Ringworld and The Ringworld Engineers – Larry Niven

Arguably Niven’s best solo novels, as well as the ultimate BDO (Big Dumb Object) story. Great adventure in an incredible setting with trademark Niven “quirky characters”. They’re not perfect but the sense of wonder created is second to none.

Interestingly, the premise of The Ringworld Engineers, that the Ringworld is unstable, was figured out by physicists after the first novel was published. At the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, MIT students were chanting “The Ringword is unstable!” Hence why our heroes need to fix the problem.

Market Forces – Richard Morgan

After several deep recessions, the rift between rich and poor has widened dramatically. Corporations pretty much run the world, and the only game in town is to work for one, if you have the guts for it. Tenders and positions are battled for on the road with car duels, often to the death. It’s all very cutthroat and cool, but Morgan has somehow kept it just this side of believable. Our hero, Chris Faulkner, works for the Shorn Corporation in the Conflict Investment department. His job is, in simple terms, to support some third world revolutionary with weapons and support. When said revolutionary is settled in as ruler, a percentage of the GDP of his country will go to Shorn.

Mr. Morgan has written a story of corporate warfare in the near future. Not too unexpectedly for this author, this book is full of cool prose, has an anti-hero, and contains some pretty extreme violence. As Morgan himself admits in the foreword, it is unashamedly inspired by films such as Rollerball and Mad Max.Cruel, but not really that far removed from some situations seen today. The difference is that the corporations in this future do not bother to disguise their naked ambition.

The book also contains the absolute best description of a long, slow break up I have ever read. Chris’ transformation from vague idealist to the ultimate antihero is brilliantly portrayed, and the end may surprise you, although in hindsight it was inevitable.

Marvelous and very very cool.

Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

This book blew me away. After five or six pages I was hooked. Very cool cyberpunk/noir in a future where bodies can used (as “sleeves”) almost like clothes (albeit very expensive ones; a normal person can only afford one “extra” body and thus double his lifespan). This naturally raises some rather intriguing philosophical questions about mortality (or the lack of it), but also about how the legal system would work under the circumstances. All this is but a backdrop for a fabulous crime thriller told in the first person. It is clear that Morgan was very much inspired by Blade Runner (down to the robotic voice saying “Cross now. Cross Now. Cross Now” at a zebra crossing). The gloomy, indifferent outlook of our hero is similar, and it is answered by a similar outlook from his surroundings. The onlyshortcoming with this book is that the plot becomes a bit convoluted at times. All in all, a very very nice read.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore & David Lloyd

A dystopian graphic novel about a post nuclear war fascist England by the same writer as the incredible Watchmen. The art is very different from that work, however. To go with the setting, it is unusual for a comic strip. No thought bubbles, no sound effects, just a washed out gray style that is purposefully unnerving.

The main character, V, is a larger than life anti-hero who fights back against the fascist regime in traditional terrorist fashion, or so it seems. But this terrorist understands the people, and really serves as a catalyst for the change brewing under the surface anyway. A great story on many levels.

Beyond the cool factor of this graphic novel is the hard-hitting social commentary, the deep understanding of human nature, and the interesting conclusion. It is a scary thing how true the setting rings.

V for Vendetta was adapted into a movie with Natalie Portman, which I found very much captured the themes of the novel. While using film imagery to great effect, it didn’t hollywoodize the story into a washed down puddle of great visuals without substance, but dared to be stark and shocking like the novel.

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This graphic novel is one of the classics for good reason. Well drawn and masterfully written, it is a tale of a disillusioned world and its disillusioned heroes. The heroes are well into middle age as they must unite again to save the world. Even if you are skeptical to the format, you should give Watchmen a chance. You won’t be disappointed.

The Exiles Saga, Intervention and The Galactic Milieu Trilogy – Julian May

The scope of this saga spanning eight novels is staggering. A gate is opened to the past, specifically the Pliocene era. But it is a one-way trip. Adventurous souls travel back, and find a world unlike any they could imagine. Epic conflict rages between ancient races, and the future destiny of man is decided. The initial four books make up The Saga of Pliocene Exile.

