20 February 2011

The Commonwealth Saga: Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained - Peter F Hamilton

  • Author: Peter F. Hamilton
  • Title: Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained
  • ISBN: Pandora's Star (2004) 0-330-49331-0
  • ISBN: Judas Unchained (2005) 0-330-49353-1
Hi everybody.

I don't think I need to remind anyone out there in readerland that I am a huge fan of space opera. In both senses. I've worked my way through some of the work off each of the current big names in the field, and I have stated on numerous occasions that Al Reynolds and Paul McAuley are brilliant megaminds who need to be chained to a typewriter and force worked, because it is the only way we can guarantee maximum literary output before they die.

For some reason, though, I have never read a Peter Hamilton. I've read a few short stories in the various Years Best series that I like (Gardner Dozois for bulk, David Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer for taste, Johnathan Strahan for the Australian perspective...) and I have always enjoyed his stories. There was this one about a fleet ship which was on an eternal mission outward, dumping equipment to build CST gateways (more on this in uno momento) that they personally will never benefit from or use due to time dilation effect, relativity and other physics based phenomena. It was very cool. I wouldn't mind being one of the crew, that's for sure. Noble sacrifice plus spaceship to eternity equals well chuffed me.

I think the main reason for never having read a Hamilton novel is the size. I don't know if you have ever seen one, but they are hefty. Pandoras Star comes in a over 900 pages, and Judas Unchained is over 1000! JU Had to be split into two volumes for publication in the USA. For perspective, the large Years Best Science Fiction volumes with 22 or so stories are usually 700 or so. And they are some of the biggest books I own. So while I have no problem with reading the volume of text involved, I struggle with making that big a time commitment to a single story.

The thing is, I generally prefer to read short fiction (novellas and such.) There are a few reasons for this, but largely it is because the waffle is mostly nonexistant in short fiction. The editing is tighter, the plot advances as a rapid pace and there is no opportunity for boredom to ruin the story. When editors like Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Fred Pohl and others from the magazine trade get a hold of waffley fiction, they shake like hell until all the clingy shit is gone, then return it for two more rewrites, and the result is always great, usually brilliant, and occasionally fucking earth shattering.

There are quite a few writers who I enjoy immensely at (modern) novel length, for example Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, CJ Cherryh and Kage Baker. And I really like the 250 pagers that used to be the average length of a novel, before this modern super tome thing happened, although many (but not all, notably Fred Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, M. John Harrison, the Cyberpunks etc) of them have dated pretty badly.

I finally grabbed a copy of Pandora's Star and got started. I had no real idea what the plot was, just that it was roughly New Space Opera-ish. It turned out to be one of the better choices I have made in my life. Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained essentially make up one big, 2 volume, 1900 odd page novel. And every single word of both volumes is justified, necessary and fricken brilliant.

There may be some kind of spoiler type activity after the jumplink. While I try very hard to not give away any actual plot developments or twists, I will be discussing some of the characters, and I will give quite a bit of detail on the prologue, which sets the tone of this novel set beautifully. It won't actually spoil the book for you, but if you don't want to read it, don't click on the link.

Yay for you, you clicked and now you're gonna read on!!!! Unless you're on (f)assbook, in which case you didn't get a choice as to whether to read on or not. You really should go to my actual blog instead, you know. It's much prettier and better formatted, with bigger printing and a highly eye friendly colour scheme.

Pandora's Star opens onboard an American spacecraft, on it's way to the first landing of humans on Mars. We ride along as the lander enters the Martian atmosphere, and with a great deal of seriousness and gravity, the crew step out onto the Martian soil and raise the American flag.

As the captain makes a pre-prepared Neil Armstrong type "giant leap" statement, the pov character, Wilson, hears someone suppress a snicker over the radio. He kinda agrees, although he is surprised that one of this crew could be so undisciplined. As the flag is raised to further pretentious ceremony, someone outright laughs over the radio, and Wilson realises that he doesn't recognise the voice.

"Who is that?" he angrily demands, and he receives a reply that makes him turn around. And he discovers a science geek in a home made space suit. Behind him is a weird hole in the universe that opens in a Californian university physics lab, and an unspacesuited geek with an afro saying "Nigel, stop it dude, you're gonna really piss them off."

So these two geeks figured out how to make wormholes, and they used it to beat the lander crew to Mars. Space travel just became redundant.

And then the novel shifts 300 years or so into the future of The Commonwealth, a collection of 600 earth like planets connected by railways through wormholes that provide instant travel between destinations. There are limits, of course, so to get to an outlying planet, you would have to jump via several wayplanets, but you can basically get on the train destined for anywhere and be there with in a few hours. The time is mostly taken up in routing the train through the various gateways. Very Victorian. But with immortality, computers and blaster pistols.

(OK - At this point, it's been a week since I started writing this, and I have been very very busy reading the next set Commonwealth book, pumping petrol or playing minecraft, so it looks like I'm never gonna get back to this post. So here I go, I'm gonna finish quickly...I knew minecraft was a bad idea...)

I'm pretty sure that the books were written as one big story, and inevitably, Pandora's Star ends on a cliffhanger. I'd recommend getting Judas Unchained ready to go, especially if you are impatient. I am, so I did, and I'm happier for it.

Basically, you need to read these books. It's important. You'll be missing out on one of the most important, and most enjoyable, works of science fiction written since Alastair Reynolds started the Revelation Space sequence. It's got everything you need, but with an original perspective and voice that makes this a total pleasure to read.

And that's it. That's all I have to say, and now I am going to go read some more Peter Hamilton book type writing thingys. Cause they're really good. I said that already didn't I?

PFFFffffffpahhhhhhprrt.  <---that's the sound of me deflating like a balloon. Because I have lost the motivation to keep typing today, so now I am going to sto