Pandora's Star, 2004
Written by Peter F. Hamilton
988 pages (Mass-Market Paperback)
I feel like I've been reading a lot of space opera lately. Partly this is because, well, I've been reading (or at least flipping through) a lot of space opera lately. But mostly I feel this way because I've read Pandora's Star, which is all by itself a hell of a lot of fucking space opera. It's 988 pages of fairly dense mass-market text, covering dozens of worlds and characters, with about half a dozen narrative arcs subsumed into one long one, that ends on a literal cliffhanger that leads into an equally-long (and likely equally-dense -- I haven't read it yet) sequel.
So how does it hold up? Pretty well, considering. It's the year 2380, and a series of wormholes connects humanity into an interstellar Commonwealth. Rejuvenation technology and memory backup have made death a thing of the past. The story is kicked off by the discovery by an astronomer at a small university that a distant pair of suns long-known to be enclosed by Dyson Spheres actually vanished behind those spheres instantaneously. This being the kind of engineering project that is astonishing in what it portends of the species instigating it, an FTL starship --the first ever built-- is commissioned to investigate.
This sounds like the premise for a Big Dumb Object SF novel, but Hamilton has other agendas on his mind. He intersperses the main plot with stories from around the Commonwealth that seem tenuously connected to one another, if they are connected at all. There's a group of anarchists bent on destroying the FTL vessel before it can be completed, and an investigative officer seeking to catch the perpetrators. One of the inventors of wormhole technology visits an elflike species of aliens and travels along their forest paths through the stars. And a long series of supporting characters is revealed, each surrounding the project, the investigation, or some combination of the two -- at least a dozen characters become extended viewpoint characters, and huge sections of the book cover their backgrounds and the history of the individual planets on which they live.
All of this is immersive, and Hamilton is clearly at his best when he's throwing out the details of his fictional worlds. The characters are often a bit stock, though, and many of the secondary characters blend into one another so it's difficult to tell them apart, especially during the plot-heavy second half, but it's all pretty competently done. The novel has many of the problems of any Big Fat Book, most notably the fact that any reader is going to find some sections of the book far more interesting or entertaining than others -- personally, I felt the book kind of stopped in its tracks whenever it spent more than a couple of pages on the political conflicts of the Commonwealth. But for the most part the author keeps the characters interesting enough and the stories compelling enough to engage reader interest.
As it turns out the first half of Pandora's Star is mostly stage-setting, for what is revealed once the starship reaches the Dyson Pair kicks the narrative into high gear. At the risk of including spoilers, the alien species encountered there is brilliantly conceived and the menace it poses to the Commonwealth is clear. Hamilton spends one long section of the novel learning of the details of the species' history and psychology, and by the end I was convinced that the coming conflict would be epic and fraught with real danger for the future of humanity. And I was not disappointed. Hamilton wisely mostly steps out of the way during the last few hundred pages of the novel and lets the events speak for themselves, which helps keep the pace up. There's still a lot of intercutting, but by dealing mostly with the characters' individual reactions to a small number of Big Events, all the background work helps to enrichen the reading experience by providing a broader scope through which the view them.
Overall, Pandora's Star is mostly a success, and I'll definitely be picking up Judas Unchained soon. The prose is a bit flat and the characters are unfortunately a bit interchangeable, but it's a fun ride and, as said before, a hell of a lot of space opera. Not many writers can entertain for a thousand pages, but with this novel Hamilton proves that he is one of those authors.