  • The Many-Coloured Land
  • The Golden Torc
  • The Nonborn King
  • The Adversary

These can be read as a standalone series, but who would want to stop there?

The “bridge” book deals with first contact and the emergence of humans with “supernatural” powers such as telekinesis.

  • Intervention. In the US edition this was divided into “Intervention: Surveillance” and “Intervention: Metaconcert”.

The Galactic Milieu Trilogy deals with events after humanity has entered the galactic community.

  • Jack the Bodiless
  • Diamond Mask
  • Magnificat

What surprised me as I finally finished the whole thing was how May had meticulously planned the entire arc from the very beginning, with elements important to the last novels referenced in the first. This lends the whole series a sense of completion rare in such works. Considering the fact that it took over 12 years to write, the achievement is even more impressive.

The characters are amazing, with rich depths and particular quirks that blend in well with the evolving destiny of humankind. The settings, especially in Exiles are fabulous.

Unfortunately, the US covers are beyond awful, but don’t be put off by that. Also unfortunately, the books are out of print, but can be easily found second hand.

Falling Free – Lois McMaster Bujold

Not, technically, a Vorkosigan novel since no Vorkosigan family member is so much as lurking in the background, it is nevertheless set in the Vorkosiverse, though, about two hundred years before Miles’ birth. The story is about the origin of the quaddies, humans genetically engineered for work in free fall, whose most striking adaptation is the replacement of their legs with arms (and hands). Leo Graf is an engineer and teacher assigned to the habitat where the quaddies are being “reared”. The corporation he works for intends to use them for free fall work, thus avoiding the costly planetside leaves necessary to ensure good health for normal humans. The thousand quaddies are young, the oldest only just out of adolescence, and are being treated like children, with no voice in their future. Legally, they are the property of the corporation, even as they live their lives, work hard, even procreate. As artificial gravity is invented, the quaddies become instantly obsolete, the need for free fall work decreasing dramatically. They are no longer cost effective for the company, which orders the experiment terminated, meaning sterilization and confinement to barracks (read, prison) on a planet. For the free fall adapted quaddies, gravity wells are an unnatural, dangerous and generally terrible environment. At this point Graf rebels and plans the exodus of the quaddies, away to make their own lives.

This is one of the best novels I have ever read. The characters, “normal” and quaddie alike are well rounded, interesting, authentic. Bujold quickly manages to turn the quaddies from freaks into just “different humans” in the mind of the reader. The plot is excellently constructed, with disparate elements and personalities meshing well to create an engaging whole with many page turner moments.

The illustrations of morality are particularly poignant. The company brass thinks of the quaddies as little more than animals. Creatures to be disposed of when their usefulness has run its course. Leo Graf and some of the other staff, on the other hand, sees them as people, as children to be protected. The parallels with slavery are obvious, but more clever is the message that corporate leaders often have a lack of scruples making them morally little better than the slave-masters of previous centuries. A brilliant read.

This novel is collected in the “Miles, Mutants & Microbes” omnibus.

Winterfair Gifts – Lois McMaster Bujold

This short story forms an epilogue of sorts to Komarr and A Civil Campaign. It is told from the viewpoint of armsman Roic. A few days before Miles and Ekaterin’s wedding guests in the form of Miles’ friends from the Dendarii Free Mercenaries arrive. Taura in particular is focused on in a brief tale leading up to the wedding.

The story is cute, but would not be worth much if it hadn’t been tacked on to the end of the Miles in Love omnibus. It is certainly worth reading, and it forms a nice bookend to the macrostory of Miles and Ekaterin’s courtship, but it is not a good standalone.

This short story is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

A Civil Campaign – Lois McMaster Bujold

After the events of Komarr, Ekaterin returns to Barrayar to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Miles is more infatuated than ever. In the mist of the preparations for the Emperor’s wedding, he embarks on a campaign to win her heart. And screws up badly. Meanwhile, political intrigue lands him in trouble, and his brother Mark starts a bizarre business venture in the basement of Vorkosigan House. Much hilarity ensues.

