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Pandora's Star

by Peter F Hamilton

(Macmillan, £17.99, 879 pages, hardback, published 2004.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

In 2050 AD Nasa finally gets a manned mission to Mars, only to find itself pipped to cover scanthe post by a couple of college geeks with a basement lab and a wormhole theory. Fast-forward to 2380 AD; the college geeks have become mega-billionaires (thanks to cheap and readily available rejuvenation, they're still around) and wormholes have become the basis on which a huge Intersolar Commonwealth has been constructed.

Humanity has grown up into a wealthy, stable, rather complacent society. Commonwealth citizens enjoy virtual immortality, be it in physical or digital form (if you get tired of life you can download your memories to the Sentient Intelligence, a quasi-independent AI). There are planets which are massive industrial bee-hives, others which are rustic edens, and a few devoted to fulfilling particular ideological fixations (such as Felicity, an all-woman planet, and Huxley's Haven, where everyone is genetically predisposed/programmed to be happy fulfilling one particular work niche).

About the only real fly in the ointment seems to be the remnant of the Socialist movement, which has moved into terrorism in order to fight the all-pervasive and apparently victorious capitalism, and Bradley Johansson's Guardians of Selfhood guerillas, who insist that humanity is being manipulated by a sinister hidden alien presence...

It is at this moment that an obscure astronomer, on an obscure frontier world, observes a pair of stars about six hundred light years from the Commonwealth vanish. This unprecedented event suggests that the stars, indeed, their whole solar systems, were englobed in force-fields of unimaginable size and power.

Curiosity piqued, the Commonwealth duly designs and builds an ftl spaceship, a novelty in a society where space travel and exploration all happens by short-range wormholes, and sends it off to examine the anomaly.

Were the two solar systems englobed to defend their inhabitants from external aggression? Or to protect the rest of the galaxy from their own aggression? Something about the situation must be very dangerous, and Humanity needs to find out what, fast. Or do they? Is the expedition really in the Commonwealth's best interests, or is it just another sign of that hidden alien Johannson keeps rabbitting on about? There are lots of places to go looking for potential answers, whether that means a day-trip to ask the High Angel, an ancient alien habitat, for its opinion, a year long quest along the mystical Silfen Paths, or a criminal investigation of the murky world of power politics...

This is vintage Hamilton space-opera. A large cast of characters, of very diverse origins and attitudes, given an over-riding problem which intermingles with dozens of peripheral and personal concerns, and then sent off to jump through hoops in fifteen different directions or so.

Does it work? Well, the story starts rather slowly. It takes Hamilton time to establish all his characters, and their back-stories, and explain the nature of the Commonwealth, and this he does with rather less panache than he displayed with The Reality Dysfunction, the first volume of his excellent Night's Dawn trilogy. Indeed there's a slightly bewildering vagueness to some of the opening chapters, a feeling that he's forgotten the need to explain things, such as what the SI is, before he begins throwing acronyms around. Some of his characters are also less immediately compelling than they might be. They do grow on you, but he's done better, faster, in previous books.

Balancing that, there's his excellent grasp of the science in his story, or at least his capacity to make that science real to the reader, without it becoming overwhelming. There's also his fine hand with novel world-scapes, interesting aliens and gripping action. His plot is well-handled and the various strands cross and tangle in very satisfying ways. The villains, when they finally reveal themselves, are credibly horrible, and the disasters that begin crashing through the book are suitably ghastly.

Pandora's Star is not a standalone; there's a projected second (concluding) volume, to be called Judas Unchained, which will appear at some unspecified future date. I expect I'll read that book with interest and pleasure, and perhaps it will be a smoother piece of fiction, the groundwork having now all been laid. Overall I grade Pandora's Star as a 'B' for Hamilton, which means it's well worth picking up, as he really is one of the best current writers in the genre.

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