Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Betrayed by Judas?

We're back in sequel-land, this time with Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton, the follow-up to Pandora's Star.

By the end of Pandora's Star, humanity has triggered the collapse of the barrier that surrounds Dyson Alpha, releasing the aliens known as the Primes, and fomenting a devastating attack on Earth's colonies by the Prime known as MorningLightMountain. Meanwhile, only slight progress has been made by Bradley Johansson and Adam Elvin in their attempts to blow the Starflyer conspiracy. And Californian slacker Ozzie has just sailed off of the edge of a water world, seemingly catastrophically.

Judas Unchained begins with these, and many other, threads all up in the air. By its end, the influence of the Starflyer has been revealed, MorningLightMountain has been beaten back to Dyson Alpha and life is returning to normal in the Commonwealth.

While still an enjoyable science fiction romp, firmly in the high opera camp, much of the original novel's promise is, well, diluted by the sequel. First of all, it's far, far too long. While it weighs in only a little longer than the first installment, it replaces set-up and world creation, which are definitely strengths of the first novel, with a long-winded and occasionally tedious unravelling of various plot elements. The unravelling compounds this mistake of being largely action-driven, as if a long chain of fast-paced (i.e. confusing) sequences is somehow a substitute for gradual build-up and scene-setting.

Another mistake the novel makes, or rather continues, is its rather random switching between long stretches spent in different strands. It's even clearer in the sequel that Hamilton should have broken the strands into shorter sections so that one never completely lost touch with the developments in each. Here, strands can be left unattended for tens of pages, and it's made worse when Hamilton uses the return to a strand an an opportunity to instantaneously bump it forwards a bit. It may have been better to supplant some of the violence-laden passages with actual narrative development.

A bigger disappointment for me was the novel's banishing of two of the more interesting characters to only occasional sidenotes or mentions. The alien MorningLightMountain gets rather short shrift this time around, with the most interesting bits (including its fate) being only hinted at by the end. The artificial intelligence known as the SI gets similar treatment, possibly only so that it can appear a potentially malevolent off-stage actor. The "alien-ness" of both of these in the first novel (which, to be fair, they were also only sketched in) made them far more interesting that most of the human characters. More generally, while setting up a lot of interesting alien species in Pandora's Star, Hamilton simply dispenses with them here.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record, but if I can raise another flaw in the sequel ... A significant portion of the novel deals with the pursuit of the Starflyer across the planet Far Away, and a key plot point here is that some/one of those doing the pursuing are actually sleeper spies working on behalf of the Starflyer. That's fine at first, except that the cast is gradually whittled down until it consists only of important characters, or those too peripheral for them to be interestingly revealed as Starflyer agents. Hamilton tries to play this for suspense, but he seems to forget that all of these characters, bar one, has been a narrator for the novel's strands. So there's actually no suspense, except that which is accidentally generated by a non-suspenseful situation being drawn out over many dozens of pages. By that point one starts wondering if Hamilton's going to pull a fast one on you. (He doesn't.)

Despite the foregoing, the novel is still fun to read, with some strands being considerably more enjoyable than others. Some of the novel's flaws are those of any sequel: the diminishing returns that inevitably result when a well-crafted world and storyline need to be resolved. Even books like The Lord of the Rings struggle by the time they get to the third book (which, to be fair, is only a separate book because of a publishing decision; actually, in terms of length, the whole thing is shorter than Judas Unchained!). But, as evidenced above, there are flaws beyond those brought on by it simply being a sequel.

Positioning it on the pulp-o-meter, I'd stick with my last assessment and place it somewhere between Neal Asher and Alastair Reynolds. I might even get around to reading some more Hamilton, but as most of his novels seem impressively wide on the shelves of Waterstones, it may be a while before I get back to him.

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