McMaster Bujold herself describes Komarr as the romantic drama, while A Civil Campaign is the romantic comedy. It is definitely the funnies Vorkosigan book. The author was inspired by authors like Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen for this comedy of manners. It is definitely a melding of Science Fiction with those romantic styles, and brilliantly done. The infamous dinner party scene is one of the most inspired and funniest passages I have ever read. McMaster Bujold has a talent for putting her characters in the deepest trouble. She seems to revel in it, never protecting them from embarassment or injury. This makes for greatly engaging stories.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Komarr – Lois McMaster Bujold

Now a permanent Imperial Auditor, Miles is sent to Barrayar’s subject planet of Komarr to investigate an “accident” on a solar mirror. The mirror is part of a centuries long projecto to terraform Komarr. Currently, Komarrans live in domed cities. Through a fellow auditor, he makes the acquaintance of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the unhappily married wife of a Barrayaran terraforming administrator. Miles is smitten. He must now solve the mystery of the accident, while sorting out his feelings for Ekaterin. Unfortunately, she is used as a pawn the by the sinister conspirators behind the accident when these move to enact their terrorist

I found Komarr absolutely stellar. Confident Miles is stepped back from the action a bit to make room for the conflicted character of Ekaterin. She seems everything he could wish for, but she is married and suspicious of men in general. A challenge worthy of our hero. McMaster Bujold manages to make her vulnerable and angry without making her weak and abrasive. By delving deep into the source of her unhappiness, McMaster Bujold lays out a character one cannot help but like despite her flaws. It is made clear how Ekaterin dug herself this hole. The sense of duty which noble Barrayarans so treasure has trapped her in a loveless marriage to a loser. The resolution, while bringing forth the “true” Ekaterin, does not end with “happily ever after”. The author acknowledges that life is not so simple, but without depriving us of a satisfying triumph.

This novel is collected in the “Miles in Love” omnibus.

Memory – Lois McMaster Bujold

Somewhat oddly, this is the only Vorkosigan novel not collected in an omnibus. It forms a pivotal point in Miles’s character development. In it, Miles continues feeling the effects of the injuries from Mirror Dance. This, and his own fear of losing the pursuits he loves, leads to his dismissal from Imperial Security. In an odd turn of events, he finds himself a depressed bachelor with not much to do. Luckily, trouble is afoot at the ImpSec he had to leave. Emperor Gregor appoints him an Imperial Auditor, a sort of all-powerful troubleshooter, and sets him to investigating the mysterious circumstances of ImpSec head Illyan’s disablement.

Memory is a wonderful book. As is her wont, McMaster Bujold figures out the worst thing she can do to her hero, and skewers him with it. Miles’ dual identity as Admiral Naismith is completely destroyed. This was his safety valve, his way to escape the pressures of being a cripple in Barrayar’s militaristic society. The sections that deal with coping are insightful and excellently written, but still sprinkled with McMaster Bujold trademark humor. The last part of the book, with Miles as Imperial Auditor, is a pure pleasure to read. The role suits Miles’ personality perfectly, and I found myself frequently chortling at his antics. The author deserves admiration for daring to kill off her hero’s raison d’être. She could surely have milked a few more books out of Admiral Naismith, but probably felt that there was more interesting character development to be found this way. This reader is truly grateful.

Citadel – John Ringo

The sequel to Live Free or Die continues more or less where the previous book leaves off. Much of it deals with the continuing construction of the Troy battlestation and its first consort. As is typical with Ringo second books in series, the “three stories combined” model of the first book is abandoned and new main characters are introduced, in this case a Navy assault shuttle pilot and a civilian “space welder”. This being Ringo, there is no shortage of battle scenes in the last third of the book.

