I’m going to start this review by saying that I like Hamilton’s books. I’ve read quite a few and, looking at the reviews I’ve done so far, it turns out that Hamilton ranks as one of my most read authors of late. Bear that in mind as you read the rest of this review, because it may not sound like I enjoyed the book, but I did.
Judas Unchained is the second novel of a two novel story that started with Pandora’s Star. It tells the response to the attack of an alien species (the Prime alien, a single hive mind controlling thinking immotiles and dumb, worker and soldier motiles), which is proving to be a devastating but not unconquerable foe. Matters are further complicated because another alien, referred to as the Starflyer, is manoeuvring the human race and the Primes into place to cause each other enough damage it will be free to wipe out the depleted survivors. Agents of the Starflyer (humans who have been corrupted and are controlled by it) have infiltrated high ranking governments positions, as well as the powerful Dynasties (rich families who help govern the Commonwealth), the media and elsewhere. These agents are influencing events and help to stymie efforts to uncover the truth.
Several main characters and a sweeping host of minor ones race against time to prevent millions more deaths and the possible destruction of the human race. They delve into the darkest corners of the Commonwealth, plough through data, trying to find that elusive piece of evidence or reason, partly refusing to believe it. The goals are twofold: stop the attacks of the Prime alien and fight it off, then either contain of destroy it (it’s already shown it will not stop until humans have been eliminated) and at the same time track down the illusive Starflyer and stop it from reaching its star ship and blasting off.
It’s far more action packed than the first book, with plenty of chases and explosions, but this also means more death and destruction. Hamilton continues to weave a delightfully tangled web, from the political fighting of the Dynasties and the government agencies, to the seedy dealings and compromises being done to peel away and find hidden information. This certainly isn’t a book that fits in either the utopian of dystopian norms of sci-fi and instead shows every echelon of society in lurid detail but with some grounding in reality (society isn’t going to be become a glorious utopia or descend into a writhing cesspool, but rather maintain the balance between them both as it does now). It paints a picture of a dirty, used universe, compared to the medically sterile and precise versions generally served up (in the same way Star Wars does when compared to something like 2001).
One of the things I like about Hamilton in general is technology. Where some sci-fi writers tend to take a very lyrical approach, describing systems that have become very abstract, Hamilton keeps his firmly routed in science and necessity. His computer systems don’t have people appearing as creative avatars, negotiating fake scenery or flying over digital cityscapes, for example. Except for wormhole technology, everything else has a line back to technology around today, although taken to extremes. Memorycells and rejuvenation/re-lifing may be stretching it a bit too, especially if you don’t believe human personality is only a bunch of data and connections in their brain. If it were feasible I could certainly see it being used (who wouldn’t want to live forever?) and using trains instead of star ships was a great move. People boarding rockets and shooting off to other planets, even if they’re only transporting goods, is a very romantic notion, something capable by the elite few, using trains and wormholes seems to drag it down to a mundane, everyday reality, as it has become for the people in the Commonwealth. Public transport across the galaxy, a nice notion.
Unfortunately, Hamilton, as with the first book, still packs it with far too much exposition. When the chase is frantically on, he slows everything down to describe the world around in the tiniest detail it seems. Likewise, when characters are travelling from one location to another he wastes pages and pages on the journey, or on small characters and their day-to-day activity, which could happily be summed up in a couple of lines or removed altogether. (Although, to be fair, one of the two instances I can think of at the moment does become more significant later in the story and the other could be argued as being used to explain the current status on a world we’re returning to after several hundred pages away).
The ending, with most the main characters being given happy, almost fairytale, closure, tasted bad to me. It’s true that many of the characters do have bad things happen to them, but most of the characters still standing get to walk off into the sunset with their dreams fulfilled. After all the death, destruction, betrayal and bloodshed encountered throughout the novel, right up to the last scenes, to finally end with everyone getting what they deserve; the bad guys die, the good guys get love, peace, money and recognition and those who were corrupted get redemption and a second chance, seems completely at odds to everything that has gone before it.
Having said all that, I found the book exciting, gripping and packed with great story, well realised characters and plenty of action. There’s also the nice realisation that Hamilton, like me, believes that humans are capable of anything when we put our minds to it and that when money and profit are put aside we really can push the boundaries back at quite a rate.