By Peter F. Hamilton
Read by L. J. Ganser
Published by the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc. For the Library of Congress
To date my reviews of Mister Hamilton’s works have not been particularly favorable, but a friend assured me that I had not read or listened to his best or most representative stories, so I decided to plunge on into the Commonwealth Saga of which Pandora’s Star is the first volume.
I must admit that I was rather taken aback when the cover blurb not only compared Hamilton to Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, but also to Tolstoy and Dickens. Not sure where the copywriter who penned that came up with the comparison, but I can only assume he or she was in a contest for most outrageous statement to make it into print on the back cover of a modern novel.
Yeah, okay, his future history is fairly wide-spread and probably more diverse than Asimov’s Trantorian Empire and certainly he has attempted to rival the complexity of the later volumes in Herbert’s Dune series, but the story just does not hang together as a cohesive and coherent novel.
Okay, it is set roughly three hundred and seventy years in our future after the invention of man-made “wormholes” that are tunnels that could be from one room to the next (eliminating those pesky door things) or some other stellar system (eliminating those pesky starship things). For the most part the Commonwealth is a sprawling, unbelievably hedonistic society that leads me to wonder how civilization continues to be a civilization when nearly everyone who is anyone is more concerned with having sex since their hormones are set on high-speed due to rejuvenation methods that make them hornier than they could possibly have been the first time around. The society seems like the ultimate in disfunctionality to me, but I guess the people who actually make things work just are not interesting enough to have a plot line. And there are no shortage of plotline!
At or near the start of the story an astronomer, who later turns out to be an incompetent who should never have made it past his baccalaureate, observes a distant star as it suddenly disappears. It is concluded, eventually that it and a neighbor was enveloped by some form of Dyson Sphere so the two stars are dubbed “the Dyson Twins.” Sounds like they should have their own sitcom, huh?
It turns out that the Dysan spheres around those were erected instantaneously or almost so, and it is predictable that someone will want to go have a close-up look. Most people are too busy getting laid to care, but In opposition is a religious cult running around claiming that the Commonwealth is being controlled by a hidden alien they call the “Starflyer.” Naturally most people think they’re a bunch of nut cases.
Anyway, we are forced to believe that it is an uphill battle to get a starship to go have a look (I guess wormholes have their limits and can’t reach those stars). Everyone is so careful and assure everyone they won’t do anything dangerous, like turning off the Dysan Spheres and letting out whatever is inside, because by some logic I could not follow it was obvious someone locked whatever was in those systems in, rather than the systems locking someone else out.
I really lost my suspension of disbelief over the whole matter of not wanting to drop the spheres. They were, metaphorically, a big red button just screaming “Don’t push me!” and, frankly, I have a hard time believing most people would not go ahead and push it. That an agent of the mysterious Starflyer (or the Starflyer itself) had to be on the ship to push the button for them I thought was unnecessary. In any case the button was pushed (so to speak, I don’t recall if anyone ever figure out how the Dysan Sphere was deactivated, although it becomes obvious, after we meet the aliens who had been trapped (The Primes) that the Star Flyer was a clone of the biggest Prime who also manages to capture two of the explorers, one of whom is… you guessed it… the bumbling astronomer who should never been on the mission in the first place and certainly not allowed to conduct what was essentially archaeology inside the now-open system. He is captured and apparently does not have the guts to suicide and erase his artificially stored memories so the Primes learn from him how wormholes work (would an astronomer understand the technology that produces a wormhole? Possibly, but why would he?) and are soon attacking the Commonwealth.
Meanwhile Ozzy has decided for some pretty flimsy reason to go questing along interstellar pathways of a group of elf-like aliens and travels from one world to the next. He has a kid-sidekick with him and an alien they meet on the first world they reach and… well by the end of the book their plotline does not actually connect to anything else going on in the book, which ends on a literal cliff-hanger.
Sadly I found the characters amazingly two-dimensional. Mister Hamilton just does not allow them to develop, which is odd considering this book is about one thousand pages long. Out of those thousand pages I felt like ninety percent of them were needless backstory. In truth, I tis probable that only about forty percent is needless back story, but Mister Hamilton seems to delight in giving us a sentence or two of plot and then going into page after page of backstories about the characters the world or worlds they visit or just one feature of the local town or whatever. I honestly did not care or need to know most of those backstories and while backstory can be important in writing a novel and keeping it consistent, you do not need to parade everything you came up with when all it does is get in the way of the real story, which this does over and over again.
Also, there are far too many plotlines. Most, but not all of them connect to each other eventually, but much of the time I found myself wondering what that had to do with anything in the main story and at least three-quarters of the time I was justified in doing so. Even when plot lines did relate, we did not need so many points of view especially since here is very little dialogue when compared to the long-winded narration.
Anyway, unless you want to read a very long book in which the story is left unfinished, don’t start this book unless you are prepared to move on to the equally long sequel, Judas Unchained. However, I cannot guarantee that it will be worth doing so as I have not yet read it and have only the word of others that it connects to this one. Not sure when I will get around to the second book, for that matter. Maybe in a few months to a year when I have forgotten all the pointless side-stories in this one. Or maybe I will not bother.
I might have enjoyed this story a bit more had L. J. Ganser not tried so hard to make it sound exciting. He does not read badly, but I could not quite shake the thought that he might not have been enjoying the story any more than I was, but hey, he was reading for the blind. That’s a worthy cause I wholly support. But if he wasn’t enjoying the story, he sure was doing his darnedest to make it interesting.
Unfortunately, he tried too hard. Had he toned it down just a bit I think his reading would have been excellent instead of just good and I will admit that after a while I was able to overlook the forced-sounding enthusiasm so maybe I am being too hard on him.
To sum it all up. Pandora’s Star is an incredibly long book that could probably be cut in half and still tell the same basic story well and while L. J. Ganser is a talented reader, I think a more relaxed approached to the story might have helped.