Even more than usual, Mr. Ringo has managed to produce a real page-turner. The logistics of designing and constructing the defenses of The Solar System are great reading since it is all interspersed with trademark Ringo humor, well written characters, fun character interactions and lots of just plain cool stuff. I don’t know where the guy gets his ideas but he certainly has never been timid. Arthur C. Clarke, a master of massively huge stuff, would have been humbled. While I mostly “got it”, a schematic or two would have been nice, namely the Troy and a Myrmidon shuttle. Also, while I am up on quite a few military acronyms, a list or at least a spelled out version the first time one is mentioned would have been nice. All in all, another page turner from Ringo. Can’t wait for the next book, “The Hot Gate”.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

This classic novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars, by Martians. He is brought “back” to Earth and soon whisked away by a nurse and a reporter. He can perform seemingly miraculous feats of bodily control, telekinesis, and more. He ends up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, author, professional cynic and bon vivant; a man who surrounds himself with three secretaries to take down prose or poetry at any time. “Mike” Smith, the “Man from Mars”, after an education at the hands of Jubal, goes out into the world, spreading his ideas about sharing, love and “grokking” under the guise of a new religion.

Stranger in a Strange Land is widely acclaimed as a genre classic, and I cannot help but agree. The evolution of Smith from uncommunicative quasi-cripple with the blank mind of a baby to mental giant with a huge following is masterfully described. Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein’s “ideal” alter-ego, perhaps?) is equally interesting as a character, with his honest modesty but sharp intellect and wisdom. The book is VERY heavy on the dialogue and rather light on the action. The risk an author takes with an reliance on dialogue is that the whole things becomes rather boring and long-winded. Such is not the case here. The characters talk about interesting things as wide ranging as religion, politics, art, jurisprudence and morality. Furthermore, they actually learn stuff and develop as people as they do so. They do not merely talk to support the action. Their talking IS the action. The view of females is somewhat rooted in the 50s and 60s but even so Heinlein was being rather “modern” in his views. The views expressed are very interesting, especially since Heinlein doesn’t take the obvious (for scifi) route of dismissing religion as nonsense. THAT really intrigued me. The way he manages to meld religion into Smith’s “message” is mindblowing. This is not the lightest of reads but I must recommend it. It is both interesting and entertaining but most importantly it makes the reader think long and hard about the accepted truths of our society.

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy; A Second Chance at Eden – Peter F. Hamilton

The trilogy itself consists of:

  • The Reality Dysfunction
  • The Neutronium Alchemist
  • The Naked God

There are also two ancillary volumes:

  • A Second Chance at Eden – short story collection
  • The Confederation Handbook – reference volume

In the USA, each volume of the trilogy was published in two parts, as evidenced by the thumbnails.

The Night’s Dawn trilogy is a huge story spanning over 4000 pages, in truth one massive multi-volume novel. It tells of a great evil that befalls the otherwise mostly peaceful but very interesting and multifaceted Federation. Everything changes as mankind faces its true self. As the external threat starts to seriously damage the foundations of civilization, the large differences between various human and alien factions make for an interesting backdrop to the struggle. Actually it is very difficult to describe Night’s Dawn in a few short sentences. The scope is quite breathtaking, there are many characters and the writing is impeccable. The only nagging complaint is the far too rapid conclusion. Hamilton seems to have been in a hurry to tie things up. Some might feel the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But in my opinion whatever you think of the ending, the journey is certainly worth it.

“The Confederation Handbook” reference can be practical to have lying around since there is a lot to keep track of.

The short story collection ”A Second Chance at Eden” is a fine companion to the trilogy. Although only a few of the stories are in the same universe, all of them are gems in their own right. Importantly, though, the title story gives some valuable background on how the Edenist Culture was founded.

These books have particularly gorgeous covers, thought US editions marred this a bit by darkening and altering the colors.

The Crucible of Empire – Eric Flint & K.D. Wentworth

This direct sequel to The Course of Empire takes up the story two years after the events of the previous book. The nascent Terra taif consisting of both Jao and humans finds clues that the Lleix, a race practically exterminated by the Jao during their time as an Ekhat slave race, may have survived, but is in imminent danger from the Ekhat. Terra taif’s newest ship, the gargantuan Lexington, is dispatched to the system in question.

