Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peter F. Hamilton - Pandora's Star [and] Judas Unchained [The Commonwealth Duo]

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy was a powerful book with a number of flaws, and Hamilton seems determined to cart them all over to his new work. While he’s at it, though, he imports a few excellent traits as well. All in all, the Commonwealth Duo is half Mercedes and half car crash.

Making a thousand pieces work in tandem is an incredible feet, but it requires an excellent grasp of pacing to keep their integration smooth. The pacing in the Commonwealth Duo is, to put it bluntly, fucked. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hamilton’s ability to racket up almost unbearable levels of tension in only a few pages, I don’t think the stuttering, staggering, staccato flow would have left anything even remotely respectable.

Many authors are accused of utilizing dues ex machina endings or events to move the story forward. Peter F. Hamilton will never be one of the accused. He foreshadows everything, and I mean everything. If, in the last five pages of book two, Chris is going to hold the door for someone important, you can bet that you’re going to follow Chris’s life all through book one, seeing him kiss his wife and hug his kids for roughly the length of your average novel, all to prep him for his six lines in the spotlight.

Hamilton’s Commonwealth is a creation of incredible depth. Every single street corner has a history, every world a personality. Hamilton does not shy away from showing you that history. These are certainly not books that take place on an empty stage, but one could argue quite convincingly that they have the opposite problem. Hamilton’s world building comes in the flavor of info dumps upon entering a new area or location, the culmination of a long established plot thread briefly paused to chronicle a canal.

 It’s an inevitable fact of epics that various strands will lag behind, that you won’t be quite as captivated in one plot thread as another, but the problem is a hundred times compounded here. Were you enjoying that climactic space battle, where the enemy was bearing down through the shattered navy lines towards the defenseless characters you’ve spent so long growing acquainted to? Well, I hope not, because we’re now going to watch Ozzie build a raft. For thirty pages. Maybe, if you’re good, we’ll go back to something interesting later.

Remember the sex scenes in the Reality Dysfunction? Abundant, superfluous, overacted, etc? Remember how they then vanished in the Neutronium Alchemist and the Naked God? Ah, that was nice. Well, they’re back now. In force. There are advantages to how Hamilton handles sex in the Commonwealth Duo, I’ll admit. This time, we cut to black before whittling away pages in an orgasmic stagnation. Unfortunately, there is so much sex here that it simply blows the mind, and it’s all (or damn close to it) packed into one viewpoint. Mellanie has sex. A lot. With everyone. Look at the Dramatic Personae. Odds are, if you see a name there, Mellanie will have sex with them before the book ends.

All of which is to avoid mentioning the run on sentences which are, once again, everywhere. Does Hamilton not have an editor, or at the least a book of middle grade grammar, to inform him of the basics of sentence structure?

And yet, despite it all, the Commonwealth Duo is still most certainly half Mercedes. In fact, quite a bit better than half, because the bits that Hamilton is good at are really, really good. Really, really good enough, in fact, to counter the bits were he’s really, really bad.

The greatest strength and weakness of the worldbuilding, and the books as a whole, is its total lack of focus. Concepts that could guide whole novels are the backstories of a single character, explorations into deep space and naval warfare only a part of the action, murder mysteries and memory wipes nothing but the provider of some extra motivation, guerilla warfare on an alien planet a side story, galactic terrorists and conspiracies, subversive aliens, artificial intelligences, scheming politicians and clashing dynasties, it’s all just a part of the whole. And the whole of the Commonwealth Duo is, in every possible way, larger than life.

Hamilton has an unmatched gift for realizing setting. His creations are vast and deep, his universes populated by dozens of world that are each both logical and unique. Though it’s true that much of the information is more plopped in front of you than woven in, Hamilton is excellent at balancing the fantastic and the realistic in his worldbuilding, ending up with a product so unexpected that you can’t look away but so well woven in and explained that you can’t help but believe it.

This is not your generic, vanilla space opera setting. Hamilton’s world developed along its own track, with your standard spaceflight society being neatly sidestepped in the prologue. The Commonwealth proper does have spaceships, but it’s the trains and wormholes that are its true soul, and even the traditional elements of deep space war are treated in an interesting fashion here.

