I struggled with this one. One hour into Pandora’s Star, I was beginning to wonder if I had chosen a dud. With this particular audiobook, one hour was about 1/40th the way through. So the thought of riding this thing out to the end began to wear on me. But I persisted. And I’m so glad I did because, and it makes me wince as write the words, it gets really good about halfway through.
Peter Hamilton does space opera on a grandiose scale. The word “epic” is woefully and inappropriately applied to decidedly un-epic things all the time these days, so I hesitate to invoke the word for fear of sounding like a snowboarder after a day on the slopes. But I assure you, Pandora’s Star is truly, fiendishly, unrelentingly Epic.
The idea of attempting a plot synopsis fills me with inertia. I would have to start by saying that while the over-arching genre is sprawling space opera, there is also quite a bit of espionage, political intrigue, police procedural and travel narrative mixed in. This is what you would call “hard” science fiction. It makes the assumption that you don’t need things like faster-than-light travel, wormholes, cybernetic enhancements, and multiple life rejuvenations explained to you. Which is great, because if Hamilton took the time to explain it the way he takes the time to build worlds through stunning yet sometimes overlong descriptive set pieces, the book would be three times as long. Hamilton loves detail and goes deep. When he does, you’d better hang on. Sometimes it can be a bit overcooked, but the price you pay makes the universe he has so painstakingly constructed that much more vivid.
The story begins in the not-too-distant future as humans are making their first exploratory steps onto Mars. A manned spaceflight has just landed and all of earth is watching those fateful first steps as two merry prankster scientists open a wormhole and join the mission, crashing the landing party and thus relegating the very idea of spaceship travel to the dustbin of history before it ever begins. Fast-forward several hundred years and wormhole technology has allowed humans to travel from star system to star system with ease. Hamilton imagines an intergalactic railway system where trains travel planet to planet via tunnels containing wormhole gateways to your planetary destination. It’s a marvelously delicious old-fashioned twist that is fleshed out with descriptions of the trains and names given to the engines.
On a distant planet, a lone astronomer witness something spectacular– a binary star pair blinks out of existence. Stars don’t just turn off on their own. The best guess is that some sort of barrier has surrounded each star. Is this an offensive maneuver to keep the baddies out or a defensive maneuver to harness the power of the system’s sun? Someone or something has caused this and the proper thing to do is investigate. But the pair of stars is out of wormhole range. A spaceship must be built. The story splits into numerous directions involving a cast of dozens that all tangle together in a ways that would delight Dickens and dazzle Dostoyevsky. What unfolds is a mostly interesting and entertaining tale of a cosmic conspiracy hinted at in the book’s title.
Which all sounds perfectly cromulent on its face. But I have to go back to the beginning to air my grievances. The main reason this audiobook was so difficult to get into is John Lee’s narration. It’s not bad, but Lee’s voice has a sonorously lugubrious, aloof quality that I found easy to tune out. After the sharp and spry narration of the past few books I’ve listened to, it was hard to adjust to. His voice characterization is very same-ish throughout, making it tough at times to remember who is who, though I can’t blame him entirely for that. There are just too many characters to expect even the most expert impersonator to give unique voice to each one. He tries, but falls short. This is especially in evidence when curses are required. Unless you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, I don’t recommend listening to this book at bedtime. Too often, I fell asleep and had to find my place the next day only to discover several hours had passed.
Thankfully, when the story really kicks into gear, the shortfalls of the narration fall away. I actually came to like Lee’s voice and style, it just took some time to get there. Pandora’s Star is the first in a two-volume set Hamilton has called “The Commonwealth Saga.” The second volume is Judas Unchained, which I have already started. There is no choice. Hamilton leaves Pandora’s reader/listener hanging with a seriously cheeky cosmic poke in the eye to the very notion of a cliffhanger. I can only say that when it ended, I actually said “Noooo!!!” aloud. So I’d say that’s a recommendation.
But it’s a recommendation with a few caveats. First and foremost, this is one for the true-believers. If you haven’t read some of the sci fi classics and are unfamiliar with a few of the genre’s “gimme” conceits, you’ll be lost. This is not an entry level science fiction book. Second– and I say this reluctantly– a niggling twinge inside tells me I may have been better off reading this one. And I may yet go back and do it.