It is a rare sequel that is as good as the original, but Flint and Wentworth have managed to pull it off. The inclusion of the fascinating Lleix and the telling of sections from their point of view is excellently done and brings a necessary new wrinkle to the story. Flint is a master at telling a story from various points of view and really getting into the psychology of various people and races. While, of course, neither the Jao nor the Lleix are truly alien, they are different enough to make the contrasts and interactions interesting, especially when written with a good measure of humor as here. There is even a passage written from the point of view of the Ekhat, as frightening as they are powerful and utterly mad. A real page turner, this.

Wild Blue – Steven Ambrose

The late and great Ambrose on USAAF bomber crews flying over Europe during WWII. Very well researched and focusing on the men (and their families) and how the conflict affected them. Enjoyable and worth the read even if you are not into aviation or militaria.

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Gibson is not what you would call a prolific writer. Every now and then something dribbles out. The works are generally short, although the ultradesigned packaging can fool you into thinking otherwise. I am a huge fan of Neuromancer and his other early works. Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrows Parties were all good, but it felt like he was just showing off and not really putting his heart into the thing. Pattern recognition is much much better.

The story starts in London where our heroine has to deal with the peculiar and uniquely retro British way of constructing household appliances and home furnishings in general. The novel is quite simply put one of the best I have ever read. The elegance of Gibson’s inventive and very modern prose takes us into a world of branding and a mysterious body of footage which has spawned it’s own subculture. The heroine, Cayce Pollard (in-joke for Gibson fans is the way her first name is pronounced “Case”) is very likeable in her imperfections and phobias. The descriptions are flawless as we follow the action exclusively from her point of view.

Her friends are the colorful protagonists of the world in which we ourselves live. A world of global powermongers seeking influence, but not by the unfashionable means of violence. These persons, in Gibson’s trademark way only glimpsed from somewhere further down the food chain, are postmodern creatures, influencing without revealing themselves. Cayce herself has friends in many places, and like many of us now living in ***cliché warning*** an increasingly global society, we communicate via email for close friends, as well as chatrooms and message boards where we can easily find likeminded people, people who share a common interest. Larry Niven talked about how, in a society with instantaneous, cheap transportation, social clubs became increasingly important when men and women needed to anchor their lives socially as geographical roots became blurred. In the same way, Gibson explores how, with internet technologies it is quite possible, indeed necessary, today to be far from friends, but still very close.

So, a “lifestyle” piece from Gibson which absolutely fascinated me and sucked me in like few other books have. Cyberpunk, having been invented by Gibson himself way back in 1984, is alive and well as the most cutting edge way to be a spectator to our own world.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void – Mary Roach

In this curious non-fiction volume, Mary Roach explores an aspect of space travel that is normally glossed over: the human inside the machine. She starts by explaining why engineers find humans the trickiest part of their spaceships, and goes on from there through impact experiments on cadavers, body odor research (really!), what happens to humans if they lie still for weeks on end, the horrors of space food, the even greater horrors of going to the potty in space and various other subjects.

If this sounds boring, think again. Not only is the subject matter surprising and fascinating, but Ms. Roach’s writing is infused with an extremely entertaining dry wit. Throughout her research and her many interviews with scientists, astronauts and even interns involved in space travel and its accessory activities, she seems to find the humor in every situation. To be fair, it is hard not to see the humor but she describes it so well. A couple of selected gems:

“Safeguarding a human for a multiaxis crash is not all that different from packing a vase for shipping. Since you don’t know which side the UPS guy’s going to drop it on, you need to stabilize it all around.”

“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.”

I recommend this book even if you are not particularly interested in the space program. It is a great read about what it really takes to put people in space.

The Sprawl Trilogy – William Gibson

The Sprawl Trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer
  • Count Zero
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive

Gibson invented the cyberpunk subgenre with this plot-wise loosely connected series of books and he revitalized SciFi in the process. His sparse, cool prose and his approach to characterization mark the writing of many of his successors, probably chief among those Neal Stephenson.

