opened, planets are surveyed, and development needs assessed.

But out just beyond the current furthest human reaches, a binary star called the Dyson Pair is experiencing an unprecedented anomaly. Both the system's stars have disappeared, literally in the blink of an eye. It's not as if there's any sign of a big double supernova. Someone, or something, seems to have turned the stars off as if by a light switch. The only conclusion to be reached is that the stars have been shielded, blockaded somehow, possibly by a force field of unimaginable technology. Who, or what, has that kind of tech? And more importantly, should we be scared to death, and of what? Whatever created the shield, or whatever has been contained inside it? Or both? The book's title provides a fairly clear hint.

As no wormholes have yet been opened up to the Dyson Pair, a vessel, the Second Chance, with its own wormhole generator, is built to deliver a crew of explorers to the system to ascertain whatever they can. What the shield is made of; whether there are any traces of its builders; anything that may appear to be an obvious threat. However, the Commonwealth has its own internal threat to deal with, primarily in the form of a terrorist organization called the Guardians of Selfhood. They are led by a charismatic paranoid conspiracy theorist who believes the Commonwealth is under the control of nefarious aliens recovered from a crashed alien vessel on Far Away, the most distant colony world. (A cute spoof of the Area 51 crowd, this.) And they're targeting the Second Chance under construction.

Hamilton dresses out this premise richly. As in Night's Dawn, he offers a sprawling ensemble cast. Some get more development than others. And the story's settings are often breathtakingly evocative. There is dazzling imagery aplenty. As he usually does, Hamilton will simply digress from the main storyline to give us a chapter of pure color, as in the scene where one character enjoys a bit of extreme sport on Far Away. The whole scene simply exists to add depth and breadth to Hamilton's future, to give us a glimpse into one small aspect of the lives of its inhabitants, thus giving us an emotional stake in their welfare when le merde hits le ventilateur. The awesome visuals pack exactly the kind of sense-of-wonder punch we all want from the best SF. But none of that would work if he didn't make you care about his people. Whether major or minor players, you'll find yourself absorbed by whichever of the story's panoply of heroes and villains is onstage at any given moment.

There's ample wit on display, too, and that helps offset some parts of the story that seem peculiarly anachronistic. It rather beggars belief that, in a future in which wormholes allow anyone to pop from one star system to another in an eye-blink, people still get around their various colonies by...driving cars? A scene early in the book, involving the police pursuit of a terrorist employed by the Guardians to equip them with weaponry, involves that old cop-show standby, the car chase! The scene has the strange quality of being exciting and absurd at the same time. But throughout I got the impression Hamilton knew just how retro it was and was having fun with it for just that reason. Certainly the man knows his way around action. When it's time for the white-knuckle stuff, you'd better be strapped in.

Still, nitpicks. Hamilton's odd mashup of hard SF with scenes that are borderline fantasy is risky, if impressively so. Still, it creates uneven narrative. For instance, Hamilton makes no attempt to explain how the wormhole tech was invented — he needed it for the story, so there it is — nor does he give techie hard-SF obsessives any background on exactly when and how rejuvenation procedures for radical life extension came about. (He covers its origins in a related novel, Misspent Youth.) Perhaps Hamilton feels these tropes have now become sufficiently commonplace in SF — rather like FTL or "hyperspace" — that they no longer need spelling out. Later in the book, we get an exhaustively detailed (and slow moving, it must be said) accounting of the evolution of an entire alien species, from primitive to spacefaring status.

We also get a strange subplot about another alien species, the Silfen, described as elfin and who have an inexplicable means of traveling from world to world that is, in the classic Clarkian sense, indistinguishable from magic. Probably the least involving — as it's the only one you could really call dull — of the plot's many threads involves one character's quest to follow the Silfen along their magical paths to learn what they may know about the Dyson Pair. The more enigmatic your aliens are, the likelier they are to be omniscient like gods, you know.

So while Pandora's Star may not be too very different from Hamilton's other epics in the way it's all over the narrative map, you do notice the imbalances here. But this isn't enough to handicap the story's cumulative power in any serious way. When you have time to digest all of it, what Hamilton has achieved in Pandora's Star is really quite boggling. Sure, what is ultimately found at the Dyson Pair may be entirely predictable, and the overall thematic thrust of the series may seem not too far removed from that of Night's Dawn. But that doesn't mean Hamilton hasn't the storytelling chops to make it suspenseful and thrilling regardless. Despite the colossal size and big-budget art direction of his novels, essentially what Peter F. Hamilton is all about is putting old wine in lovely new bottles. Hostile aliens and space battles may be the stuff of musty, eighty-year-old pulp magazines. But in the hands of a writer who genuinely loves the genre, there's life in dem old pulps yet. Hamilton, you might say, is like George Lucas if he were talented and brimming with real ideas. In his hands, the New Space Opera is locked and loaded.

Followed by Judas Unchained.