Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton
This is a sequel / second volume of a 2-book story. The first book was Pandora’s Star. There is a lot of description which may make it possible to read it as a separate book, but I would not recommend it.
The basic premise of the book is that 130 years ago an alien spaceship crash-landed on a planet on the fringes of human space. Somehow over time, the alien ("Starflyer") has taken control over some humans in strategic positions. There is a secret organization carrying out a "terrorist" campaign to fight the Starflyer and its manipulations, but the rest of humanity does not believe the Starflyer exists and the organization is hunted as criminals. The Starflyer has used its human puppets to manipulate events so that humans are at war with another ruthless alien species. The objective seems to be to have the war destroy both species, leaving this area of the galaxy for the Starflyer and its kind.
There are definitely some interesting SF ideas in this series (perhaps some strike me more as speculative fiction elements than science fiction elements). Much of the story itself has to do with a variety of different groups with their own agendas secretly vying with one another. The number of groups is large enough that the complexity might be compared to all the competing factions in Dune. Years ago, when I read Dune, that was one of the fascinating parts of the book. Whether I've changed or whether there is something different about all the convoluted machinations, I'm not finding it so fascinating here. It's not that the book gets so bogged down, I just wish there was more science and less conspiracy. The final section of the book was fast paced in the good sense (not out-of-control fast) and there is suspense in several elements.
There are two separate government agencies doing police / FBI type investigations. There's an independent super-AI that has human agents to get information for it. There are super-rich families ("dynasties") that can effect government actions, plus have their own security / police sections - the dynasties will work together on something, and fight among themselves on others. There is the official government (a president and a senate). There is the anti-Starflyer underground organization, and there are the secret Starflyer agents. There’s a group of people who have been living mostly isolated from other humans and have been genetically altering themselves. There’s the “Navy” (spaceship military). There’s the company that controls all the wormholes on which interstellar travel is based. And, of course, there are individuals in some of these groups that are working for someone else or being manipulated by someone else…
I suppose there are too many non-military elements in the book to call it "military SF", but there is a plentiful share of military action that might make this appealing to military SF readers. There is interstellar warfare, including weapons that effect stars. There is guerilla warfare on planets that have been taken over by aliens. There is paramilitary / military fighting involving the anti-Starflyer organization. There is some heavy weapons fighting in FBI-like operations. The military element is not just shooting, but interesting tactics as well.
Hamilton offers a variety of interesting tech (some more plausible than others). Force fields for cities, cars, spaceships and individuals. Wormhole travel with trains going through them as if they were tunnels from planet to planet. FTL travel by spaceships creating wormholes in front of the ship. Communications between people using brain implants transmitting messages via an interstellar internet. Weapons that will make a star produce a solar flare that will sterile any planet in its path - and even greater weapons than that. People who have weapons "wet-wired" into their bodies. "Tattoos" that allow people to connect to each other's tech-augmented neuro systems. People being able to have their bodies periodically rejuvenated with edited versions of their memories and minds. Their memories / minds are periodically backed-up for safe storage and used to restore the person if their body dies. One of the police investigators comes from a planet where people were genetically programmed for an occupation - making her compulsive about her police work.
The alien species that is at war with the human race is a unique kind of extraterrestrial of a definitely non-humanoid sort. There are also more limited roles for members of some other non-hostile alien species, including a member of one who is addicted to sharing in human emotional experiences.
After having read the previous book in this series, Pandora's Star, I was curious to see where / how the unfinished story continued. I had a mixed feeling about doing it. Each volume in this series, like some others of Hamilton's, are about 1.5 to 2 times as long as a typical "full length novel”. I would not have bothered getting another book in the series if the previous book hadn't been interesting. On the other hand, I've felt Hamilton's books include material that as far as what I want from SF was just filler. Maybe well-written filler, but I haven't yet reached the point that I can't find enough books to read and must stretch out those books I have with filler. So I say to myself: a Hamilton book might be better than the average SF book I read, but do I get as much from one of Hamilton's long books as I would get from 1.5 to 2 other books? (Roughly speaking, is a Hamilton book 1.5 to 2 times as good as an average sized book?) While I’m not sure I would say this book is “twice as good” as other books I might have read instead, I certainly don’t regret having invested the time reading it. Some readers don’t care how long a book is as long as it is well-written – they should enjoy this without reservation. Readers who prefer less lengthy books may not rate it quite as high.
Clarke said that any “sufficiently advanced technology” is “indistinguishable from magic”. Regardless of how true that is, it does not follow that physics will permit some technology to implement any idea we can imagine. There was at least one “technology” in Judas Unchained that struck me as simply magic. There was an alien race that has a network of “paths” linking various planets. You’re just walking along on one planet and somehow or other you’re on another planet. No indications this is done by wormholes. When you crossover from one place to another, there is no sensation that tells you it just happened. The transition can happen in places like forests where there is no discernable equipment or artifacts. What seems to be a “magic wand” might be an “advanced technology” – but we don’t even see any “magic wands” here. So it seemed too “indistinguishable from magic”.
In that case, we are told essentially nothing about the technology other than the fact one minute you are here and the next minute you are there. Therefore, one can’t critique it with anything more specific than “that doesn’t sound right”. On the other hand, when the book offers more particulars about a technology, we can ask questions about the internal consistency. In the book, “force fields” are a pervasive technology. Some protect entire cities, some starships, some cars, some individuals. It raised various questions in my mind. For instance, it depicts cars driving with a “force field” around it that even protects the moving tires. If this was just like a wall outside the body of the car, there would be a small gap between the road surface and the bottom of the wall – especially when the car hit a bump. Given all the weapons tech available, something could have taken advantage of that. You could put separate “force fields” around each tire, but the car wouldn’t move unless the “force field” rotated like the tire. Even assuming it did, it would not necessarily have the right traction against the road surface. Perhaps that could be dealt with, perhaps not.
The greatest issues would probably be with “force fields” for individuals. First, it requires the equipment that creates the “force field” to be small enough and light enough to be worn by a person. Plus the person must carry the power supply to run the equipment. Somehow, this must allow the person to move their bodies. For instance, a person must be able to walk and run – a single “force field” surrounding both legs would make it as hard as running with your legs in a sack. But what would be the effect of “force fields” separately surrounding each leg hitting each other as one walks or runs? If the “force field” surrounds you like clothes, rather than a sack, how does your hand surrounded by a “force field” glove reach through the “force field” around another part of your body to get a gun out of a holster?
As depicted in the book, these “force fields” can keep out bullets, laser beams and just about anything else. The fact it keeps out laser beams and other bad things in the form of photons raises the question how it does this while allowing in photons of visible light (so the person can see) and photons of radio waves (for communications). Even assuming a “force field” could be selective in this way, a portable device might not be able to do it.
Similarly, the fact the “force field” keeps out bullets and other atomic matter raises the question how air molecules pass through the barrier so the person can hear what is happening outside the “force field”. And how he maintains an oxygen supply if using the “force field” for an extended time. Whether or not it is possible to make “force fields” that keep out bullets and lasers, we should not ignore the possibility that there might be consequences to doing so – such as not being able to see, hear or communicate with the outside world.