Of all the varieties of science fiction (which is my favourite genre of fiction – if it can really be defined as a genre… but that’s a different jabbering entirely), the huge epic space opera is my favourite. I like the scope, the wealth of cool technology, the ideas about how society will evolve and those possible futures out in the stars. It’s all awesome and I like how much there is of it in sheer page numbers if nothing else. So I’m primed to love these books anyway. I’m talking about The Commonwealth Saga as a single story, but it is two 1,000 page novels, Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. They aren’t neatly split and maybe ought to have been a trilogy. Hell, just do what I’ve done and read them back to back. This is the second reading for me; I finally dug out my copy of The Evolutionary Void (which is the last in the trilogy that follows from this pair of novels, 1500 years later) and discovered I couldn’t remember well enough what had come before, so I went right back to the beginning…
The Saga is set just a few hundred years in our future, we’re introduced to the crucial event that triggers humanity’s diaspora right at the start – as man sets foot on Mars for the first time, hippy Californian scientists open the first wormhole to meet them there. That sets the stage for a complex, industrial dynasty and commonwealth government as man colonises hundreds of planets, linked together with wormholes. We’ve met a few aliens with their own cool mysterious civilisations, so far they’ve all been friendly… A peculiar astronomical phenomenon, the englobement of two whole solar systems far beyond humanity’s space is the event that moves the rest of the story on. Inevitably we find bad aliens, and they are very bad. Hamilton gets beautifully into the alien mindset of the Prime aliens and their very different way of life. It’s one of the things that makes this series so satisfying; we don’t have to wait too long to get into the aliens perspective which makes the human response and the subsequent invasions and atrocities that much more real and frightening.
The action hops between a large cast of scientists, politicians, media stars, terrorists, detectives and “ordinary” men and women. It’s a good mix, offering many different perspectives. One of the advantages of writing on this scale is that there is plenty of time spent on character setup, back story and context. The detail for the worlds, the technologies and philosophical viewpoints is lovely. You get a strong sense of the reality of these characters and with just a few exceptions I found them sympathetic and likeable (I root for the aliens too). The story itself splits into a series of narratives which are neatly wrapped up together, in a well paced story with plenty of action (good war sf) in space and in person.
I enjoyed the lingering descriptions of alien worlds and the brisk pace. Despite the length and the number of concepts that are embedded throughout the story I find Hamilton very easy reading and devoured both books in a just a couple of weeks. At no time did I wish to put the books down and go to work. It is perhaps even more satisfying knowing that the story lines and characters persist into the following trilogy (which I’m now into). I have loved every one of Peter F Hamilton’s stories, his attention to detail and grasp of action and character work very well for me. I find his plots and creations ingenious and fascinating. Even though I’m now 2,500 pages into the overall 5 book series (only another 2,500 to go!) I’m keenly hoping that he’ll write some more in this universe.