His descriptions of cyberculture have aged well, since he was wise enough not to be too specific about hardware and software. He himself attributes this to the fact that he had never owned a computer at the time, although that is, in typical Gibson fashion, probably far too modest a justification. Another interesting fact is that these novels were written in the mid eighties, but illustrate many of the advances in computer technology which scientists and engineers are striving towards today in 2010. Whether his ideas on man-machine interfaces are simply the result of some very good thinking, and whether he inspired a generations of computer wiz kids is, of course, open to debate.

His work remains one of the pinnacles of SciFi, and his ability to distill the essence of something into a single, cool sentence remains, perhaps, unrivaled.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Probably the funniest book I have ever read. An angel and a demon, specifically the angel who guarded the gates of Eden and the demon who gave the apple to Eve, are now in charge of Great Britain. Over the millennia, they have pretty much decided that their lives will be a whole lot simpler if they stop fighting and instead fudge their reports to their respective superiors while getting on with living the good life. This all works fine until the Antichrist is due to be born. In England.

So funny it made my stomach ache from the laughter. The subtle, understated little English gems of humor are carefully woven into an engaging, and ultimately absurd (and absurdly good and funny) story. Does for me what Pratchett cannot do alone, which is to say suck me in and make me want to read it to the end.

The Wreck of the River of Stars – Michael Flynn

The cover looks magnificent. Flynn is back with a near future tale mirroring the twilight days of the age of sail. “The River of Stars” has long ago furled it’s magnetic sail in favor of a more modern engine. The past glories of the ship are almost forgotten as she plies her trade as a tramp freighter. But an engine failure forces a difficult decision. Her crew want to use the sail to save the ship in a last tribute to her old days of glory.

Incidentally, the story is set in the same universe as the Firestar series, with quite a few inside references sprinkled around for the avid Flynn fan.

It took me more than a month to read this book. Flynn’s prose is unusually fine, but it takes a long time to get through it. The title says it all, I guess, and the ending is more or less foretold from the beginning. This novel concentrates on the characters and their interactions. Long gone are the glory days of The River of Stars, and her crew is made up of a collection of misfits and losers who cannot find another berth. The Captain dies in the very first chapter, and things go downhill from there. Gradually the flawed crewmembers dance out their dance of death, and maybe they know their fate all along, which makes the drama even stronger.

I should point out that this book is intensely psychological, and does not, despite the setting, move very fast at all. Descriptions of feelings and motivations and interactions are drawn out almost to breaking point. It is a tribute to Flynn that he manages to hold the reader’s interest. So be warned, this is not a light summer read, but its majesty will captivate you.

Firestar Series – Michael Flynn

Near future SciFi has seldom been done better. Flynn takes us on an epic journey only hinted at in the humble beginnings of the first book. A millionairess has a hidden fear, almost an obsession. She is afraid that an asteroid has the potential to wipe out humanity by striking the Earth. While her fear is no doubt well founded, it takes extreme expressions in her, and she uses her fortune to build up a huge aerospace industry. The series consists of:

  • Firestar
  • Rogue Star
  • Lodestar
  • Falling Stars

What really makes this series great is the variety and richness of the many characters (from the second book, a Dramatis Personae is thankfully provided). The antagonisms and alliances flow over decades as Flynn deftly describes human nature, and the many things which make up its facets. Many novels have (too) many characters, but in almost all cases the majority are not fully fleshed out and threedimensional. Flynn’s wonderful character are these things. They have a past, motivations, goals and aspirations.

It is also quite remarkable how Flynn manages to weave together the many strands of his story into one whole, making this more than just a massive work of Science Fiction. It is, in fact, a story about ordinary people who, each in his or her own way, faces extraordinary personal and professional challenges in a changing society.

My only, very small, gripe with the series is how it loses a bit of steam in the third book. However, seen as a whole, the entire story is outstanding.

And yes, the last two covers are horrible and have very little to do with the books. Pah!

Back to the Moon – Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

The story is set in the 2020s. NASA is finally returning to the Moon using the (now canceled) Orion/Altair hardware. Meanwhile, a private company is sending tourists around the Moon and the Chinese are up to something. The first mission back to the Moon turns in to a daring rescue.

