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Publisher: Bluejack

August, 2006 : Review:

The Commonwealth Saga by Peter F. Hamilton

Girth and Worth

Judas Unchained
By Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, 2006
848 pp.
ISBN 0345461665

Pandora's Star
By Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, 2004
768 pp.
ISBN 0345461622

Emperor Joseph II reportedly complained that Mozart's music contained too many notes. Similarly, I have a friend whose assessment of most mainstream movies he likes usually comes with the caveat, "It was good, but it could have been shorter." The first observation implies a complexity that detracts from its purpose (and perhaps an inability to sufficiently comprehend the complexity). The second is a bit different; the implication is that, with only so much disposable time for viewing disposable entertainment, amusement decreases in proportion to length.

All of which is brought to mind by Peter F. Hamilton's recently completed duology, set in his Commonwealth universe—Judas Unchained weighs in at 848 pages and concludes the events set forth in the previous 768 pages of Pandora's Star. (Note to publisher: while the cast of characters provided at the beginning of the sequel is helpful, given a two year delay between the first and second volumes, some sort of plot summary for those lacking total recall would have been helpful.) The duology builds on Misspent Youth, which introduced the idea of genetic rejuvenation and the datasphere—a galactic internet somehow accessible from the mind—featured in the Commonwealth universe. I haven't read it, but the reviews I've seen describe it as, perhaps not surprisingly, "meandering"; even the normally fawning reader reviews typical of Amazon indicate a frustration with loose plotting.

Clearly this isn't one of those cases where a publisher decides to divide a novel simply because more books represent more potential revenue. While a near 1,600 page novel can be published in a single volume (see the Gollancz edition of Mary Gentle's Ash), there's the valid concern whether such a huge volume could compete for attention against smaller, quicker reads on crowded bookseller shelves, let alone the risk of hernia to carry the thing around.

The overriding question, however, is whether a weighty book in terms of page count can be a weighty book in terms of literary worth. While I think Judas Unchained represents good entertainment (indeed, the book review cliché of "a rollicking good read" applies), it isn't literary—it recycles science fictional tropes to propel a plot, but it doesn't develop them or have anything new or significant to say about them, even as it is kind of fun.

Before I go further, first let me say that what I'm about to do is totally unfair to Hamilton on two counts. The fact that this is a lengthy tale shouldn't matter. After all, no one criticizes Clarissa or War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past simply because they are long. But particularly for science fiction, size is the elephant in the room that can't be ignored. One reason the so-called serious critics sneer at the genre is because the endless fat sequels appear to them as so many empty calories. These factors reinforce a narrow and uninformed perception, such the one put forth by New York Times columnist David Itzkoff, that most science fiction is "geek-lit," stuffed with cool things that "normal" people can't be bothered trying to figure out and written at a level that is at best pedantic, or worse frequently juvenile. (Leave it to the paper of record to award a featured space in its Sunday Book Review to someone whose knowledge of the genre doesn't extend much beyond that of an English teacher in the 1970s with pretensions of hipness.) Which brings me to the second way I'm being unfair to Hamilton—I'm holding him to a literary standard that he may never have had any intention of trying to achieve. While what we have here is a better "read" than some geek-lit, it doesn't rise much above it, but maybe Hamilton never intended to.

First, let's try a basic plot summary. Previously, in Pandora's Star, Nigel Sheldon and his partner Ozzie Isaac invent a wormhole technology that allows instant planet jumping. Their technical feat empowers them to run a ruling oligarchy that they head for centuries, thanks to life-extension technologies that provide virtual immortality. By the twenty-fourth century, humanity has expanded extensively through the cosmos through a train-like system that passes through one wormhole to the next. A team is dispatched to investigate the seemingly impossible envelopment of the Dyson planetary systems by some kind of artificial shielding system. The shield is opened by a subversive agent, unleashing the inhabitants of the Dyson system, called the Prime, a mechanical-based intelligence bent on galactic domination. While the mythological Pandora let evil out of the box because of curiosity, the Dyson shield is unlatched for a malevolent purpose.

