My life in outer space

Pandora’s Star – Peter F Hamilton (2004)

Pandora's Star (Commonwealth Saga, #1)

‘It is AD 2380 and humanity has colonized over six hundred planets, all interlinked by wormholes. With Earth at its centre, the Intersolar Commonwealth has grown into a quiet wealthy society, where rejuvenation allows its citizens to live for centuries

When astronomer Dudley Bose observes a star over a thousand light years away vanish, imprisoned inside a force field of immense size, the Commonwealth is anxious to discover what actually happened. As conventional wormholes can’t reach that far, they must build the first faster-than-light starship. Captained by Wilson Kime, an ex-NASA astronaut a little too eager to relive his old glory days, the Second Chance sets off on its historic voyage of discovery.

But someone or something out there must have had a very good reason for sealing off an entire star system. And if the Second Chance does manage to find a way in, what might be let out?

Blurb from the 2004 Pan paperback edition

Hamilton changes his vast settings once more, this time to a future four hundred years hence where a Commonwealth of Earth-type worlds is linked via a network of wormholes. Travel involves merely taking a train from one planet to another.
The problem of ageing has been solved and those who can afford it – or have insurance plans – can be rejuvenated back to their late teens. The Commonwealth has also beaten death since one can now also carry a chip embedded at the base of the neck which records one’s experiences (see also Richard Morgan). Consequently anyone dying can have the copy uploaded into a quick grown clone and be ‘re-lifed’.
The cynical may spot the mini-series potential for this novel and its sequel being attractive to studios since it features many characters who are (superficially at least) young, fit and beautiful. It also features a strong heroic main character (think Vin Diesel), Captain Wilson Kime, originally one of the first men to step on Mars, only to find two physics students, Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs have got there before them via their brand new wormhole invention. This begins the novel and is the kind of pre-credit historical prologue, which has been a staple of the film industry for decades.
A President and Senate run the Commonwealth, but power also lies with the ‘Grand Families’ and ‘Solar Dynasties’. Since ageing is no longer a problem some families have evolved into companies or corporations composed of their own relatives and descendants. One of the joys of this book is its obsessive attention to detail and variety of scene and style. One chapter is a cleverly executed exercise in an examination of the political process in which matters of Commonwealth political and business policy are hammered out during a weekend party at the home of one of the leading Families.
Gradually the Commonwealth is made aware of the disappearance of two suns, a thousand light years away. By travelling across the Commonwealth by wormhole, astronomer Dudley Bose overtakes the light from the stars and records their disappearance over a period of a few hours. This can only mean that some incredible technology has been able to enclose the stars within Dyson Spheres.
Captain Kime is called out of retirement to man an interstellar mission on an interstellar ship ‘The Second Chance’ to investigate whether the stars pose a threat.
Meanwhile a xenophobic terrorist group, ‘The Guardians of Selfhood’ use propaganda and terrorist action against the construction of the shop as they believe that that a threat lies within the enclosed stars, and that one of the imprisoned aliens exists within the Commonwealth, controlling things behind the scenes.
It’s a multi-character narrative, within which we have three main threads, the first being Captain Kime, the second being Paula Myo. She is a senior investigator who has been pursuing socialist and part-time ‘Guardian of the Self’ Adam Elvins for over a century. As a child, Myo was ‘rescued’ from a world, which practices human genetic design. She was designed with traits, which would make her an excellent policewoman. She is incorruptible, superhumanly efficient and implacable in her determination to bring people to justice for their crimes. However, her investigations lead her to believe that someone with very powerful connections has been protecting Elvins and later begins to suspect that the Starflyer – as the Guardians call the evil alien – may not be a myth.
The third thread follows Ozzie – one of the original creators of wormhole technology – now a combination nomad/recluse. He believes that an alien race called The Silfen might hold the key to information on the Dyson Spheres. The Silfen (an elfin race) are notoriously enigmatic and cryptic. Ozzie suspects that the Silfen they encounter and merely the Chrysalides of a much more mature species and sets off to find them via paths through forests on Silfen worlds which (like wormholes) lead inexplicably to other planets.
Weighing in at just under 1200 pages it looks a daunting proposition but it’s one of those un-put-downable works which is also devilishly intelligent, complex and enjoyable.
Refreshingly, the gay characters are treated with respect and appear simply as characters, fitting as naturally into the environment as everyone else. One would have liked to have seen a little more cultural diversity, since presumably Sikhs or Muslims for instance have not vanished from the galaxy in four hundred years.
Hamilton always seems to feature at least one impossibly sexy, very intelligent, manipulative babe (of which there are at least three in this novel) enigmatic aliens and a Big Strong Man, so fans of this sort of thing will not be disappointed.
My only concern is that the style of human behaviour and culture seems far too close to our contemporary lives and that this will date (in this respect) as quickly as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy has with its quaint sexist anachronisms. I am also concerned that Hamilton is writing to please an American market as one gets the impression that this is a US author, which is certainly not the case.
Having said that, I find it incredibly brave of him to suggest – albeit fictionally – that crazy terrorists might turn out to have been right all along.
Roll on the sequel!


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