The Commonwealth Duo

I have no problems with long books. Even long books that meander down tangents aren’t an inherent issue for me. Heck, I can get pretty longwinded myself. My favorite book is Cryptonomicon, a novel filled with so many digressions that I find it hard to even say what it’s about. On the other hand, the only reason I can put up with such excess is if I’m engaged. Good characters, good story, interesting ideas, heck, even well written prose can keep me going.

So when I picked up Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton I wasn’t immediately turned off by the length or the leisurely pace. On the other hand, clocking in at around a thousand pages, Hamilton had plenty of time to test my patience. It’s a bloated book, to say the least. Plus, it’s really just the first half of the story and the “sequel”, Judas Unchained, is another thousand-plus page novel. In essence, what we have here is a 2000+ page story, split into two books. Again, I have no inherent bias against this sort of length, but in this case, I’m seriously doubting that it needed to be that long. The funny thing is that, over the course of these two books, the story falls together rather nicely. Things mentioned early that may have seemed extraneous generally do play a role later in the story. I ultimately found myself enjoying the series (I certainly would not have completed it otherwise), and there are lots of things I really like about it, but the excessive length was unnecessary.

By way of explanation, let me tell you about how I almost abandoned Pandora’s Star. It was only about 100 pages in, and it was our introduction to a character named Justine Burnelli. She’s a member of an interstellar dynasty and as we meet her, she’s on a “safari” on some planet. She’s taking a hyperglider trip across the countryside… and Hamilton lingers on every single detail of the trip, from the tethers on the glider to the flowers on the mountainside, to the tune of about 30 or so pages. Nothing of import actually happens during this trip – she flies over the landscape, that’s it. Now, I suppose it does illustrate something about Justine’s personality and as a matter of fact, this “hyperglider” thing comes into play later in the story (um, about 2000 pages later). But it’s also something that could have been done in about 5 pages.

Now, take that situation and repeat about 100 times (this is no exaggeration, and you could probably jack that number up to 200 or 300), and you’ll have an idea of why these two books are so long, and why their length is something of an issue for me. It’s not the story that’s a problem, it’s that Hamilton thinks we need to see every component of every sub-plot. For instance, one of the characters is named Paula Myo. She’s basically a galactic detective, and we see her take on a seemingly unrelated case at one point. This is fine in concept – it’s an introduction to how formidable she is – but it drags on and on and on for far too long. It turns out that the characters in that case become important later in the story, but the original investigation still didn’t warrant as much time as Hamilton spent on them.

Ultimately, after about 500 pages or so, the book does settle into a groove where things actually start happening. And when stuff actually feels important, Hamilton’s obsessive focus on detail is much more welcome, if sometimes still a bit overbearing. So there was clearly enough here to keep me going, but I maintain that this could have been at least 25% (if not a full 50% or even more) shorter.

The story begins when an astronomer notices two starts disappeared from the sky in an instant. The speculation is that some advanced society has implemented a Dyson sphere, but why so suddenly? An expedition is put together to answer the myriad questions. Meanwhile, a sorta cult/terrorist group is trying to hunt down an alien called the Starflyer, whom they believe is able to brainwash human beings and thus has been infiltrating the Commonwealth political and economic structures.

As previously mentioned, things start slowly, but eventually pick up. At some point, a war with an alien species (called Primes) breaks out, and that’s when things start to get really interesting. The Primes very well realized… and terrifying. Hamilton’s detailed style is at its best when he’s writing from the Primes’ perspective (particularly a Prime known as MorningLightMountain) and when he’s detailing battles in this war (and they are epic battles taking place across 20-50 worlds at a time). The Primes are a scary enemy, but their motivations and methods are, well, alien, and Hamilton does a good job exploiting the differences between the Primes and Humans during the battle sequences, as well as overall strategy. The balance of power tips both ways at different times, and it’s a war I could see either side (or both sides) losing.

There are far too many characters to summarize right now, even if I focus only on main viewpoint characters. This is definitely a challenge of the book, as you will sometimes go several hundred pages before returning to a given character. Some characters are visited frequently, of course, but others may only have 20-30 pages in the entire two books. Many of them feel rather similar, though I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. There’s a weird focus on sex and superficial looks, though again, that might be a reasonable speculation in a universe where comprehensive rejuvenation is available. There were a few characters I actively disliked (notably including a guy named Mark!), but most were approachable enough and easy to spend time with. Sometimes I felt like characters were nothing more than plot delivery devices, but occasionally we get a glimpse into something that humanizes them. I wouldn’t call the characters a failing or anything that bad, but they definitely seem to take a back seat to the story and technology.

