Review: Peter F. Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star”

by Miles Raymer

Pandora's Star

It takes a lot of moxy to publish a nearly-1,000-page book that is only the first half of a story, but that’s exactly what Peter F. Hamilton did with Pandora’s StarThis sprawling space opera came highly recommended from two of my fellow science fiction enthusiasts, but the overall experience was a mixed bag of delights and yawns.

Pandora’s Star takes place in the late 24th century, where human civilization has evolved into the Commonwealth, a stable and prosperous civilization spanning hundreds of planets beyond Earth’s solar system. This variegated society is facilitated by wormhole technology, which allows people, goods and communication to traverse lightyears in mere moments. Humans have also developed rejuvenation technology and memory back-ups that render old age and permadeath optional rather than inevitable. The Commonwealth is not a perfect place, but it would certainly belong on anyone’s list of better case scenarios for humanity’s medium-term future.

Hamilton’s writing is solid though often florid, and he’s got creativity to spare. Out of his ever-blooming imagination tumbles a surfeit of different plot threads which are simultaneously the book’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. Pandora’s Star sports not only a vast cast of Commonwealth citizens with varying backgrounds, aptitudes and motivations, but manages at the same time to be a melange of different genres. The narrative is equal parts detective fiction, cosmic spirit quest, political conspiracy theory thriller, and alien encounter mystery, with plenty of tropes from other genres sprinkled liberally throughout. Undergirding all of this is a philosophical debate about the merits of capitalism vs. socialism:

For all the changes and undeniable improvements automation and consumerism had brought to the proletariat’s standard of living, it hadn’t changed the financial power structure that ruled the human race. A tiny minority controlled the wealth of hundreds of worlds, bypassing, buying, or corrupting governments to maintain their dominance. (795-6)

I’ve seen what societies like ours progress into. I’ve walked on their worlds and admired them firsthand. This Commonwealth is only an interim stage for a species like ours; even your Socialism will be left behind in true evolution. We can become something wonderful, something special. We have that potential. (259)

These passages probably reveal more about Hamilton’s assessment of existing 21st-century human civilization than they do about what a 24th-century posthuman civilization would look like (if we can get there), but that’s not a criticism; the future’s inherent unpredictability usually ensures that science fiction is more about critiquing the present than describing what’s to come with much reliability. Hamilton’s preoccupation with this debate is engaging and useful despite its heavy-handed presentation.

The other two elements of Pandora’s Star that stand out are Hamilton’s descriptions of exploratory space travel and his weird-yet-accessible depiction of a hostile alien power. I’ll say no more about the latter since that would get us into spoiler territory, but I will share my favorite passage highlighting the ingenuity of human engineering and the bravery of astronauts in the face of the unknown:

In his NASA days they called it goldplating. Everything on the Ulysses had to work, and if some bizarre mishap did knock out a unit then three backup systems jumped up to replace it. And that was when you could still see Earth through the viewing port, while communications with Houston took a few minutes at the most. It provided a tenuous feeling of connection to the rest of the human race that had always given him a degree of security. If something had gone badly wrong, he’d always believed that NASA would ultimately do something to salvage the situation.

Today, though, the sense of isolation was stronger by orders of magnitude. Even he, with his previous experience, found their flight daunting. Should anything go wrong here in hyperspace, nobody was ever going to find them. It made him grateful for the way the starship had been constructed…It was a civilized voyage. (445)

There’s no denying that Pandora’s Star is an impressive piece of fiction, but it’s also a considerable slog. The tale is turgid in the extreme, with too many characters and not enough focus on the few who are most intriguing and seem to really matter. I tried to reserve judgment since I knew this was only the first half of the story, but that couldn’t change the fact that much of the page-turning felt more like work than pleasure. This shortcoming became especially irritating just before the final act, where plot development stalled right when it should have been ramping up. My sails finally caught some much-needed wind in the last two chapters, but the few hundred pages leading up to that were punctuated by too many dull moments.

All that aside, I’m going to stick with this series and am excited to begin Judas Unchained. There’s plenty here to enjoy and I’m definitely curious enough to see how Hamilton wraps it up.

Rating: 7/10