Sunday, December 06, 2009

To the Stars in Ships!

I've read a couple more space opera novels lately:

:: The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James MacDonald was actually a re-read for me. The first time I read it was almost eight years ago, and I remember liking it but finding it a bit disappointing; it felt, at the time, like a retread of a number of tropes from Star Wars used in the service of a fairly unremarkable plot. Someone else, in the interim (I don't remember who it was), told me that it was a better book than that, so I decided to give it another go. Glad I did.

Yes, it does present a very comfortable read for someone whose primary fascination with space opera is Star Wars. Our heroes all wield blasters, except for the more mystical warriors who carry a more antiquated weapon (staffs, in this case). Yes, the heroes fly around in a circular-shaped starship that was an ordinary freighter before it was souped up into one of the fastest ships in the galaxy. Yes, we're in the wake of a galactic war. And so on. But I found the central story (a woman starpilot who has tried to make a life away from her famous family and their political connections is drawn back in when her mother is assassinated and her father charges her with finding out who did it) a lot more interesting this time out than I did the first time.

But this time, I wasn't as bothered by all that as I was the first time. Maybe it's that I've read a lot more SF in general and space opera in particular since then, or maybe it's something else, but The Price of the Stars actually is a highly entertaining read. I look forward to continuing the series, called Mageworlds, of which this is the first. The first book is fun and breezy, but it also leaves behind enough questions so as to make for a desire to return to this universe. (Who and what are the Mageworlds, for example?)

:: The Price of the Stars is good old pulpy adventure space opera, but Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton is what they're calling "New Space Opera" these days: it's full to bursting with SF ideas, along with lots of other stuff. Lots of other stuff. Pages upon pages upon pages of other stuff. If The Price of the Stars is a potboiler, Pandora's Star is an entire kitchen, staffed by a single mad chef of enormous skill.

Pandora's Star is a doorstop of a book, by an author who likes to produce doorstops. Set in a new universe called the Commonwealth, Hamilton tells a story that begins with a brief flashback to humanity's first landing on Mars -- and then flashes forward several hundred years to an astronomer who is studying a binary star system a thousand light years distant, when, as he is looking at the star through his telescope, the star disappears. An exploratory mission is sent to the star, which turns out to have been completely enclosed -- along with its sister star -- with an enormous energy field. What's behind the energy field, and why was the star enclosed? One of these questions is answered, and another is left open for the next book in the duology (Judas Unchained).

Hamilton's story literally explodes all over the place, on dozens of planets. There are underground political movements that rely on terrorist tactics; there are singularly devoted detectives; there are scientists and starship officers; there are rich families struggling to maintain their power and poorer families looking to gain it; there are aliens who travel the stars simply by walking from one planet to another (yes, that's what I said); there is a human society where people are regularly "rejuvenated" and where death itself has become rare (and even where dead people can be "rebirthed"), and where, in one of my favorite notions in the book, interstellar travel is conducted not by supralight-drive starship but by trains that simply roll through planet-based wormholes.

Pandora's Star ends with a wild bang of a cliffhanger, so I'm greatly looking forward to reading the second book. (I've already noticed that Judas Unchained has something that Pandora's Star really could have used: a list of the dramatis personae. Sometimes it gets a bit difficult keeping track of who's who in Hamilton's universe, but it's worth it. This is as entertaining an SF read as I can recall, and a high-water mark in my ongoing space opera obsession.


Thee Earl of Obvious said...

I just saw War of The Worlds Live on PBS. It is a rock opera technically. AWESOME. I looked into getting a DVD but they only play on players with regionally coded to play stuff from Europe.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Oh, I mentioned that because I think it qualifies as a Space Opera

jason said...

Your mention of trains passing through wormholes reminded me of a trilogy I read back in high school by a chap named John DeChancie. Similar idea, only there the vehicle of choice was more like giant nuclear-powered cars and trucks running along an ancient highway built by long-vanished aliens. Every so often there's a "tollbooth" (i.e., a wormhole) that bounces you somewhere else. The protagonist was a trucker who had everyone in the galaxy chasing him because they thought he had found the map to the "skyway" system (as I recall, he hadn't; it was a case of "the wrong man" like in a Hitchcock movie).

Fun books if you can track them down. I think they're long out of print...