Meanwhile, a detective genetically bred to solve crimes continues to trail one step behind in a centuries-long attempt to break up The Guardians of Selfhood, a terrorist group that claims it is resisting an alien intelligence called the Starflyer that has infiltrated humanity in order to destroy it, though there is little evidence that any such being exists. Also, there's an aspiring journalist who uses her feminine wiles to acquire information and dupe subjects into embarrassing interviews, and a love affair between the daughter of a powerful ruling family and a naive Guardian, to mention just a few of the multiple narratives. When a world settled by people seeking a simpler life away from dehumanizing and ecologically harmful technologies is attacked by the Prime while politicians and military authorities vie for power in determining the best way to respond to the threat, things really start to get moving.

What at times seem like disparate plot lines do come together in Judas Unchained, in the course of which, as the title implies, various traitors and alien menaces to humanity are revealed, and sides once viewed as enemies reconcile in pursuit of a common evil. The paranoia of the Bush administration notwithstanding, this sort of thing had more cultural significance during the McCarthy era when John W. Campbell's classic "Who Goes There" provided fictional parallels to the Great Commie Scare of the Cold War. Presumably, the intent is to build tension while the reader tries to guess who is on which side. The problem is that Hamilton doesn't play fair; there are no telling clues that could have tipped off the identities of the subversives. Moreover, the traitorous are largely undeveloped minor characters that make it hard to much care one way or the other about their true intentions. Sort of like how whenever Kirk beamed down with someone who wasn't a series regular, sure enough that character ended up vaporized.

Furthering this lack of involvement in the fates of the various characters is the whole notion of life extension. When the physical body is damaged or destroyed, previously downloaded memories can be resurrected in a biological replacement. So when someone you love betrays you and you have to kill her, well, all you have to do is resurrect her with the "bad parts" erased and things can return to "normal." Conceivably, such a situation could serve as a satire of an "affectless" society, but if that was Hamilton's intent, it isn't much more than an afterthought. In contrast, Richard Morgan's Taeshii Kovacs series employs a similar gimmick, but it serves the idea of how technology provides a means for humans to be even more brutal with one another—life extension serves to further devalue existence than enhance it. For Hamilton, it doesn't seem to have much purpose beyond enabling contemporary characters to be transplanted into a far future and still use terms like "dude" that would otherwise be jarringly inappropriate.

Immortality, wormholes, alien invasions, the aliens amongst us, galactic empires, artificial intelligence, cyberpunk techno-bio enhancements, they're all just cool things in the toy box to play with. And Hamilton likes to play. But that's all he does; play with them. Where other authors employ these ideas to ponder human proclivities in light of technologies that accentuate the id as well as the superego (and expect readers to know what those terms mean), to Hamilton they're just plot devices; at times, they're just an excuse to put more words on the page. The one possible exception is the ending, which, however, seems tacked on, straining to say something significant after all the special effects are over (again, see almost any episode of Star Trek).

That said, even as I was reading along thinking about what sections could easily be deleted if I were Hamilton's editor, the narrative does for the most part move and Hamilton eventually does tie everything together in a workman-like fashion, even if the resulting edifice isn't an example of the highest craftsmanship or significance.

The denouement of Judas Unchained implies an impending sequel, and Hamilton is reportedly working on the Void Trilogy, which takes place 1,000 years after the events described here and may involve some of the same characters. I don't know whether I'll be up for that, but I'm glad Hamilton is working on it; otherwise, I suspect, his head will burst from all the thoughts floating around in it waiting to get on the page. But what's healthy for him may not translate into a reading experience of significant well-being for the rest of us.

Copyright © 2006, David Soyka. All Rights Reserved.

About David Soyka

David Soyka is a freelance journalist and teacher who writes the occasional short story. He also writes corporate marketing communications, which is a fiction of a different sort.


Aug 9, 17:45 by IROSF
A thread to discuss Peter F. Hamilton's series.

David Soyka's review can be found here

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