I’m a big space program buff so I’m a sucker for this kind of book. The story itself is a decent adventure/thriller. The engineering is well described, as would be expected since Dr. Taylor works with NASA Huntsville and Les Johnson is a NASA physicist. Unfortunately the prose is quite stilted, especially during the first third. The characters are stereotypes, especially the Chinese. Unfortunately the Chinese are also the wrong stereotype. They feel like reruns of Cold War era Soviets with a dash of “Asian” thrown in. The story does pick up in the second half and there are some nice thrills for the space buff. If you aren’t interested in the space program particularly you should give this a pass. It isn’t a bad book per se but could have used an author with a smoother prose style.

The Commonwealth Saga – Peter F. Hamilton

These two books are simply two volumes of the same novel, dubbed the Commonwealth Saga. With the invention of wormhole technology by straight arrow Nigel Sheldon and eccentric Ozzie Isaacs, traditional space exploration (vacuum, spaceships, all that kind of thing) is all but abandoned. Rail lines running between worlds through wormholes are the only means of interstellar transport, and humanity is rapidly expanding to many planets.

Hamilton seems to have been inspired by Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon when it comes to rejuvenation technology, although there are differences. Practical immortality is available to all but the very poor. Most people pay money into a sort of pension fund which pays for rejuvenation. The more well to do rejuvenate more often, staying forever young. This has brought about a maturing of humanity, where planning is much more long-term. Careers span decades and centuries. The rich can take entire “sabbatical lives”.

These two massive upheavals, longevity and cheap transportation over interstellar distances, have led to an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity for human society. A commonwealth unites the worlds. The Commonwealth is nominally a democracy, but the reins of power are firmly in the hands of dynasties rich enough to own entire planets. A utopia of sorts, but not really a democracy despite outward appearances.

A mysterious stellar event far outside the human sphere of influences forces the construction of a starship. It is the first one ever built. Former astronaut (immortality remember?) Wilson Kime captains the mission, which leads to the escape of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced from its ancient prison. And it soon becomes clear that the escape was not entirely an accident. There are mysterious forces at work inside the Commonwealth.

In the tradition of that other (even more) massive Hamilton opus, Night’s Dawn, this story is a somewhat daunting cornucopia of characters and interweaving subplots. This author can get away with it, since even his explanatory filler is eminently enjoyable. An immensely rich societal backdrop forms the stage for a drama with some very unexpected twists and turns. The most insignificant details come back to haunt the characters in what is obviously a very finely and meticulously crafted story. The end of Pandora’s Star is a massive cliffhanger and the story picks right back up in Judas Unchained, so I would recommend reading the two volumes back to back.

The story is peppered with wondrous things such as the Silfen, an enigmatic race of aliens, and their even more enigmatic forest paths, which lead seamlessly from world to world. Even the enemy is fascinating and an example of a true non-human intellect. There are bizarre, enigmatic and just generally cool characters such as super investigator Paula Myo, slut turned reporter Mellanie Rescorai, the orphan Orion, cult leaders, resistance warriors, criminals and politicians. A tangled web held together elegantly by Hamilton.

The story moves from utopia through gathering storm through all-out chaos and war to a spectacular conclusion, and is finally neatly put to bed in the epilogue. The true genius of Hamilton is that his universe is not populated by 20th Century humans living long lives and using wormholes. Society and its inhabitants are quite different, reflecting the changes in society and culture brought about by technological advances. Motivations, reactions and behaviors are believably described for these “future humans” (and aliens), just as a 17th Century human would behave differently from us.

It should be clear by now that this novel is among the very best I have ever read. Sure, one could criticize the perhaps unnecessarily long road chase in the second volume, or the seeming abandonment of a few supporting characters at the end. But the truth is that it is very very difficult to write something this long, with so many character relationships, and not run into the occasional pacing problem.

So stop reading this and order the books. You will not be disappointed. And if you want more, Hamilton returns to the Commonwealth Universe and many of the characters in the Void Trilogy, set over a thousand years later.