Peter F Hamilton – Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained

I briefly mentioned Pandora’s Star when I read it back in March 2004, but now that the Commonwealth Saga is complete, it’s time for a proper review. This is probably going to be a bit long, and may contain spoilers, so if you have a short attention span, or you’d rather not know too much about what goes on in these books, you might want to skip this post.

Setting the scene

The first manned landing on Mars, some time in the 21st Century is disrupted by Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs, who have invented a wormhole technology. Fast forward to 2380 and human society has been transformed. Humanity has spread over a growing number of planets linked by a network of wormholes. Now in most sf, wormholes are plonked in space somewhere, and interstellar travel is done by flying ships through them. In this future, things are a bit different. The wormholes are anchored on planets in “gateways”, and travel through them is done by train. Some planets have huge stations with many gateways leading to other planets. I like this a lot. It creates a society where travelling to another planet is as trivial as a trip to the next town. Where people live on one planet and work on another.

Further transformations in society have been caused by the development of rejuvenation: everyone gets their body returned to a youthful state every forty years or so. Not only that, but the development of memory crystal technology allows people to keep a backup of their memories and experiences. A continuous backup is kept in a memory cell implanted in the brain, and this is periodically downloaded to a secure store. In the event of a fatal accident, or murder, the victim can be “re-lifed” – their memory is downloaded into a newly cloned body. So what we have is a safe, secure, gradually growing civilisation, which in a nicely Brit touch is called the Commonwealth. Hamilton delivers all this background gradually as the story progresses, without resorting to extended infodumps. Nicely done, really.

Of course, not everyone in this society is happy. For instance, there’s a group called the Guardians of Selfhood, who claim that some people are agents of an alien entity called the Starflyer, which was the survivor of a crashed starship found on a planet called Far Away. Apparently the Starflyer is manipulating human society for its own ends. Most people think this is completely ridiculous, and that the Guardians are a bunch of nutters.

Now all this would be very interesting, but there’s no fun in a story about a nice, stable society, is there? What we need is a serious threat. And that’s what we get.

Where did they go?

A couple of centuries earlier, astronomers on Earth noticed that two stars had disappeared. It was thought that Dyson spheres had been constructed around them by an advanced civilisation. Astronomer Dudley Bose is interested in this, and manages to observe the stars from a planet a few hundred light years further from them than Earth. Incredibly, the stars disappear in an instant, rather than over the months or years that had been expected. This means that someone has the power to erect what can only be an enormous force field around a star.

The ruling elite of the Commonwealth (government representatives, and leaders of the various dynasties that actually own the place… ) decide that this needs to be investigated, and commission humanity’s first actual star ship to go to the so-called Dyson Alpha.

The ship (captained by Wilson Kime, pilot of the Mars mission centuries earlier), reaches its target, and just as investigations begin, the force field is turned off by unknown means, revealing a huge and aggressive civilisation. On detecting the starship, the Dyson aliens launch missiles…

The ship heads back to Commonwealth space, unfortunately leaving two people behind – including Dudley Bose.

Meanwhile, Ozzie has disappeared – he’s gone wandering the paths created by the alien Silfen that lead between worlds. He’s looking for something…

So who are these guys?

Readers learn rather more about the occupants of the Dyson Alpha system: they’re quite unlike anything humanity has come into contact with so far. The beings, known as Primes, consist of a central immobile intelligence (called Immotiles) and numerous Motiles – mobile workers and soldiers that are actually part of the same entity. And they have a slight problem getting on with others – even of their own kind. One particular Immotile, given the identity MorningLightMountain is more intolerant and more successful than the rest.

Many years earlier, the Primes had sent an expedition to a neighbouring star, with the intent of colonising its planets. There, they were influenced by the existing life and changed.

This means war

The Primes, having read the memories of Dudley Bose, soon learn to make their own wormholes, and use them to invade Commonwealth planets with devastating effect. Many people are killed, and others flee through the train tunnels. The Commonwealth steps up production of starships in preparation for war.

It’s not paranoia if they are out to get you

In the midst of all this, other business goes on. Chief Investigator Paula Myo has been on the trail of the Guardians for many years. And when an operation goes badly wrong, she, and some other people finally realise that the Guardians were right all along: the Starflyer is real, and has indeed been controlling people and manipulating humanity for its own purposes.

And that’s where the first part stops, and the fun really begins. What follows is gorgeous large-scale space opera. Adventure! Danger! Battle! And much, much, much more than I can even hint at here.

Eventually, the true identity of the Starflyer is revealed, and its deadly motivation becomes clear. Can humanity triumph over the Primes? And can humanity triumph without resorting to genocide? Will Ozzie find his way out of the Silfen paths?

This is lots of fun. If you’re going to read it, make sure you’ve got plenty of time to get through around 1,800 pages.