For the most part, Hamilton touches on every SF trope he can. A galactic civilization called the Commonwealth, with plenty of unique planetary governments. Longevity treatments mean that humans can live indefinitely. Memory inserts and cloning mean that you can be “re-lifed” if you suffer “body-loss”. Varying degrees of computer/human interfaces and cyberware. Genetic modifications. All sorts of fancy energy weapons and force fields. FTL travel comes in the form of wormholes. Inside the Commonwealth, these wormholes are set up along with a train system, though once the war starts, spaceships are built. Time travel is even sorta touched on at one point (traveling to the future, so no paradox). He touches on the singularity with a character called the Sentient Intelligence (SI). We run into all sorts of cosmic structures and big pieces of technology like the Dyson spheres. I already mentioned the Primes, but there are several other alien species… In particular, the Silfen are an interesting bunch. They’re kinda elf-like and they eschew most technology (and politics/economics, for that matter), choosing instead to wander along their Paths (which are sorta like wormholes, but much less distinct and much more hand-wavey). Other aliens include the High Angel, an alien spaceship that invites anyone who is interested to live in its pods. And there’s probably a ton of other stuff I’m leaving out.

Despite Hamilton’s tendency to be longwinded, all of this stuff is there for a reason. It all fits together in the end, and each of these technologies plays a role in the story. Even if it didn’t need to be this long or include quite so many viewpoint characters, that Hamilton has managed to string all of this together in a way that fits is actually very impressive.

Hamilton’s views on technology and its resulting consequences is generally well thought out and logical. While he does touch on a lot of hand-wavey stuff (see list of SF tropes above!), he never takes that too far, and most of it seems to be an approachable extension of current trends. For instance, while he does mention beam weapons and force fields and the like, nuclear bombs are still pretty effective. He speculates about some advancements in that area, but nothing that feels unreasonable. He’s set up a truly terrifying alien threat, but he doesn’t rely on a deus ex machina to resolve the conflict.

So this is a difficult series for me. On the one hand, it’s longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, it’s a highly imaginative, epic space opera, and ultimately every engaging to read. In the end, it’s something I can recommend for fans of SF who don’t mind excessive detail or extremely long books. And if you go into it knowing that the two books are meant to be read as one story, that might make things a little more approachable (I was unaware that the first book would just sorta end without resolving anything, which left a bad taste in my mouth).

5 thoughts on “The Commonwealth Duo”

  1. All of that detail about Justine? It pays off in the sequel Void trilogy, where she’s the prime mover of the storyline.

    OTOH, the Void books are much more hand-wavey and speculative. (It’s set further into the future). On the third had, Hamilton’s writing is tighter in later books, but the man still must go through keyboards like water.

  2. scepticsmiscellanea

    Have you ever come across Tad Williams? Most of his books are fantasy, but I can recommend (with caution) the excellent SF series ‘Otherland’ (albeit with a heavy sprinkling of fantasy worlds packaged as virtual reality worlds). The reason I mention it is that it consists of a single story spread over four books, each one about 900 pages or so… And it seems incredibly long winded, to the point that you could skip books 2 and 3 without losing much in the process. Having said that, it’s very intricately planned, so that details mention in passing on page 30 of the first book only make sense nearly 4000 pages later.

  3. For all the whinging I did about the length of these books, I may end up reading the Void trilogy at some point (seems to be of equivalent length). Though I will say, it’s not detail about Justine that bothered me – it’s the full page he spent describing the way a certain plant grew on the hillside that she was passing over or some crap like that.

    I don’t mind hand-wavey or speculative if you’ve got internal consistency and a good story, both of which Hamilton seems to be good at…

    I’ve never read Tad Williams, though I’ve obviously seen his name on the bookshelves. May be a while before I get to any of his books, but I am usually impressed by intricate plotting that hangs together in the end… But one 4000 page story seems like a bit much! Then again, I’m a fan of the 2700 page Baroque cycle (3600 if you include Cryptonomicon), so whatever:p

  4. The Void trilogy wasn’t as good as Pandora’s Star / Judas Unchained in my opinion. I read the Void trilogy first, so that might impact my thinking.

    I agree the ending for Pandora’s Star was a little abrupt, in an off-putting way, but I knew there was a sequel so that didn’t bother me much. Personally my biggest annoyance with the length of these books was primarily the interludes with Ozzie, which seemed rather aimless, slow, and hugely disconnected from all of the other stories.

    Also, if I had to do things over again I don’t know that I would re-read Tad Williams’ Otherland series. It was solid, but it didn’t really wow me in any way, especially given its length. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was much more impressive.

  5. I probably should have realized that Pandora’s Star would have ended that way, and I knew it was part of a larger “Commonwealth” series, but at 1000 pages or so, I was expecting this to be somewhat self contained.

    Totally agreed on Ozzie’s story… I actually liked it on it’s own, a nice survival tale, but it wasn’t very well integrated with the rest of the book(s) and the payoff (what he found at the end of the path) was a bit of a letdown. Though I did like that final chapter in Judas Unchained… But for me, Ozzie’s story is just one of many similar things where we got wayyy too much detail for something that was only partially related to the plot.

    If I do decide to pick up the Void books, it will probably be a while…

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