Monday, 9 June 2014

Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained Are Books I Read

Or some thoughts on why you could read Commonwealth Saga by Peter F Hamilton

When I was a strapping young lad (hopelessly dorky teen) I went through a phase where I read mainly Star Wars novels followed by a phase were I read nothing but pulpy Fantasy novels. It was a random trip to the local library and a novel chosen there that sent me back into Science Fiction and made me a life long fan of the genre. And that book was Pandora's Star.

I recently decided to reread Pandora's Star and its sequel Judas Unchained. Together these  novels tell the story of humanity, about three hundred years in the future, after the discovery of wormhole technology and indefinite life-extending technology. In this future, humanity has formed an interstellar commonwealth of planets linked by wormholes carrying trains which is run in a sort-of democratic manner in a pretty status quo way. So the vast majority of humanity lives more or less peacefully, coexisting with a few alien species, under the fairly benevolent rule of an oligarchy of immortal humans. That is until a pair of distant stars disappear instantaneously, launching an investigatory mission that will have dire repercussions for all of humanity and shed light on a dangerous force within the Commonwealth.

Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, collectively, the Commonwealth Saga, are a Space Opera. Which is a form of Sci-fi characterized by EPIC storytelling with a broad lens catching multiple settings, dozens of characters, and sweeping stakes. They also tend to be looong books: the Commonwealth Saga, all told, weighs in at about 2000 pages which makes it a pretty substantial piece of writing. We are talking about so much book.

There is a lot to like about Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Hamilton really creatives a vivid collection of worlds and lays out a thoughtful long stakes plot with oodles of exciting action. The story structure is pretty great too: the way these novels weave and balance radically different story threads  to tell the larger story is quite impressive. Hamilton plays the long game and some of the payoffs are spectacular. The Sci-fi in the novel is pretty fun too: an interstellar civilization that runs on train tables is charming, and a society of immortal humans is pretty interesting. I can still see elements of the novel that as a teen I thought was a glorious beacon of mature, contemporary Science Fiction.

The trouble is Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained are horrendously sexist. The way these novels treat women is startlingly toxic. Part of it are these weird burps of condensed misogyny, like every ambitious career driven woman in the novels gets described as a ballbreaker. (Top tip: if you have one male character you want to portray as a sexist jerk have him call a woman a ballbreaker, but if you have more than two dudes call two or more women ballbreakers than YOU the author look like the sexist jerk.) But there is also pervasive systemic gender problems throughout the novel. So many women characters function as wish fulfilment engines for men as much as they do characters. One of the most significant female characters in the book is particularly used as a sexy-fantasy machine: she is basically an idealized nymphomaniac who runs around pleasing men and is literally prostituted in ways that deny her any real agency. It's endlessly fucked up. And it's also really stupid: the way these books approach human personal and sexual relationships has the nuance and depth of my fifteen yearold self's limited imagination (and he was a horny idiot). So any sexual thing in these books ends up being deplorable AND silly and boring. The whole thing is really disappointing and like a textbook definition of the patriarchy. 

(The Patriarchy: Horrible to women and boring in bed.)

Incidentally, The Commonwealth literally has "fathers" in the book.

I have a litmus test for fiction that I call the Fraser test after one of my best friends who is a giant Sci-fi fan and a very savvy feminist. The test is basically, can I lend this book to an intelligent woman without the contents of the book offending her. And Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained both massively fail this test: I could never give these books to a woman without being hugely embarrassed by the shameful way they treat women.

(There is a game called Sci-fi apologetics, where you take something stupid, or problematic in a Sci-fi story and assume it's that way for a reason internally consistent with the setting. For the Commonwealth Saga one could argue that the rampant sexism and secret ruling class of hyper-rich industrialists is a consequence of indefinite life extending technology. Without death to weed out the bigots and gender creeps society becomes static and can't evolve past sexist malarky. Similarly, a lack of death allows the wealthy to accumulate more and more wealth to the point where of course the rich secretly rule everything. You could basically read these novels as a dystopian epic about static societies in a world without death.) 

So can I recommend this book? Well, I think it's a shitty book to read if you are a woman, so I think this HALF OF HUMANITY is better served with less outrageously offensive books. And since I can't recommend this book to half of the human race, really, I shouldn't be recommending this book to anyone. There are better written, smarter Sci-fi books out there that don't treat people like shit. You should probably read those books instead. 

I was honestly really disappointed by these novels: I mean, I can still see the skeleton of the books that blew me away as a teen, but there is just so much stupid, obnoxious crap in there I couldn't seriously enjoy them. It is crazy to me that these books meant as much to me as they did. 

It's always sad when your heroes turn out to be frauds.


  1. Thanks for the nice review.

    I just finished the Commonwealth Saga and I also found the gender issues very troubling. The weirdest thing to me was that I got the sense that Hamilton was trying to write a book with "strong female characters" but that also had sex appeal to his genre's most important demographic, and the attempt fell flat on its nose.

    My question is whether we can consider this style of 2000s pulpy scifi to have a bit further towards gender equality than the really old stuff. Or, is this just like comparing two shades of shit? Ultimately popular novels like this are a reflection of our set of contemporary values which have certainly made progress, but clearly we still have a long road in front of us.

    Also, I really like your "Fraser Litmus Test for Feminist SF" (FLTFSF -- better acronym needed).