Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Judas Unchained, by Peter F. Hamilton

Epic conclusion to an epically long space opera that left me epically ambivalent.

Judas Unchained

Tor, 2005, 1100 pages.

Peter F. Hamilton's superbly imagined, cunningly plotted interstellar adventures are conceived on a staggeringly epic scale and filled with fully realized human and alien characters as complex as they are engaging. No mere world builder, Hamilton creates entire universes - and he does so with irresistible flair and intelligence.

His previous novel, the acclaimed Pandora's Star, introduced the Intersolar Commonwealth, a star-spanning civilization of the 24th century. Robust, peaceful, and confident, the Commonwealth dispatched a ship to investigate the mystery of a disappearing star, only to inadvertently unleash a predatory alien species that turned on its liberators, striking hard, fast, and utterly without mercy.

Coexistence is impossible with the technologically advanced aliens, who are genetically hardwired to exterminate all other forms of life. Twenty-three planets have already fallen to the invaders, with casualties in the hundreds of millions. And no one knows when or where the genocidal Prime will strike next.

Nor are the Prime the only threat. For more than 100 years, a shadowy cult, the Guardians of Selfhood, has warned that an alien with mind-control abilities impossible to detect or resist - the Starflyer - has secretly infiltrated the Commonwealth. Branded as terrorists, the Guardians and their leader, Bradley Johansson, have been hunted by relentless investigator Paula Myo. But now evidence suggests that the Guardians were right all along and that the Starflyer has placed agents in vital posts throughout the Commonwealth - agents who are now sabotaging the war effort. Is the Starflyer an ally of the Prime, or has it orchestrated a fight to the death between the two species for its own advantage?

Caught between two deadly enemies, one a brutal invader striking from without, the other a remorseless cancer killing from within, the fractious Commonwealth must unite as never before. This will be humanity's finest hour - or its last gasp.

Judas Unchained is not really a "sequel" to Pandora's Star; it's volume II of a 2200-page epic. You could read it by itself, but it's picking up where the first volume left off. All the characters and the Interstellar Commonwealth were introduced in volume I, and if you read the first volume alone, you'll get no answers until you read volume II. So settle in for two thousand-plus-page novels or don't bother.

My feelings about Pandora's Star remain pretty much unchanged after reading the conclusion: this is big, dumb space opera, better written than most, but it's still space fleets, genocidal aliens, and hot women written for genre fanboys (and I mean boys) who want tried and true formulaic science fiction. I wanted to like this book more, but mostly I kept thinking how very, very long it was and how I've read epic space operas just as good that took half as many pages.

In book one, a barrier around a mysterious double star vanished when a human exploration ship approached it, freeing from its millenia-old prison an alien race know as the Primes, which are really a hivemind controlled by a single entity referred to as Morning Light Mountain, as this is the closest approximation to its self-designation from the time when it first evolved to self awareness. Morning Light Mountain is basically a perfectly evolved expansion machine; it can envision no other goal than to expand itself throughout the universe to guarantee its own immortality. All other life is a potential rival to its expansion, therefore all other life must be exterminated.

Much of Judas Unchained concerns the war against the Primes, but there is also the mystery of the Starflyer, once regarded as a fantasy believed in only by cranks and cultists, until it becomes increasingly apparent that it's real. The Starflyer is an alien entity that has infiltrated the Commonwealth and controls human puppets. Its ultimate goals are unknown, but presumed to be hostile to humanity, and it may have been instrumental in freeing the Primes.

Honestly, the space battles and the Suicide Squad of ex-cons freed from suspended animation to fight a guerrilla war on Prime-occupied planets bored me. It would look great on a big screen; in a book, it just went on and on and on.

Far more interesting was Paula Myo, the Javert of the Interstellar Commonwealth, an investigator so inflexibly dedicated to law and order that she literally goes into shock when she's forced to compromise her duty for the sake of mankind's survival. Myo was an implacable, worthy protagonist, albeit with a completely flat personality because she basically has no other purpose in life but to execute her duty.

Unfortunately, she's also the only female character who isn't basically fan service for the male readers. The other notable female characters are the Cat, a psychopathic black widow, Tiger Pansy, a porn star who does her part to save humanity by having mind-sex with an alien, and Mellanie Rescorai, who does her part to save humanity by having sex with lots of men, and winds up hooking up with a teenage virgin in a true Triumph of the Nice Guy (tm) nerd-pleasin' ending.

Peter Hamilton is continuing in the grand tradition of classic sci-fi, and for those who like that kind of thing, it's easy to see why he's so popular. He serves up exactly what genre fans have loved for decades. His writing is good (aside from his use of the word "juddering" like a thousand times) and his plot is rich and detailed with many characters and lots of gee-whiz SF coolness, and I call it big stupid fun with affection. But it's a style of SF I've outgrown somewhat because there wasn't a single point during either book when I found myself having to think very much, and entire chapters just kind of flowed past without leaving much of an impression on me. There was plenty of science fiction, but not a lot of thematic complexity, nor were any of the characters much deeper than a few lines of description. In 2200 pages of space battles and sex dolls, I found the aliens generally more interesting than the humans.

Besides Paula Myo, the only point where I really became interested in the character interactions was the moral debate about exterminating the Primes. It might seem like a no-brainer: an alien race whose inability to coexist with anything else is literally coded into its genes is pretty clearly an enemy you must either destroy utterly or have to fight endlessly or to your own destruction. But to their credit, several of the human characters balk when presented with the option of ending the war with an attack even more genocidal than what Morning Light Mountain has unleashed so far, and while I think I would tend to lean towards pressing the big red button myself, I was very interested to see if this moral dilemma would be resolved in a non-genocidal fashion, and how.

So, if you like space opera, and you like big books, then you should like Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, but it's definitely for the committed SF fan, not for anyone who's only lukewarm on the genre or who is looking for an author who brings something new to the table. For lighter fare, try John Scalzi or Robert Heinlein. For something harder and edgier, I'd recommend A Grey Moon Over China. For a more alien post-human future with more subtle conflicts still on a galactic scale, try Alastair Reynolds. For humans vs. really interesting aliens and lots and lots of space battles but more brains, try David Brin. And for all of the above and just damn good writing, Vernor Vinge is The Man.

Verdict: If you like this kind of book, this is the kind of book you will like. Once upon a time, I loved me some space opera, any space opera. Now I'm pickier, and Peter F. Hamilton entertained me well enough with this epic two-volume series but has not made the cut of SF authors who fill me with enthusiasm. There's nothing I can really pinpoint as a flaw in these books per se, as they are certainly not sub-par as SF goes, they just didn't do it for me.

Also by Peter F. Hamilton: My review of Pandora's Star.
Tags: books, peter hamilton, reviews, science fiction

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