Saturday, 19 July 2008

High opera

A new operatic author to report on: Peter F. Hamilton, and his 2004 novel Pandora's Star.

It is 2380 and, after the development of wormhole technology by a pair of Californian slackers, humanity has colonised hundreds of neighbouring planets, and united almost all of them in an interstellar Commonwealth. Life continues much as it did in the twenty-first century, but leaps in biotechnology means that citizens can live forever through infrequent "rejuvenations", or survive death itself through the electronic storage of their mind states. Humanity has also met aliens: friendly ones like the High Angel, a sentient spaceship; disinterested ones like the Raiel; and mystical ones like the Silfen, who communicate in near-riddles and appear capable of travelling without wormholes. However, there are other aliens too. One of these is known only through its crashed spacecraft on the contested world of Far Away. And now, hundreds of light-years from the Earth (and the same number of years in the past), a distant pair of stars suddenly disappear to human astronomers. Looking in the infra-red, however, the stars appear to still exist, but are now surrounded by a shell. Scientists immediately suggest Dyson spheres, but when a tenacious old astronomer jumps to a distant Commonwealth planet to observe the construction of the sphere [*] he discovers that it appeared instantaneously. Confronted by such unimaginable technology, the Commonwealth assembles a spacecraft, something wormhole technology hasn't made necessary in centuries, and brings together a diverse crew to pilot it to the distant stars.

Against this backdrop, the novel weaves a large number of other plot strands. In one, a gifted police investigator who solves all of her cases, Paula Myo, is continually thwarted by a 130 year old one. In another strand, we follow her antagonists, Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin, as they plot the liberation of Far Away, while spinning a conspiracy theory about the role of an alien, Starflyer, at the heart of human affairs. The novel also follows the adventures of one of the Californian slackers, Ozzie Isaacs, as he travels the paths of the Silfen aliens to learn more about them and what they know about the shelled stars. And in one of the more interesting strands, the life and times of the alien MorningLightMountain provides a counterpoint to the human stories.

The novel is high space opera, taking in an impressively imaginative sweep of planets, technology and aliens. This sweep is, at first, something of a hindrance, since readers are initially presented with a scattergun view of the novel's world, and the disparate plot strands are often interrupted by lengthy visits to other, seemingly unrelated strands. Seasoned readers of this genre will know to hang in there, enjoy the ride and wait for later enlightenment. As it happens, full enlightenment requires the reading of the novel's sequel (see later), but the novel is structured well enough to support this longer narrative.

In terms of its writing, the novel is something of a page-turner, and falls somewhere between Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds in terms of writing quality. Nearer the former if I was being critical. Like many science fiction authors, while Hamilton is brilliant on the ideas and the world-building, characterisation is not his strong suite. The novel runs along great when it's purely plot-driven, but often stalls unconvincingly whenever it veers into character-character interactions. Particularly where they're of a more intimate nature. This contrasts with other space opera authors: Iain Banks easily handles characters; Alastair Reynolds is less sure-footed, but appears to know this is a weak-spot and typically avoids long digressions into characterisation (at times to the point where his novels feel almost set within "The World Without Romance").

Not, of course, that this novel should really be judged on the basis of its literary merits. As space opera it's excellent. The set-up is intriguing; the gradual unveiling of details of Hamilton's world keeps the reader moving headlong into it; and its all done with a commendable lightness of touch and a degree of satire. Crooked deals between aristocrats and governments in the future are presented as much the same as those of today. Meanwhile, relationship politics (MF, MM and FF; the novel presents characters covering the spectrum) now have to contend with massively extended human lifespans.

The handling of this latter technology is interesting in the novel. While longevity is frequently seen as a bad thing in speculative fiction (a relation of this theme is even a key part of the political backdrop to my purely imaginary science fiction novel), here it's presented more positively, although Hamilton also illustrates its pitfalls. As suggested already, it creates interesting questions for personal relationships (age/experience gaps between partners can now extend to centuries; even while the older partner, through rejuvenation technology, is physically younger). Rejuvenated characters also frequently remark on how refreshing (though sometimes tiresome or childish) so-called first-lifers are. And it's clear that inherited wealth (technically not inherited, since you didn't die) makes for some very large socio-economic gradients. First-lifers find themselves born into a world in which the financial topography seems as fixed and permanent as mountain ranges. Though there are these issues to the technology, an undercurrent (one that Hamilton has alluded to in interviews) is that longer lives lead to a greater degree of stability in society. And the ability to "recover" from death means that risky thrill-taking (such as the high-altitude gliding one of the characters undertakes for fun) still goes on to stir one's life up.

Overall, a very enjoyable romp. Not as surefooted at Banks or Reynolds, but its imagination more than makes up for that. Dare I say the new Asher? (At least for this blog) The sequel awaits my reading of another book (Pigs In Heaven), but I'm very sure I'll get to it soon.

[*] Instantaneous travel via wormholes would obviously let you do this by jumping ahead of light. In this way, it would be possible (were wormholes possible; something of a longshot at this point) to witness the same event as many times as you wanted. I suspect Hamilton is perhaps showing something of this character's lateral thinking. In an age of wormholes, only he realises that he can watch the events around the stars for a second time.

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