We begin at the beginning, because the beginning is awesome and foreshadows the epic quality of Pandora's Star, as well as the sense of humour, levity, and gravity that Peter F. Hamilton uses to create an incredibly compelling and vast narrative.
Wilson Kime is the pilot of the first manned Mars lander. The mission crew steps onto the surface and raises the United States flag, only to be interrupted by a stranger in a home-made space suit. That suit is attached to a pressure hose providing a breathing supply, and the hose runs through a wormhole back into a college physics lab on Earth. Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaac have just successfully demonstrated their invention of wormhole technology in front of the entire world, making manned spaceflight obsolete in the process.
I did not appreciate the brilliance of this opening at first. Don't get me wrong: I liked Pandora's Star from the start, but my enjoyment slowly ramped up from, "this is good" to "this is good" and then it plateaued somewhere around, "OMG, why didn't I know about this book earlier?" But it was slow at the beginning. The cast is almost as large as the book itself, and for the first several chapters (almost a hundred pages in this paperback edition), we do not return to any previously-established character.
In a similarly sprawling, nonchalant fashion, Hamilton introduces a cornucopia of subplots. Many of them seem irrelevant to the main plot at first, and it is easy to wonder what purpose they serve. The murder of Tara Jennifer Shaheef and Wyobie Cotal was like this for me. Even when one of the main characters, Paula Myo, was assigned to the case, I still didn't think its role in building her characters was sufficient to justify its inclusion. Then Hamilton surprised me by taking the shallow, self-centred, immature Mellanie and turning her into a much more important figure. And suddenly it started making sense.
Hamilton surprised me a lot in Pandora's Star. This is the first book I have read by him, so I didn't know what to expect. Although the slow pace at the beginning of the book disappointed me at first, the rest of the book more than makes up for it. If you are willing to invest the time required to read it, Pandora's Star has so much to offer.
For instance, there is the Sentient Intelligence. I have a thing for implacable, neutral, powerful artificial entities. The Eschaton from Singularity Sky qualifies as one, and I like the SI even more. Artificial intelligence in general intrigues me. More than that, there's just something so fun in watching an antagonist realize he or she is up against the SI and its sheer ability. It makes me giggle aloud, to the delight of people around me. During a terrorist attack on the facility where the faster-than-light starship is being built, something starts breaking through the firewalls a terrorist techie has set up around the systems they've hijacked:
"It's going to fall, oh man, half the format codes have been cracked already. No way. I mean no fucking way! Do you know what kind of encryption I used for that thing? Eighty dimensional geometry. Eighty! That should take like a century to break, if you're lucky." He seemed more angry than worried by the event.
Rob was starting to get a real bad feeling about the mission. "So what can crack that kind of encryption?"
The tech became very still. "The SI." His gaze found a ceiling camera that was lined up on his console, and he looked straight into the tiny lens. "Oh shit."
The SI is supposedly neutral in the sense that it is independent of humanity, and human affairs do not concern it, although it likes getting data from us. However, one of the themes of Pandora's Star is how the unknown causes different groups to work together to explore and push back ignorance for mutual edification and survival. The SI is curious about the mystery of the barriers around the Dyson Pair, and it won't let any terrorists interfere with a starship that might actually go visit the barrier.
Once the Second Chance arrives at the barrier around Dyson Alpha, the barrier inexplicably deactivates, revealing a thriving civilization in the enclosed solar system. And the Prime civilization, as it calls itself, is even more alien than the SI, the Silfen, the High Angel, or any other species Hamilton has introduced thus far. It's easy to populate your science-fiction universe with vague, humanoid-like aliens. In books, which don't suffer from a make up and digital effects budget, one can even describe improbable and nonhumanoid forms. It takes real skill, however, to portray truly alien thought processes. Hamilton succeeds when he describes the development of MorningLightMountain, an entity that eventually becomes the entire Prime civilization.
As an antagonist, MorningLightMountain is scary. It is essentially a meme. Prime society consists of intelligent/sentient but immobile entities known as immotiles. They are tended by motile units under their control in a sort of queen/drone fashion. The immotiles expand in networks of discrete immotile units, and the overall immotile personality is a kind of collective mind formed from the memories and senses of its member immotiles. MorningLightMountain is the Napoleon of its kind, swiftly gaining swaths of territory on the Prime homeworld. When the Primes develop space travel and colonize the nearby Dyson Beta system, they discover that the time lag in communications means the immotile copies of themselves sent to Beta have diverged. They are now alienPrimes! This gives us our first glimpse into the true depth of the Prime revulsion for the Other, and indeed, MorningLightMountain's xenophobia for anything other than itself.
