Gridlinked, Neal Asher

Tor, 2001, 423 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34905-1

Even since his 2001 debut, Neal Asher has been part of a new generation of British Science Fiction authors with ideas to burn and no mercy to spare. Along with other writers such as Alastair Reynolds or Richard Morgan, Asher has been busy putting thrills back in SF action novels. His fiction has only recently made it over this side of the Atlantic thanks to Tor’s reprints of his first few novels. Clearly, it was time to see what the fuss was all about.

Starting from the beginning means going back to Gridlinked, the first novel in the “Polity” sequence that has so far tied together most of his work. The book works well as an introduction, even though its own introduction may be the best thing about it.

Fans of hard-boiled espionage thrillers will feel right at home throughout the first few pages, as protagonist Cormac is revealed to be an agent for the interplanetary human government. Within a few pages, he efficiently dispatches a rebel threat to the Polity, blows up a part of the city and escapes with his life. It’s all good fun, packed with fast-paced action and a bit too much dripping violence.

The real story then starts rolling, as the Polity sends Cormac on a primitive planet far away from the Grid in which our protagonist has been plugged for too long. A destructive act of sabotage may not be an accident –and it’s up to Cormac and his team to make sense of it. Meanwhile, the mindless action prologue turns out not to be so meaningless when a grieving man decides to hunt down Cormac wherever he is, bringing along some very scary friends…

As setup, the first half of Gridlinked works beautifully. Despite some awkward language (“runcible” may have some appeal to native English-speaking readers, but it doesn’t carry much emotional weight for me), the Polity universe is efficiently introduced, with plenty of details to keep us interested. Civilization spans the galaxy, Hyper-intelligent AIs run everything, bioengineering is common and there are troubling signs of long-lived aliens. As if that wasn’t enough, Asher comes up with Mr. Crane, an insane, indestructible and very homicidal brass android. Killer robots are a dime a dozen in SF, but to see an schizophrenic one travel with a briefcase of meaningless toys is something else. (It’s no coincidence if the latest Asher novel is titled Brass Man.)

But for all the cool toys and the fun stuff, the expansive playground and the thrill of good old action-adventure, Gridlinked seems to run out of steam midway through. Even weeks later, I remember a number of elements from the beginning of the novel, and almost nothing of the end. Not so coincidentally, I do remember a deep feeling of let-down at the point where the Dragon is revealed to be part of the novel’s plot rather than an amusing side-detail.

The rest of the novel plays like a standard chase thriller with stranger pursuers and faster vehicles. Asher doesn’t to much with the un-gridlinking of his protagonist and spends too much time with the antagonist. After a while, it just becomes a big blur. You’ll keep reading to see what happens to a few characters, and sigh in slight exasperation as one miraculous escape follows another.

I’m still not so sure why my interest evaporated so quickly: this is the type of novel that I’m supposed to like, and yet it just fell flat. The book as a whole runs significantly too long, leaving the impression that it’s overwritten. The mundane eventually overwhelms the interesting. Even the answers to the original mystery don’t seem so urgent by the end of the book. I found myself wondering when I’d be able to get my hands on Richard Morgan’s next novel.

But I’m not giving up on Asher. He’s clearly part of Cyberpunk 2.0, and likely to grow into a more skillful writer: the memorable elements of Gridlinked clearly show that he’s not to be dismissed lightly. My dissatisfaction with Gridlinked may just be a freak accident of public transportation distraction, or it may be the result of a first novel’s lack of control. Whatever the reason, I’m likely to have a look at Asher’s other work… in due time.

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