Review: Peter F. Hamilton’s “Judas Unchained”

by Miles Raymer

Judas Unchained

Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga would be a strong contender for the most disappointing work of science fiction I’ve ever read. This 2000-page duology, which begins with Pandora’s Star and concludes with Judas Unchained, reads like the product of an incorrigibly-garrulous and testosterone-poisoned 16-year-old boy with doctoral degrees in materials science and particle physics. It’s a dismal example of what happens when genuine talent is undermined by a complete lack of editorial restraint.

Upon finishing Pandora’s Star, I was cautiously optimistic that Hamilton would shed some of that book’s obvious faults as he accelerated toward a surprising and satisfying conclusion in Judas Unchained. Instead, Hamilton doubled-down on his bad habits and dragged me into an ever-more convoluted and ungainly narrative. In general, these books are far too plot-heavy and way too concept-light. The concepts and ideas at the center of Hamilton’s world-building are top-notch, but they are buried in page after page of useless filler and interminable action scenes that I found extremely difficult to visualize. Additionally, the cast of characters is far too long, with all but a few key players painfully underdeveloped.

These are not the only features that make Judas Unchained a difficult and frustrating book. Hamilton depicts many of his female characters with prurient, hyper-sexualized language that certainly would have seemed sexist in 2005 and feels downright anachronistic in 2019. Hamilton writes the internal thoughts of women in a way that screams this is what I want women to be thinking rather than this is what women believably think. For example:

He should be exhausted after everything I made him do. She felt a wicked sense of pride at how successfully he’d been corrupted during that long afternoon. I’m a bad, bad girl. And loving every minute of it. (833, emphasis his)

Ugh. To his credit, Hamilton also includes some well-crafted and empowered female characters––most notably the indomitable Investigator Paula Myo. But his recurrent focus on female bodies and clothing, while never rising to the level of bald misogyny, is gratingly adolescent.

Hamilton’s other blunders include but are not limited to: Setting the reader up for big “reveals” that are easily predictable, forcing the reader to follow many boring characters whose fates feel inconsequential while giving short shrift to the few characters who actually engender interest, the general abandonment of the capitalist vs. socialist tensions that enlivened Pandora’s Star, and trying to heighten the narrative’s dramatic intensity with a glaringly false moral dilemma.

This false dilemma deserves a bit of explanation, and centers on the question of whether it’s morally permissible to commit genocide against a hostile alien that’s hellbent on wiping out the entire human race. Hamilton subjects the reader to many tiresome arguments on this topic, forcing otherwise-intelligent characters to defend some blatantly idiotic positions. It was like listening to Jonas Salk debate some nutter who thinks the polio virus is a precious work of nature that ought to be preserved because humanity might “lose its soul” by eradicating it. The final pages of the book hint that the aversion of this genocide may have some long-term positive consequences, but that remote possibility still fails on both moral and practical grounds when confronted with the ongoing risk to humanity (let alone all other life in the galaxy) should this vicious and amoral entity again break out of its containment zone.

Beyond the positive features that I praised in my review of Pandora’s Starwhich remain generally consistent throughout Judas Unchained, this second installment includes some additional qualities that merit celebration. Hamilton is preoccupied with the question of how humanity can come together or break apart in the face of an existential crisis––an always-interesting theme that he puts to good use. We watch the Commonwealth’s Dynasties and Grand Families squabble with each other and plan escape routes when their civilization appears to be on the brink of annihilation, and we also watch a plucky minority of these overprivileged assholes learn to make heroic gambles and sacrifices to avert the worst outcomes. Through these developments, Hamilton’s boyish optimism shines through, proving deeply charismatic if also a bit credulous. Despite his considerable flaws as a storyteller, Hamilton clearly loves humans and wishes a bright and exciting future for us. Such sentiment is encouraging in this era of political turpitude and environmental degradation.

Reflecting on the Commonwealth Saga as a whole brings a kind of noxious agitation to my gut. It’s one thing for a writer to have no talent and no good ideas, to simply bring nothing worthwhile to the table. Such situations can’t be truly tragic or disappointing, since one can’t lament of the absence of something that never existed in the first place. But Hamilton is no such writer, and is indisputably endowed with real writing chops and a brilliant mind. For someone of his capacity to fail to condense a set of remarkable ideas into one of the best 500-page works of science fiction the genre has ever seen, and to instead squander them in service of this 2000-page monstrosity––this is unforgivable folly.

Rating: 2/10