Sunday, February 8, 2009

Judas Unchained

Epic in scope, epic in length, but not remotely epic in execution. Judas Unchained is essentially the second part of a two-volume novel, by Peter F. Hamilton. I recognize that one of the weaknesses of the novel stems from having read the first part more than three years ago, and so the cast of hundreds was as much as unfamiliar to me as I encountered them again. There was a nice list of characters in the front of the book but it, of course, lacked detail so as not to accidentally give spoilers to readers flipping through the book. But I was reminded of Irwin Allen movies as I read: you would think as one-dimensional as the characters were that I could have remembered them over time. With such a broad cast, Hamilton necessarily did not spend a lot of time developing them so that they often became clich├ęs of themselves, sounding one note at every appearance.

Since the novel combines aspects of first contact novels with first alien war, the potential is there for a fascinating story. Hamilton also does a nice job of creating a fairly alien antagonist species, the Primes, a hive mind with rabid xenophobic tendencies. As a result, as the war goes on, there is the question of genocide—since the Primes are willing to destroy the entirety of the human race, should humans feel the same way? But it is only hinted at, with strong emotions on either side of the question, but no discussion of the issues beyond "If we do it, we will have lost our soul!" But that's a fairly thin argument when it comes to killing or being killed as Hamilton sets up the premise through more than 90% of the novel. And at the last moment he provides an escape so that the question can be avoided…but consider how fascinating a novel dealing with the repercussions of having to destroy an entire race could be, especially considering contemporary affairs and politics.

One interesting detail is how far humans have advanced (or not advanced, depending on your point-of-view) in his world history. Humans have developed classic wormhole technology as it is usually presented in speculative fiction, but they take advantage of it by running railroad tracks up to the entrances to the wormholes. On the one hand, this seems a fairly practical application of the technology, but it is also horribly retro. Technology has allowed for the world-wide net to grow to include these other worlds as data is passed back and forth through permanently open wormholes, but unlike the singularity that cutting edge writers envision, humans use it to fulfill their worst desires—more and more explicit scripted reality television, soap operas with total sensory input. Spacecraft can travel at speeds faster than the speed of light, but people still drive Toyotas. It's a strange dichotomy, especially considered in parallel with the genocide question—advancement as a civilization is not even, technology apparently outpaces ethical development. But these issues are all secondary to a fairly standard space opera (that actually doesn't have much space in it for a 2000-page novel). And that space opera isn't particularly well-written nor ground-breaking. Again, the Irwin Allen analogy comes to mind—this would have been great beach-reading or good for something to read while flying—but once you've finished it, nothing much stays with you.

One of my worst vices is the movie The Rock. I recognize that it's an action flick with very little going on but big explosions. Nonetheless, whenever I find it, I'll watch at least part of it, mostly because it makes me smile…it's a lot of silly fun with a huge soundtrack. It doesn't have pretensions of anything more than it is, and it does that part well. Fortunately, it only takes up about two hours of my time. Judas Unchained wants to be more than that and just fails at the attempt. It's a fun read, but I'll never find myself wanting to read it again.

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