Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Judas Unchained provides non-stop geeky thrills

Judas Unchained
by Peter F. Hamilton
Del Ray 2006 (first published 2005 by Macmillan, London)

Review by Carl Cheney

In Judas Unchained, humans have colonized hundreds of planets; most of them part of the Intersolar Commonwealth. Transport and communications is instantaneous from planet to planet via wormholes; typically people travel by rail through the wormholes.

Humanity is under attack by the ruthless relentless Primes, aliens intolerant of any other life in the galaxy. Curious humans accidentally allowed the escape and expansion of the Primes by releasing the force field that had previously bottled them up in their own solar system for thousands of years. The genie escaped from this bottle shows no gratitude, instead intending genocide.

The story kicks off with a killing in a train station. It’s one of many great action sequences—this time there are dozens of security agents attempting to catch the killer in an immense train yard. Yet the assassin somehow escapes despite being surrounded.  As the investigation widens, it becomes evident, always by maddeningly indirect evidence, that a bogeyman most people don’t believe in, the Starflyer, is real.  Somehow the Starflyer has the power to twist people’s minds so that they act in the Starflyer’s interest betraying humanity; this is the Judas of the title.

The many points of view include: the leaders of the 15 dynasties (groups so rich they are based on their own private planets); working class folk; soldiers fighting the invasion of the Primes; gorgeous Melanie, a reporter determined to get the story no matter how many men she has to seduce; the terrorist group, the Guardians of Selfhood; and the investigators working long hours trying to crack the case. At every turn, politics interferes as the legendary chief investigator is discharged and attempts to find people and weapons are blocked for seemingly unrelated reasons.

One of the dynasties was founded by Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Fernandez Isaac, inventors of the wormhole. Ozzie reminds me of a flashy version of Steve Wozniak, while Sheldon is the businessman of the pair with a flair for living large. Ozzie is a techno wizard with an adventurous streak that has him falling off the edge of a world in a seemingly infinite waterfall, and sailing his raft around in a zero-G gas cloud accompanied by an adolescent boy and an alien of a previously unknown species who speaks by modulating ultraviolet light through his eyes.

This novel is positively stuffed with wonderful ideas, including body modifications such as tattoos. Not merely decorative, the tattoos empower vital functions like sensors, weapons, and even private communications that cannot be intercepted. Most people install retinal inserts granting visual superpowers like zoom or vision outside of normal light frequencies. Working with the retinal inserts, private butlers estimate the sizes of large objects, the closing rate of approaching floating islands, and overlay vision with handy diagrams and icons of electromagnetic radiation, friends and enemies.

People maintain backup stores of their memories for implantation in freshly grown clones if they die. Those who can afford it live forever by moving into a new clone every century or so. The new bodies can be customized. Ozzie: “That was one of my lives where I’d got myself a little bit of a boost where it matters most to a guy, you know. Not that I need much of a boost, but hey.”

If I ran a large diverse conglomerate, I’d retain Peter F. Hamilton to name my new products. Everywhere there are clever names for his numerous creations including a variety of ‘bots.  Soldiers patrolling are accompanied by a ring of stealthy sneakbots (my favorite). Treats and remedies are fetched by maidbots. Mowerbots and gardenerbots landscape. The Internet of the future is known as the Unisphere.

People employ personal butlers in their brains to manage communications, look up useful data and display video feeds on their internal vision. Whatever gadget you need to manage (e.g. spacesuit, hyperglider, armored combat suit, taxi) interfaces wirelessly and seamlessly with your personal butler as you press controls on your virtual desktop with your customized virtual hand.

The Naval armor suits deserve special mention. Within 10 seconds, five armored soldiers within a smart gel ball are blasted through a rapidly moving wormhole into hostile territory. Meanwhile chaff, drones and communications jamming are besetting the enemy to cover their arrival. The smart balls match the coloring and temperature of their surroundings to cloak the soldiers within. Hiding from the enemy, the balls can also power down to virtually no activity to avoid detection. The ball and suit’s passive sensors scoop up so much information that the soldier’s virtual vision begins to resemble a stained glass window of icons overlaying their field of view. When it’s time to move on, they can haul ass by rolling up to 80 kilometers per hour over wild terrain under their own power while protecting the warrior inside from bumps and keeping her perfectly level. When ready, the soldiers emerge in armored suits ready to dispense serious firepower. I really enjoyed the armor suits in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). Then John Scalzi one-upped Heinlein in Old Man’s War (2005). In 2005, I think Hamilton bests them both in this arms race of imagination, equipping a small band behind enemy lines with an amazing package of goodies combining serious lethality with stealth.

Judas Unchained is a fantastic kick in the pants. This is my first Peter F. Hamilton book, but it won’t be my last! I was constantly barraged with delightful ideas, distinctive, well-drawn characters, wonderful action sequences, hot sex and mysteries that yield to investigation only by stubbornly revealing further mysteries.

Read Ann Wilkes' interview with Peter F. Hamilton here at SFOO.
Read her review of The Temporal Void and The Evolutionary Void at Mostly Fiction.

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