The locations outside of the Commonwealth are equally well done, for the most part. The alien’s late entrance is, oddly enough, one of their best assets. After so much time probing around the issue and so much speculation as to just what’s inside the barrier, the reader being shocked right alongside the characters. The Prime race is probably the strongest part of the novels, a species that is both convincingly alien and an excellent antagonist.

Then there’s Ozzy’s journey on the Silfen pathways. Now, I’ll give you that there are some very, very cool images here. But there’s a problem, and it’s that cool images are all that there is. There’s no tension whatsoever in Ozzy’s sections. None. There’s no excitement, no intrigue, not reason at all to stay interested once the constant barrage of bizarre locales has left you desensitized. And, just to add insult to injury, the payoff is entirely superfluous by the time it comes, and Ozzy’s actions afterwards are not juvenile but almost nauseatingly idealistic. The fact that Ozzy’s immature wanderings are artificially forced to amount to something serves only to devalue the actions of every other character in the series.

Still, Ozzy’s only one character, and the rest of the cast is well done and diverse. Though many characters initially seem unnecessary, you will, by the end, have grasped the importance of all of them, and the dozens of plot threads that course through these worlds tie into each other and drive by on adjacent tracks, each glimpse into Mark’s life lending credence to something unrelated that Mellanie sees two hundred pages later, with her every step factoring just as heavily into Myo’s investigations.

Every character isn’t particularly fleshed out, but Hamilton is adept at making the parts illuminate the whole, the individual blandness of many of the senators leading to an interesting picture when viewed in its aggregate, which isn’t to say that none of Hamilton’s characters are interesting when viewed on their own.

The most intriguing member of the cast by a landslide is Paula Myo. She’s an archetype driven far past its standard borders until it becomes interesting again. Genetically engineered to be the perfect police officer, Myo’s as dedicated as she is ruthless, as honest as she is meticulous.

Unsurprisingly for a mechanism with so many components, the Commonwealth Duo takes some time to get started. The opening of Pandora’s Star, for a brief time, belies this. You’ve got one or two main plot lines, and it’s easy for a bit to imagine the exploratory craft departing, the killer being caught, and everything wrapping up nice and neat in time for the carefully choreographed galactic war.

That’s not quite how it plays out.  Events and plot threads soon spiral out of control, the simplest problem soon growing a half dozen corollaries and popping out a few new activists, every seemingly solitary character greeted with the full weight of the Commonwealth’s interplanetary population. Even the beginnings of the end, the potential death tone of their civilization, can’t unite the citizens of the Commonwealth, and it seems impossible at the end of the first half of the series to imagine a satisfying resolution.

The majority of Judas Unchained, however, is anything but undisciplined. The number of plot threads is truly prodigious at this point, yes, but Hamilton wields them dexterously, building them up into their own climaxes and developments without, generally, sacrificing too much mobility on the part of their counterparts. I’d say that this part right here, the first five hundred odd pages of Judas Unchained, is the best part of the series – though the initial Prime perspective in Pandroa’s Star is the undisputed best scene – and it’s, suddenly, easy to imagine an incredibly satisfying ending. Not what that ending is, mind you, there are far too many moving parts to even start to picture what the configuration’ll be when they all stop, but you’re sure, by now, that Hamilton’s got something grand planned.

He does, sort of. But it takes far too long to really kick itself into action. The climax of Judas Unchained is protracted and, far worse, unable to maintain the same gravity that the buildup had in such great supply. What was once an epic struggle as now a cheesy adventure – complete with a prostitute tagging along for cliché’s sake – and what was once a painful moral decision is now a cheesy fight the man! whine.

Is the Commonwealth Duo a travesty of excess or landmark of Space Opera? Well, truth to tell, it’s a bit of both. There’s very little middle of the road in Hamilton’s writing; it’s a project with both absurd highs and painful lows all mashed into one. Is it worth reading? Hell yes. Is it worth loving? Yeah, I think it is. Is it worth hating? Yup, that too.

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