Then a quantum barrier goes up around Dyson Alpha, and MorningLightMountain and the Primes are cut off from the universe for a millennium. When the barrier drops and MorningLightMountain observes the Second Chance's wormhole-powered hyperdrive, it starts thinking about faster-than-light travel, learns about the Commonwealth, and begins plotting its expansion into the rest of the galaxy. It's taking over, and it's killing everything that isn't it.
Yeah, humanity is in trouble. And it's not the most morally ambiguous of villains, but it is scary. Besides, Hamilton throws plenty of ambiguity—moral and otherwise—into his human characters. Those terrorists I mentioned earlier are the Guardians of Selfhood. Their leader, Bradley Jonasson, believes an alien called the Starflyer is manipulating humanity towards a malign end. At first, Hamilton portrays Jonasson as delusional and the Guardians as straight-up crackpot terrorists. As the story progresses, however, more and more rational characters begin believing the Starflyer might be real. Finally, we the readers have to accept the possibility that the Starflyer might be real. Suddenly the conspiracy theory is reified, and Hamilton has pulled off a very careful plot twist. Bravo!
But that's a result of great characterization in general. Consider Ozzie, the counterpart to Nigel Sheldon. He's a loner, a rich recluse with a personal wormhole, and that gives him considerable power. So Hamilton strands him in the wilderness with a backwater kid and no electronics on a quest for more information about the Dyson barrier. It's a great way to build the mythology of the character but limit his ability to just zap his way out of any situation. Hamilton balances the abilities of his futuristic society with real peril. When the Primes invade Commonwealth space, we get treated to an epic battle in which Nigel Sheldon, with the help of the SI, uses wormholes to collapse MorningLightMountain's wormholes. But even with the invasion curtailed, the Commonwealth loses several planets to MorningLightMountain's motile forces, suffering a terrible setback with no real way to defend itself against future attacks.
All of the main characters are involved in some way in the invasion drama, but the one that surprised me the most is Mellanie. I discounted her as a minor supporting character, one whose antagonism toward Paula Myo was supposed to make us dislike her. Yet Hamilton turned her into an ambiguous protagonist who, while opportunistic, his also intelligent, compassionate, and cool in a crisis. Thanks to a deal she struck with the SI to further her career as a journalist, she is the only one on Elan with access to the cybersphere after the Prime attack. So she coordinates an evacuation of the remote Randtown, putting herself in danger multiple times to ensure everyone escapes alive. Hamilton then impresses me with his deft characterization by dropping gentle reminders that Mellanie has not suddenly become an altruist. She's still seeking an angle, still wondering how she can leverage her newfound abilities for her own advancement. She's complex, and I like that.
In addition to the SI and wormhole travel, there is an awfully long laundry list of technology that Hamilton shows off in his future society. For the most part, he does a good job addressing the moral implications such technology has. Unlike some science-fiction novels that progress from a single technology, like the ability to download into a new body after death, Hamilton doesn't quite focus on any one technology and its implications. In that sense, it is a little too broad to go into a lot of depth. Also, there is not a lot of exposition to be had in Pandora's Star; it took me a while to figure out what exactly the Sentient Intelligence or the High Angel were. However, Hamilton's broad strokes have the advantage of presenting an entire society with multiple technological innovations, and their resulting social ramifications, rather than extrapolation from a single technology.
Citizens of the Commonwealth can rejuvenate when they grow old, essentially making them immortal. This has interesting implications for family and relationships: marriage is a much less permanent; first-lifers are considered less emotionally mature in comparison to people who have lived for a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred years. Living three lifetimes can build up a lot of memories of course, so memory manipulation and storage is big in Pandora's Star. None of the questions this technology raises are unique to this book; rather, they are standard SF fare: is the clone with an upload of your memories a continuation of you, or is it just a copy? How does being able to edit out the fact that you murdered someone affect your culpability? And so on. Hamilton is not breaking any new ground, but he does manage to integrate these ideas into an interesting, dynamic society. To that he adds a story with an exciting conflict, a challenging enemy, and great interstellar politics.
Basically, Pandora's Star is space opera on crack. Like Charles Stross and Vernor Vinge, Peter F. Hamilton can come up with cool ideas and spin a good tale. Hence, even though this book weighs in at nearly 1,000 pages, that's 1,000 pages of quality storytelling. And yeah, there are wormholes and weird alien creatures and people getting killed and re-lifed. But science fiction is just a setting, and Pandora's Star is really about murder, revenge, and jealousy; it's about our relentless drive to explore versus the dangers of the unknown; and it's an epic tale of humanity's survival as we are threatened from an external force and our own internal ideological struggles. It's simply grand, and it's really good.