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Peter F. Hamilton
Pandora's Star
Rick Kleffel © 2008

Pan Macmillan
UK First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4050-0019-8
882 Pages; £17.99
Publication Date: 02-20-2004
Date Reviewed: 09-15-2008

Index: Science Fiction  Mystery  Horror

The phrase "space travel" conjures up visions of rockets and starships, tin cans in space with accommodations ranging from Spartan to shamefully ornate. But there's another connotation, one rarely made; "space travel" as a literary genre, that is, the travel literature for an interstellar empire. For all the action, the intrigue, the mind-boggling revelations and outstanding set-pieces, Peter F. Hamilton's 'Pandora's Star' shines as well as a work of "space travel." He takes you to planets and places you've never seen, and brings them to life with fine writing and a variety of carefully planned and threaded plot-lines. The very existence of the human race is at stake, and Hamilton makes sure that we care about those human on a planetary, even neighborhood scale.

In the very near future, as NASA Captain-Pilot Wilson Kime lands a rocket on Mars, he's upstaged by Ozzie Isaacs and Nigel Sheldon, who create a wormhole from the Earth to Mars. Some three hundred years later, humanity has used the wormhole technology to colonize more than six hundred planets and created an interstellar civilization, while extending the lives of its citizens into the centuries. We've met some aliens and only seen scant evidence of others, like the Starflyer. Paula Myo is a detective who has been trying to ferret out a group of terrorists who claim the Starflyer has infiltrated and is using humanity. Dudley Bose is a mildly competent astronomer on the planet of Gralmond who happens to see something impossible — a star disappears. The Commonwealth decides to investigate and sends the first-ever starship, named the Second Chance, with Wilson Kime at the helm, to investigate. The consequences are dire for all but readers of rip-roaring, wide-screen space opera.

With 'Pandora's Star' and the sequel, 'Judas Unchained', Hamilton reprises the breadth, style and bloat of his Night's Dawn trilogy. A huge cast of memorable characters eke their way through normal lives and perilous adventures on a variety of planetary landscapes. In all the splendor of Hamilton's complicated universe, it's easy to miss how good he is at creating characters and keeping them distinct enough so that we know who's who, what they're doing and why. Paula Myo, Wilson Kime, Justine Burnelli, Mellanie Rescorai, Ozzie Isaacs, and a host of lesser players are wonderfully orchestrated and generally a lot of fun to be around.

The plots are as numerous as the characters, but just as easily followed. Hamilton is writing on an enormous scale, so there's always a sort of pleasant queasiness for the reader trying to keep track of everyone doing everything everywhere. 'Pandora's Star' mixes a variety of genre styles under one umbrella. The Paula Myo threads are mystery and espionage thrillers, with a couple of scintillating set-pieces. Political maneuvering plays a big role here, and occasionally these stories bog down just a bit, even though there's great character work. Hamilton excels at writing space adventures, and pulls more than a few wonderful science fiction tricks out of his hat. Overall, everyone's in danger, pretty much all the time. The fates of worlds hangs on the words and actions of a very few, many of whom don’t realize their own import, at least to begin with. Aliens prove to be grippingly and critically alien. They offer Hamilton the chance to work in some pretty horrific scenarios and well-wrought scenes of wonder. 'Pandora's Star' is a wormhole of a novel, pulling the reader headlong from one place to another and slowly, but not too slowly, letting the pieces add up to a big picture.

Hamilton writes all this plot and character with evocative and very effective prose. The upshot is that we offered a compelling, tense and occasionally terrifying travelogue through an indifferent but highly entertaining universe. We go from the wine country planet to industrial hell, to actual hell, to a Victorian idyll overwhelmed by science-fictional war. Hamilton writes immersive scenic descriptions and creates planets and scenes that combine the familiar and the unfamiliar to great advantage. He's an ace mystery writer, and those plot threads are certainly among the most enjoyable, especially as they play out against his vividly-described backgrounds. Hamilton offers something a lot more satisfying that the usual "roller-coaster" ride. It's the science fiction version of an expensive cruise with lots of stops and lots of action.

Readers who start this book need to know that it's only half the story, and that they’re likely to want the sequel, 'Judas Unchained' at their side. 'Pandora's Star' lives up to its title and unleashes a lot of pesky problems but leaves all of them unsolved at its conclusion. And readers who begin this epic probably need the patience and taste to read such a long work. But if Hamilton sets the bar high, he at least lives up to his part of the bargain. 'Pandora's Star' creates a universe full of problems — and the desire in readers to see everything, to stop at every little house and tree, every star and starship, to follow his characters from medieval squalor to futuristic splendor, from the beginning of this series — to the end.

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