A book the size of a brick and characters with names like Wilson Kime; crimes of passion and conspiracy theories; wormholes and an invading alien horde; terrorism and techno-babble about neutrino emissions; political intrigue and hippy space-elves--it can only be one thing: space opera.
In the 24th century, humankind has spread to the stars on a wave of optimism, creating a peaceful, capitalistic Commonwealth of colonies that are linked together by wormholes. Space flight is rare, with the normal mode of interplanetary transport being a rail network that passes through stations with wormholes straddling the tracks. Dudley Bose, an astronomer at an under-funded university on the fringes of the Commonwealth, makes a startling discovery while studying a Dyson sphere in far-off space: that the erection of the sphere was almost instantaneous, suggesting it’s a force field of some kind, and was put up some time in the 11th Century. This piques the interest of the Commonwealth citizens and its government, who build a starship--the Second Chance, captained by the heroically-named Wilson Kime--to investigate the phenomenon, the big questions being: was the sphere built as a defence to keep something out, or built to imprison something within? The title of the book gives a whopping clue as to the nature of the sphere’s inhabitants, with curiosity certainly killing the cat--and a lot of people, too. The Commonwealth suddenly finds its cosy, non-militarist existence under threat.
Across the book’s many, many pages, Hamilton skilfully balances several story lines, many of which seem completely unrelated to each other for the bulk of the book. The book’s pacing is a glacial at first, but picks up gradually as it progresses, finally bursting into a rabid frenzy with a hundred pages remaining. Occasionally, the sheer amount of detail Hamilton provides brings the pacing of the book to a crawl. For example, a twelve-page description of a hang-glider trip across a planet becomes something of a drag to read, especially when the book’s printed on onion-skin-thin paper in an ickle font size. Having said that, Hamilton’s future does evoke a sense of wonder. His world-building is impressive, encompassing detailed politics, economics and geography, together with different cultures and distinct alien races/characters, especially MorningLightMountain, one of the book's main protagonists, whose encounter with humanity is as fascinating as it is gruesome. It’s always nice when aliens are, well, alien. There are many well-developed characters from a range of backgrounds, from the mundane to the colourful. He also includes a story line involving Joe and Jo Average, featuring the lives of ordinary people as well as those of the politicians, scientists, industrialists and whatnot.
The book also poses some interesting questions, too. What if the crackpot conspiracy theorists are actually right? And whether or not terrorism and/or acting outside of the democratic process is ever appropriate if a government/culture is perceived to be corrupt and/or acting in a manner that runs counter to the interests of its own citizens?
Every now and then, the science in the book got a little too heavy for me, with lines like, "'That dimension really only applies to solid matter,' Tunde said. 'This is an artificial rift in the quantum fields which manifests itself in spacetime; technically, it has no physical depth. It’s two-dimensional,'" making me want to put my head between my knees and exhale, nasally, very, very slowly. For the most part, though, the science shouldn’t baffle a casual viewer of Star Trek.
Naturally, the book ends with a series of cliff-hangers, with the story continuing in Judas Unchained, the second and final part of the Commonwealth Saga. In short, Pandora’s Star is a well-written, interesting and intelligent sci-fi novel, among the best I’ve read in a long while.